Sustainable Development Goals

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The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as the basis for its aspirations to work towards global sustainability over a timeframe leading up to 2030. The apparent overlap between many of the SDGs and the aims and methods of many community-led initiatives (CLIs) suggests potential for the SDGs to link bottom-up local action on the part of communities with governmental and intergovernmental action on sustainability. CLIs provide a potential implementation vehicle for the SDGs, while the SDGs represent a possible opportunity to mainstream and/or upscale prior and ongoing action undertaken at community scale. The values, perspectives and experiences of CLIs also challenge certain assumptions, weaknesses and contradictions in the SDGs, and hence can contribute to ongoing critical reflection on the goals themselves.


The seventeen SDGs cover many areas in which community-led initiatives have a long history of innovation and action. SDG11 is directly concerned with 'sustainable cities and communities'. Many others address areas in which CLIs are highly active and proficient, including livelihoods and employment (SDG1 and SDG8), food provision (SDG2), renewable energy (SDG7), health and well-being (SDG3), education (SDG4), climate change (SDG13), ecosystem protection and enhancement (SDG14 and SDG15), sustainable provision of material needs (SDG9 and SDG12), addressing inequality and discrimination in all forms (SDG5 and SDG10) and social/institutional innovation for effective partnership and inclusive governance (SDG16 and SDG17). The six 'essential elements' of the SDGs identified by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a synthesis report - dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people - effectively restate the three permaculture ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares.[1] CLIs thus provide existing working examples of how the SDGs could be achieved in practice, prefiguring their attainment at a global scale.

How Community-led Initiatives are Already Working towards the SDGs

A series of impact assessments conducted by the Global Ecovillage Network in ecovillages on five continents showed that the vast majority are already contributing in concrete ways to achieving the SDGs. In relation to ecological impacts, 97% of showcase ecovillages are actively working to restore degraded ecosystems (SDG15), 90% sequester carbon in soil and/or biomass SDG13, and 97% work to restore or replenish water sources and cycles (SDG6)[2]. In terms of social impacts, all ecovillages provide education in sustainability-related fields (SDG4), women occupy at least 40% of decision-making roles in 90% of cases (SDG5), all nurture local traditions relevant to sustainable methods of building and food production (SDG11 on sustainable communities), 90% reuse or recycle over half their waste and 85% compost all food waste (SDG12 on responsible production and consumption), 80% have established conflict resolution procedures and all provide training in decision-making and mutual empowerment (SDG16 on responsible institutions, peace and justice), and 95% participate in campaigns to protect the rights of humans and nature (SDG17 on partnership). [2]

While the Global Ecovillage Network assessments demonstrate work that largely precedes and hence anticipated the SDGs, some CLIs and associated organisations have begun to adopt the SDGs as a strategic framework for their work. Gaia Education already offers bespoke training on implementation and horizontal integration of the SDGs and has incorporated the SDGs into the training of facilitators for its flagship Ecovillage Design Education course.[3][4]. A report produced on behalf of UNESCO identified Gaia Education's online training as a key resource for education on the SDGs.[5]

In Ireland, Cultivate gave the SDGs a prominent role in Convergence, their annual sustainable living festival, in 2017. The SDGs provided framing context for a series of community conversations about sustainability hosted in various locations across Ireland. This allowed the local issues and experiences raised in the conversations to be located within a bigger picture of global challenges and ways to address them.[6]

The UN calls for a strong and effective decentralization of power, resources and decisions to the local level, and suggests also that community-led initiatives are not only involved but do participate and become co-responsible and accountable in the design, implementation and monitoring of SDGs.[7]

Community Action as Critique of the SDGs

A key point of divergence between the SDGs and the outlook of many community-led initiatives and movements concerns the role of economic growth. Growth is the stated objective of SDG8, and the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which the SDGs were announced, repeatedly refers to economic growth as both a desired outcome in its own right and a precondiction for realisation of the other goals.[8] This is despite a proliferation of authoritative scholarly analyses that demonstrate a fundamental incompatibility between economic growth, in anything resembling its conventional definition, and sustainability, including many of the specific aspirations stated in other goals.[9][10] More generally, concerns have been raised about possible conflicts among SDGs, depending on the chosen implementation pathways: for example, achieving infrastructural goals relating to energy (SDG7), sanitation (SDG6) and food provision (SDG2), as well as global targets relating to climate change (SDG13) and nature conservation (SDG14 and SDG15) could conflict with social goals on inclusion (SDG16), partnership (SDG17) and equality (SDG5 and SDG10) if approached in highly centralised ways and without active involvement of those working on these issues at community scale.[11]

Reflecting similar concerns, academic debates on degrowth, which help link local action to wider political and economic issues, arose in part as a critical response to the ideological commitment to growth in the field of sustainable development and the way this limited the scope of politically acceptable debate. [12] Degrowth scholars seek to democratise debates on desirable futures by highlighting the alternative and more promising pathways towards sustainability and social justice that are available only outside the growth paradigm.[13] In similar vein, a joint report by Transition Network and the Post Carbon Institute highlights the need for policy-makers to abandon their commitment to economic growth in order to respond to the climate, resource and economic circumstances the world currently faces.[14]


  1. Henfrey, T. & G. Penha-Lopes, 2015. Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation. East Meon: Permanent Publications. P.34.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Accessed May 10th 2018.
  3. Accessed May 11th 2018
  4. Accessed May 11th 2018
  5. Rieckmann, M., 2017. Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives. Paris: UNESCO.
  6. Philip, D., 2017. Convergence 2017 Report. Cloughjordan: Cultivate.
  7. Global Taskforce for Local and Regional Governments, 2017. Roadmap for localizing the SDGs: implementation and monitoring at subnational level.
  8. United Nations, 2015. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  9. Jackson, T., 2009. Prosperity without Growth. London: Earthscan.
  10. Ward, J.D., Sutton, P.C., Werner, A.D., Costanza, R., Mohr, S.H., Simmons, C.T., 2016. Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? PLOS ONE 11, e0164733.
  11. Waage, J., Yap, C., Bell, S., Levy, C., Mace, G., Pegram, T., Unterhalter, E., Dasandi, N., Hudson, D., Kock, R., Mayhew, S., Marx, C., Poole, N., 2015. Governing the UN Sustainable Development Goals: interactions, infrastructures, and institutions. The Lancet Global Health 3, e251–e252.
  12. Asara, V., Otero, I., Demaria, F., Corbera, E., 2015. Socially sustainable degrowth as a social–ecological transformation: repoliticizing sustainability. Sustainability Science 10, 375–384.
  13. Deriu, M., 2012. Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition. Futures 44, 553–561.
  14. Miller, A., Hopkins, R., 2013. Climate After Growth: Why Environmentalists Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilience. Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa.