In Pursuit of Development

The impact of the sustainable development concept — Frank Biermann

Episode Summary

Dan Banik speaks with Frank Biermann on the novelty of the SDGs, goal setting as a global governance strategy, political interest and enthusiasm for the sustainable development concept and what constitutes earth system governance.

Episode Notes

Since its inception in the international development discourse in the late 1980s, sustainable development has often been celebrated for its rhetorical appeal to political correctness. But is it a useful tool for global development?

The idea of “sustainable development” has not only acquired new layers of meaning over the years but has in many ways witnessed a rejuvenation since 2015 following the adoption by world leaders of the 2030 Agenda and its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs – grouped under overarching themes of people, planet, dignity, prosperity, justice and partnership – have been widely praised for a strong articulation of an environmental dimension, in addition to breaking new ground with global goals on inequality, economic growth, energy, and peace. 

Despite being imperfect and highly ambitious, the SDGs are the result of a comprehensive participatory process, unparalleled in the history of global development. Indeed, while its predecessor – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – focused exclusively on low-income countries, the SDGs encompass a much broader agenda that applies to all countries. 

By closely linking “sustainability” with “development” through the principles of “universality”, “integration” and “leave no one behind”, the 2030 Agenda has been much celebrated in activist, business and policy circles as a means to stimulate a radical shift in world affairs. But the SDGs have also been criticized for their unrealistic ambitions and lack of focus. 

The world was already off-track in achieving many of the SDGs before Covid struck. And now there are major concerns over the extent to which these ambitious global goals can be achieved in the next 9 years. 

Frank Biermann is a professor of Global Sustainability Governance at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Frank is a leading scholar of global institutions and organizations in the sustainability domain. In addition to being a prolific writer, he pioneered the ‘earth system’ governance paradigm in 2005 and was the founder and first chair (2008-2018) of the Earth System Governance Project, a leading global transdisciplinary research network of sustainability scholars.


Episode Transcription

(prepared by Ingrid Ågren Høegh)


Biermann         There is a question as to what extent the symbolic policy, what I sometimes call smoke screens, in a sense, the illusion of political action that is not linked at the same time with meaningful policies and transformative change. And this is a danger.


Theme music    You are listening to In Pursuit of Development with Dan Banik. 


Banik               Since its inception in the international development discourse in the late 1980s, sustainable development has often been celebrated for its rhetorical appeal to political correctness. But is it a useful tool for global development?


The idea of “sustainable development” has not only acquired new layers of meaning over the years but has in many ways witnessed a rejuvenation since 2015 following the adoption by world leaders of the 2030 Agenda and its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The SDGs – grouped under overarching themes of people, planet, dignity, prosperity, justice and partnership – have been widely praised for a strong articulation of an environmental dimension, in addition to breaking new ground with global goals on inequality, economic growth, energy, and peace.

Despite being imperfect and highly ambitious, the SDGs are the result of a comprehensive participatory process, unparalleled in the history of global development. Indeed, while its predecessor – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – focused exclusively on low-income countries, the SDGs encompass a much broader agenda that applies to all countries.


By closely linking “sustainability” with “development” through the principles of “universality”, “integration” and “leave no one behind”, the 2030 Agenda has been much celebrated in activist, business and policy circles as a means to stimulate a radical shift in world affairs. But the SDGs have also been criticized for their unrealistic ambitions and lack of focus.

The world was already off-track in achieving many of the SDGs before Covid struck. And now there are major concerns over the extent to which these ambitious global goals can be achieved in the next 9 years.

To discuss the idea of sustainable development and the added value of the SDGs, I am joined by Frank Biermann, a professor of Global Sustainability Governance at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Frank is a leading scholar of global institutions and organizations in the sustainability domain. In addition to being a prolific writer, he pioneered the ‘earth system’ governance paradigm in 2005 and was the founder and first chair (2008-2018) of the Earth System Governance Project, a leading global transdisciplinary research network of sustainability scholars. 


