The Library and Sustainability: Passive Consensus and no Debate?

Pale sustainability goals

The United Nations» 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) have become a major issue in library communities across the world thanks to an enthusiastic follow-up by IFLA and several national library associations. But in few other areas is there a static consensus as strong as here. The UN represents something almost indisputable both in wide political circles and in mainstream media. This consensus also exists with the sustainability goals, in the Western world at least.

But libraries violate their own principles if they do not – also – present the existing criticism of the UN and the SDGs.

The social analysis in the UN’s 17 sustainability goals and IFLA’s follow-up is, to say the least, tame. In the wake of the pandemic, it appears even tamer and more cautious as the social and economic divide increases both globally and between the poor and rich in the individual countries.

The 17 challenges are serious and real, but several follow directly from the growing global capitalism of recent decades. Yet still the SDGs don’t invite systemic debate, despite the fact that criticism of aggressive, neoliberal capitalism has grown Internationally and in many areas, from various research communities to European football leagues.

No, this blogger is not against library commitment to a sustainable future, and, no, this blogger does not mean that the library should be neither anti-capitalist nor communist (except when it comes to the free flow of research literature, cf. co-blogger Mikael Böök on this blog when interviewing Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan). For the leading ideas for the 2020 public library are and will be democracy, freedom of information and free exchange of opinions.

A comprehensive summary of the criticism of the SDG was given by sustainability researchers Kristin Linnerud and Erling Holden at CICERO, Norway’s foremost institute for interdisciplinary climate research (our translation from Norwegian):

«While the old millennium goals from the UN are seen as a success where several of the eight development goals have been completely achieved, the new sustainability goals have already been criticized for being weak, vague and worthless.

We agree with the criticism. The sustainability goals are too many: 17 main goals and 169 sub-goals. Furthermore, the sub-goals are often unclear; they are only to a small extent quantified and no date has been set for when they will be reached.

One example is the following toothless sub-goal, goal 13.2 for climate: «Integrate climate action into national policies, strategies and plans.» The problem with such a goal is that it allows too much leeway in the evaluation process.

In addition, the goals are not prioritized. There is little doubt for us that sub-goal 1.1, to eradicate poverty, is more important than sub-goal 8.9, to promote a sustainable tourism with an emphasis on local culture and traditions.

Finally, the critique hits the concept itself. As sustainability increasingly includes everything that is good and desirable, it is in danger of disintegrating».

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