December 4, 2019

In the report to the Board of Governors, “UBC Sustainability: Current Status and Strategic Opportunities”, it is proposed that UBC should adopt “a new organizing frame for sustainability achievement…based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”  This will be discussed by the Board of Governors on 5 December (item 1.3 in the agenda

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?

We are also concerned about the protection of spaces for critical engagements with the Sustainable Development Goals themselves. Despite growing concern about the existing and impending realities of climate change and the biophysical limits of the planet, the dominant paradigm of response continues to be centered on the need to balance continued exponential economic growth and consumption. The same set of basic contradictions haunt the concept of “sustainable development,” which was popularized in the 1990s, and enshrined in global discourse through the SDGs. Hickel (2019) describes economic growth and ecological sustainability as the “two sides” of the SDGs, which are presumed to be reconcilable based on the dubious promise of increased efficiency and other technological innovations that are presumed to enable a decoupling of economic growth from “environmental degradation.” Furthermore, to reduce sustainability to a set of technological problems invisibilizes the ethical and political dimensions of climate change, and thus, risks further marginalizing already marginalized communities. In particular, given the somewhat superficial way that “Indigenous Engagement” is included in the report to the BoG, we worry about the risk that Indigenous communities (in Canada and abroad) will continue to be treated as sites of extraction – in terms of both knowledge and “natural resources” – and as the object of paternalistic and tokenistic institutional engagements, rather than as truly equitable partners based on the principles of consent, trust, accountability, and reciprocity (Whyte, 2019). With the adoption of the SDG framework, would Indigenous communities be welcome to voice critical concerns about the impacts of mainstream development agendas, the SDGs, and other UN climate change initiatives, like carbon trading, and would these concerns be heard and taken seriously?

As Baskin (2019) notes, “Sustainable development may be understood as marking a break with earlier purely growth-centric approaches to development. But it is more plausible to see continuities, to understand sustainable development as an effort to ‘green’ the existing growth paradigm rather than replace it” (p. 161). In other words, “‘business-as-usual’ but greener” (p. 165). Fifteen years earlier, Hove (2004) summarized her concerns about sustainable development in three distinct points: “1) sustainable development is Western construct, perpetuating the ideological underpinnings of former approaches, 2) it focuses its efforts on the unsustainable expansion of economic growth, and 3) its broad nature creates dangerous opportunities for actors to reinterpret and mould the approach the way they see fit” (p. 53).

With all of this in mind, we recognize that simply adopting the SDG framework will not guarantee a significant departure from previous iterations of development that support the reproduction of neo-colonial paradigms of change. Furthermore, the uncritical adoption and implementation of the SDGs might obscure the role of historical and ongoing colonial violence in creating many of the social challenges that the goals propose to address, and devote no attention to the fact that centuries of capitalist growth, disproportionately benefitting the West, have largely led to the ecological challenges that the goals propose to address.

Thus, if the university decides to adopt the SDGs as a guiding framework for UBC Sustainability efforts, then we urge the university to pluralize and democratize its approach to the SDGs and to sustainability by actively inviting, encouraging and supporting critical perspectives to be voiced. This active support should be articulated in policy documents and in practice (e.g. securing funding for spaces of critical and ethically accountable engagements with the SDGs and sustainability efforts).  This gesture will protect the role of the university as critic and conscience of society and better prepare students with the capacities that they will need to face today’s complex global challenges, to address unequal power relations, to navigate multiple perspectives, to collaborate with diverse communities, and to take responsibility for their role in being both part of the systemic problems that need to be addressed and the solutions that can emerge if we work together. This gesture would also place UBC in a unique position to show global leadership in fostering the ethical production, translation, and exchange of knowledges that could enable more socially and ecologically accountable sustainability efforts.




Sharon Stein, Assistant Professor in Higher Education, Department of Educational Studies, UBC

Vanessa Andreotti, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change, Department of Educational Studies, UBC

Cash Ahenakew, Associate Professor in Indigenous Education, Department of Educational Studies, UBC