We discussed the novelty of the SDGs, goal setting as a global governance strategy, political interest and enthusiasm for the sustainable development concept and what constitutes earth system governance.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.


Theme music


Banik                I’ve long been wanting to speak with you, Frank. Welcome to the show.


Biermann         Thank you so much, Dan. It’s a pleasure being here and thank you so much for inviting me. 


Banik               I want to start our conversation by asking you to reflect over the concept of sustainable development, which as you know has been around for more than three decades now. And I was recently speaking to Gro Harlem Brundtland herself and she was saying how it has taken 35 years to have this idea become a part of the mainstream discourse on development. So my first question to you to get this conversation started is how important do you think the concept has been in shaping the discourse on development? 


Biermann         Thank you so much. This is a very important question and I’m discussing this with many of my colleagues and students all the time. So, I think in the beginning, the concept was extremely important to open up the debate in the 1970s and 1980s about the focus on the environment, as it was so prominent in the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, that launched the international governance movement in this area. And I think the concept of sustainable development was very important to link the environment focus with a focus on development to bring in these double concerns of humanity and try to link it. Then brought together in this conference in 1992 in Rio, the Earth Summit, which linked environment and development at the time. So I would say it was very important. 


On the other hand, and I think this is something we can maybe engage in a discussion about, I’m not sure to what extent it still has a very strong analytical rigor. To what extent it has become a broad normative frame that everybody agrees with, but that’s maybe not necessarily fully able to shape our politics and our political systems today. So other concepts have been put forward that might be more specific on certain normative frames, such as the Anthropocene or planetary boundaries and all these other new terms that have been brought up that are using sustainable development as a normative frame but that try to be sharper on certain other aspects that are equally important, and I’m happy to discuss this further 


Banik                That is also my take, Frank, on this concept which has become all-inclusive and perhaps has lost a bit of its rigour. Some of my colleagues especially in the United States would have said a long time ago that it never had any analytical rigor, that is was a wishy-washy concept. What I find fascinating is how this long journey say from 1972, the Stockholm Conference, to the 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda, how I felt in many ways the concept was resurrected, you know, that it received a new lease of life. Do you feel that is the case or do you still feel that despite the 2030 Agenda, despite the Sustainable Development Goals, that the concept has still lost out on more of these other newer terms that you just mentioned?


Biermann         Well, I think the concept is still important and has been operationalised in the SDGs. I think that’s the important part. The problem is that for a long time, nobody was against it. For a concept that doesn’t find any opponents, you question its value. If everyone has it on their website and everybody supports it – is this really the right description of what we have to do? But in the 2030 Agenda, the concept has found an operationalisation. And I think this is very important. And also why we have set up the Global Goals Project in Utrecht, a project where we try to study whether the SDGs really make  difference in policies and politics today. 


I’m not without any criticism of the SDGs, there are certain elements that can be criticised. But the general idea to operationalise the concept of sustainable development and 17 goals, I think that is a very important idea that I can support. 


Banik                In relation to that, I just have to say that I really enjoyed reading your 2017 edited volume called Governing through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation, where you and your co-authors trace the evolution of the term and you describe aspects such as norm promotion, rulemaking, multi-stakeholder goal-setting, and you do a very good job in the book of making the point that perhaps one of the most important outcomes of this long process, this evolution of the concept is moving from this environment slash development to environment and development. Acceptance of this interdependence of environmental, social, economic dimensions. It’s been a long journey and I want to pursue this matter a bit further, Frank, and that has to do with the impact of these major UN-led conferences. If you were to reflect on these high-level, these huge gatherings of world leaders and delegates, what would you say has worked and why? Has there been enough ownership? It could be in relation to say the Millennium Development Goals or the SDGs. I’m just trying to get a sense of whether the concept has resonated with world leaders? Who has shown the greatest interest in that idea of sustainable development?


