Just how sustainable are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals-committed smart cities and smart nations? Do those attempting to adopt the UN SDGs live up to the concept of “Seven Generation Sustainability,” whereby the impact of every decision is considered for its impact over the course of seven generations into the future?

The SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. The SDGs adopted by all of the 193 UN Member States in 2015, provide a 15-year plan to achieve these goals. According to the UN, “Today, progress is being made in many places, but, overall, action to meet the Goals is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required. 2020 needs to usher in a decade of ambitious action to deliver the Goals by 2030.”

Next week, world leaders will gather in Madrid to discuss how to avert a climate catastrophe. On Tuesday, the latest assessment issued by the United Nations Environment Program reported that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising dangerously and the findings are said to be “bleak”. According to the Emissions Gap Report, we have failed to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions despite repeated warnings from scientists. China and the United States being the two biggest polluters, further increasing their emissions last year, reports The New York Times.

How ‘smart’ are those that purport to be smart cities and smart nations? The mounting evidence against the dangers of 5G, which appears to be a precursor for a smart city, indicate that some of the solutions needed to make a city, or nation, ‘smart’, may not be sustainable in the long-term. Some governments are questioning the rollout of 5G fearing the impact on animal, plant and human health. 

Switzerland, for example, was among the first countries to begin deploying 5G, but health fears over radiation from the antennas that carry the next-generation mobile technology have sparked a nationwide revolt. Just this week, Geneva announced that it is joining Brussels in banning 5G (at least for now). Many experts are now saying that the overwhelming majority of Internet of Things (IoT) use cases may well not require performance greater than what wide-scale 4GLTE already in use affords. 

A key missing element

While world leaders, champions of sustainability and smart communities are busy doing their best to deliver (on the goals) in the agreed timeframe, I believe there is a missing element, and therefore, any progress made, could be temporary and not sustainable. That missing element is the Seventh Generation Principle, or Seven Generation Sustainability.

The recorded concepts of the Seventh Generation Principle date back to the writing of The Great Law of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy, said to date to between 1142 to 1500 AD. This Great League of Peace formed the political, ceremonial, and social fabric of the Five Nation Confederacy (later Six). It is also credited as influencing the United States Constitution, thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s great respect for the Iroquois system of government.

We are four years into the UN’s SDGs, and child poverty is at its highest rate in the modern era in my native U.K. where, according to The Child Poverty Action Group, there were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the U.K. in 2017-18. That is 30 percent of children, or nine in a classroom of 30. There are expected to be 5.2 million children living in poverty in the U.K. by 2022.

In addition, according to a study from Weizmann Institute of Science mentioned by Global Citizen, we have killed 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants. Meanwhile, a recent Climate Central research report claims that as a result of heat-trapping pollution from human activities, rising sea levels could, within three decades, push chronic floods higher than land currently home to 300 million people and by 2100, areas now home to 200 million people could fall permanently below the high-tide line. The threat is concentrated in coastal Asia threatening profound economic and political consequences within the lifetimes of people alive today.  

How is this helped by one of our main behaviors, that of consuming industrially produced meat? It is clear that we do not stop to think of the consequences of our consumption of cheap meat. Everything is energy, and what we put into and onto our bodies is energy. Every time we consume a cheap, mass-produced burger, we are absorbing the energy of the land that was destroyed for the livestock, the energy of the mistreatment and unethical slaughter and transportation practices and the energy of every person involved from farm to plate. Tasty? Good for us or for the planet, in any way?

If we stop consuming industrial produced meat, imagine what an impact that would have. Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration and deforestation. Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change. Livestock farming contributes 18 percent of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Not consuming industrially produced meat would be beneficial for the planet and us, but what about the livelihoods of everyone involved? 

How to protect the planet, health and livelihoods? 

Livelihoods and economic growth are entwined. The global economy is all about growth and gross domestic product (GDP). Constant economic growth is just not sustainable with finite resources. The Earth has not grown in 4.6 billion years. If we seek continual growth requiring the use of ever greater resources, at some point we will inevitably encounter Earth’s limits.

During the past 50 years, the global economy grew by a factor of five, world food production increased by a factor of approximately 2.5, the amount of water used by a factor of two, and the amount of timber logged for the production of pulp and paper increased by a factor of three. We cannot replace these resources at the rate they are extracted, resulting in decline of natural resources. At our current rate of ‘growth’, we need at least another half a planet Earth to sustain it. How are we supposed to achieve the UN goal of improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere, when we consider this? Are the UN SDGs realistic?

What we need is a change of behavior from most people on the planet — a paradigm shift. I suggest that we need to question what we think can “improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere”. Is that constant economic growth at the cost of the planet? Or is it a shift from growth to being and doing differently and probably with less than we have become accustomed to? How would the world’s governments and businesses respond? And how does such a switch support smart cities?

Is GDP the wrong yardstick?

Joseph Stiglitz
Joseph Stiglitz

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has called for GDP to be scrapped as the go-to economic indicator. At CNN town hall in September, U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang called for a “GDP upgrade” that measures quality of life, happiness, clean air and clean water, among other things. And at a hearing on Capitol Hill, the US Commerce Department was called upon to provide regular breakdowns of GDP growth by income bracket, all indicate that the call for change is seeping into the mainstream. Joseph Stiglitz, in an op-ed for The Guardian, said:

“So what if GDP goes up, if most citizens are worse off? … [I]t should be clear that, in spite of the increases in GDP, in spite of the 2008 crisis being well behind us, everything is not fine.”

I do not have the answers to the questions I pose, but I believe these are some of the questions we need to collaborate on to find the answers, and that is primary to what SmartNations Foundation is about. A part of our mission is to bring together stakeholders working with SDGs, smart cities and smart nations, to facilitate dialogue, knowledge transfer, cooperation and co-creation of a sustainable, resilient, livable and thriving world.

So, as we approach 2020, let us remain focused on the SDGs and creating more smart cities and smart nations, while facing up to the fact that we cannot expect continual growth. Let us find renewed inspiration from the Seventh Generation Principle. Such inspiration must fuel our intent for a sustainable, resilient, livable and thriving world. When world leaders and entrepreneurs accept this, we can rethink what such a future looks like.

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