by Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti, and Cash Ahenakew
Recently, we wrote an open letter in response to our institution’s plan to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its primary framework for sustainability. We are sharing the letter here, in case it is useful for others facing similar institutional proposals. You can read the full letter here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/sdgopenletter/
While we strongly support the university’s overall direction toward greater allocation of attention and resources to issues of sustainability and societal impact, we also urge caution about the uncritical adoption of the SDGs and advocate for the importance of ongoing critical and reflexive engagements with the complexities, paradoxes, and nuances of the SDGs and indeed all sustainability efforts. It is only in this way that we might ensure more socially and ecologically accountable responses to inequalities and climate change that keep in view both the inherent unsustainability of our current socio-economic system, as well as the systemic, historical, and ongoing colonial violence that underwrites that system.
If we do not preserve space for these engagements then even well-intentioned sustainability efforts will likely reproduce all-too-common colonial practices including unequal, paternalistic and extractive relationships between dominant and marginalized communities, simplistic solutions to complex problems, and ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility, and change.
We are concerned about the framing of this proposal, which emphasizes UBC’s global leadership in sustainability, and in particular its high placement in the Times Higher Education rankings based on the SDGs. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating UBC’s accomplishments, it becomes worrisome when these accomplishments are framed as the primary rationale for adopting a particular framework – as is indeed the case with the report, which names this as the primary benefit of this proposal. Too narrow of a focus on rankings, leadership, and UBC’s “brand and reputation” may compromise our ability to maintain a university environment in which critically-informed, rigorous scholarly deliberations about social and institutional sustainability efforts can occur. This should also include deliberate engagements with divergent perspectives. How can we ensure that, with the adoption of the SDG framework, alternative visions of sustainability, and of development, will be welcomed and actively encouraged at UBC?