Biermann         Let me start with the question about the impact of global summits. This is a question that is widely discussed in the community of people who participate in these big summits where thousands of people, quite often with a huge carbon footprint, travel to far away destinations to participate in these conferences. And there are some people who say conferences, such as the Rio conference, are useless. This is quite often the argument by journalists who expect that in these two or three days of high level segments of such a conference, the world is changing and becoming a better place immediately. And then you have this climate before the conference when everybody has huge expectations and then afterwards there are these hangovers, so to speak, when everybody goes home and the world is a bit better, maybe, but certainly has not been fundamentally transformed to a better and more sustainable place. And that leads to the criticism of these conferences and people saying they’re useless. 


I disagree with that, because I believe that conferences such as Rio, still have an impact because they bring together the community, they force decision-makers in governments, civil society, UN-system, they force them to get together and produce some type of results. The results are quite often debatable, but I believe that without the external pressure of having summits at regular moments of time, without this pressure we would probably have even less progress in bringing about new institutions, stronger regimes, stronger targets, stronger goals. So, despite the criticism that I also share and have published about, I still believe that these summits are very important. 


The other part is about the SDGs. And this book that you refer to in 2017 was a little bit unique because it was written while it was happening. We wrote our chapters while the SDGs were still being negotiated. But our group at the time was fascinated and intrigued by this novelty of the SDGs. We believed at the time that the SDGs are new in the huge ambition that they have. It is all-encompassing and is supposed to bring together all countries, and all the countries are supposed to implement them. So, this is a tremendous ambition.


And we were interested in whether this normative agenda changes the behaviour of governments and decision-makers to some extent in the direction of the SDGs? And then of course, I mean there are certain other elements of the goals that are not legally binding, in many ways they are rather qualitative rather than quantitative so they are difficult to measure, a lot of measurement has to happen right now in the setting of indicators that are supporting the targets, there is a lot of politics also. So now the big question is whether this type of governance, that we have 17 goals for the entire breadth of human activities, that these kinds of goal-setting processes can shape political processes. This was the motivation for the book. And now the challenge for the research community is to analyse to what extent the SDGs really had any effect since 2015. And this is the core of the Global Goals Project. We try to bring together the research committee to discuss to what extent anything has changed since 2015. What is the effect the global goals had on governments, businesses, civil society and individual citizens? And I don’t have an answer yet. I have certain results. But this is an ongoing research project. It’s tremendously important to understand whether the governance has any impact and effect on politics. 


Banik                I liked your point about the summits, and my impression, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that sometimes these summits actually also function in the way of reaffirming the world commitment, say, if something has been adopted and then two years later world leaders meet, and if it turns out that commitment was not getting the kind of political traction that it required, when you meet two years later and reaffirm that commitment, maybe that could push the agenda. That was, I suppose, the case with the Johannesburg meeting that in many ways reaffirmed the importance of the Millennium Development Goals. So, do you think that to be also an important function of summits? That it brings the world back on track, if the world is off-track?


Biermann         Absolutely. This is how diplomacy works. This is how governance works. That governments get together. In this diplomatic, complicated, boring language, there is a lot of politics involved. This is important. It is part of the game. We have to move quicker, how to make governance more effective, but I think this one function of summits – to bring together – is very important. And the point is very much to manage the expectations of these summits. As I mentioned, there is sometimes this huge expectation that leaders are traveling to summits and that because the Prime Ministers are there, it will immediately lead to change. And this is not happening. And if this expectation is lowered, I think they can be quite impactful. 


Theme music


Banik                Returning to the 2030 Agenda and the 17 SDGs, Frank, do you think it is a game-changing agenda? I’m asking you this because a lot of people have criticized this overload of obligations. There are so many things going on. So many multiple agendas out there, on climate, on development finance, and then on the SDGs, so some would say the SDGs perhaps represent a convergence of all these development agendas, and other say they’re like an à la carte menu of goals and priorities which countries can pick and choose from. So, do you think it is a game-changing agenda and the kind of theory of change that is built into this document which can be a bit boring to read, is it really radical? Or is it like summing up all the stuff that we’ve been doing for the last five decades? 


Biermann         This is an important question, I mean, the agenda and the SDGs have been written by governments, by humans, and so that means they are not necessarily consistent. Sometimes you read these critiques from a legal perspective, and lawyers point out these inconsistencies in these goals. And this is quite understandable, given the process by which they have been agreed. 


In terms of game changing, I would say the ambition is very much in the agenda. If you look in the text of the agenda, it has this tremendously, I would say also novel language of transformation, stronger than it has been in earlier agreements and declarations. The game changing question is also to what extent they had really an effect? One is of course cherry-picking. Of course, it happens. For businesses, there is a strong opportunity to pick the one or other target that you are implementing anyways and say that you are engaging with the SDGs. Some countries understand the SDGs as part of their foreign policy, and not as a transformative agenda for their own country. And that is also in a way a process of cherry picking. 


Banik                Frank. can you provide some examples of these actors? 


Biermann         We had looked, for example, at the ILO, which had already engagements and worked in the direction of the SDGs, but has also been very influential in helping to work on the SDGs, and therefore also easily supporting the SDGs. So therefore there are lots of debates about to what extent are they really having an effect? We’ve also looked at institutional change. Many countries, for example, are setting up certain institutional bodies to implement the SDGs. But the big question is really to what extent is this really changing political behaviour? Does it change the allocation of funding? Does it change the national legislation? National programs? Does it change the way international relations have been conducted? 


Banik               That is a fascinating question to ask. I’ve actually been asking this question to NGOs, civil society organizations, whenever they invite me to give a talk, or other actors. I ask them, how has this agenda and how have the SDGs changed the way in which you work? Are you actually talking with each other? Unfortunately, Frank, I’m often met with silence. There isn’t much of an answer and I think that is really the crucial question or in terms of answering the question about it being a game-changer or not. I haven’t found very much evidence in relation to organizations radically changing their mode of operations. It seems to me, and it’ll be fascinating to hear your thoughts, it seems to me a lot of it is business as usual, except the private sector, which for me has really, big businesses mainly, they’ve embraced the SDGs, to such an extent, I’ve never seen the private sector show so much enthusiasm for development. But the more I speak and interact with business actors in India or China and Africa and Norway, the United States, there is one common theme that I’ve identified as being crucial in explaining the enthusiasm, and that is the extent of profits that the SDGs offer. So, without that profit-making incentive, they say, you know, they wouldn’t be as interested. What are your thoughts on that?


Biermann         I agree on both points. For industry, I mean this is, of course, the SDGs are broad, in many ways. They are goals and targets on economic growth. And if you say we are producing economic growth, there are targets on employment, well you say we are supporting employment, so its technically, if you have a public relations department, it is very easy in a way to pick a couple of targets and say you are implementing the SDGs. It becomes more difficult if you take the entire set of SDGs more seriously, and take them as an integrated whole. For example, looking at SDG 13 about climate and decarbonisation, you look at SDG 10 on inequality, you look at gender, then it becomes more difficult for companies to show how they have advanced inequalities, advanced the eradication of poverty. So that is more difficult. This is a question that we as researches and civil society must ask when business actors are claiming that they are embracing SDGs. Is it a meaningful engagement with 169 targets? 


Just one point, before I forget, with industry, you find change. Most large corporations have a sustainable development officer, of course, and a certain group of people who work on the SDGs, and they are often graduates of our universities, but the question is what does it mean in the larger set of huge corporations with millions of people working there. So, is it symbolic?


Banik                In some of our work, at least in a Norwegian setting, it is the big companies that have embraced the SDGs. It’s been mainstreamed in their governance structures, so the big companies show interest. It is the smaller companies that often don’t find incentives to do enough. That’s one set of issues. The second, our criticism sometimes has been there is this tendency of SDG-proofing everything, so it is a bit like, you know, in the old days, a lot of my colleagues would tell me that every time they wanted to apply for donor funding, if they were based in an African country and they wanted a donor to fund their project, they would have to mention poverty reduction, good governance, human rights, gender. These buzzwords had to be mentioned as often as possible. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get money. And so, one of the findings we have, is that in terms of businesses, and other actors, there is a tendency of SDG-proofing everything. So, everything they do is in line with the SDGs. But when you really get to the nitty-gritty and you ask them: how have you operationalized this and not just simply embraced a goal, the response isn’t as nuanced as you would expect. 


So, I want to move on to something that I know you’ve been working on, Frank, you and your team, and I really enjoyed reading your work on governance through goal setting. These ambitious goals whether they are the Millennium Development Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals, these norms that guide behaviour, internationally agreed norms, some sort of shared expectations of what governments and organizations should be doing. They of course do symbolize some sort of social and political priority, which is why they are called goals. But what is also interesting about these is the fact that they’re time-bound, right? So, there are quantitative maybe outcomes. There is some sort of benchmark. But you’ve also highlighted how the uniqueness of these global goals is the fact that they’re often non-legally binding global goals. They’re non-confrontational goals. They’re often country driven. They are perhaps detached from the international legal system. There is no formal obligation. So, a lot of it is very voluntary. So, Frank, in terms of your research, how useful do you think these global goal-setting projects are? Are they really a very novel strategy? Does it help to have these goals at a symbolic level, or do they also serve some other purposes?


Biermann         You’re right with all the points you mentioned that can be framed as a critique of these goals, of course. To what extent they are transformative, still I would say, I believe that they are novel, in their comprehensiveness, different from the MDGs, for sure, especially with their focus on the industrialised countries, the ambition is certainly bigger than it has been earlier. Whether they are changing is an open question. They will definitely have some impact, for sure, that is the good news. The question is whether it is sufficient to bring about sustainable development. Is it sufficiently effective to steer our societies in the right direction?


                        The other question is whether they have negative impacts also. And this is also a question to what extent do they create… Let’s assume they are not gamechangers in a sufficient way. There’s some positive change but not enough to really steer societies sufficiently in the right direction. So, is there also a possibility that they have negative effects? Hypothetically, that SDGs are creating the impression of action. That means you talk to the Prime Minister, you talk to your king, your talk to Parliament, you talk to politicians, multinational corporations, and they are all doing something. They’re all doing SDG, they have SDG officers, SDG programs, SDG departments, advertisement campaigns, speeches, etc. So, you give the impression of action. Of huge effort of leaders in reducing poverty, climate change, etc. So, the question is to what extent this is symbolic policy, what I sometimes call smoke screens, in a sense, the illusion of political action that is not linked at the same time with meaningful policies and transformative change. And this is a danger that certainly is a possibility. So, the danger is that the SDGs are not sufficiently effective, and secondly, that at the same time they create negative effects by creating an illusion of change and illusion of efforts that is not matched by reality.


Theme music


Banik                I’m really glad that you mentioned that, Frank, because I remember attending the high-level political forums in 2018 and 2019 in New York and I was struck by some of the debates that took place in some of the sessions I attended. Every time I tried to raise what could be perhaps perceived as being somewhat uncomfortable in terms of asking difficult questions about, you know, whether the SDGs are imperfect, whether there are certain things that can be changed, whether there are some problems in the way in which development is conceptualized, the fact that development is a contested notion, that very many different understandings of development exist. There are all kinds of problems in relation to, you know, this understanding or definition of sustainable development, about current generations and future generations, and their needs, all of these things, whenever I tried to raise them, even among scholars who attended those sessions, I was seen to be the odd man out. The reaction was very similar to what I hear from business actors, saying, you know, these academics they’re always trying to find problems. Now that we have finally agreed on this ambitious agenda. We all agree. Let’s do it. Let’s not poke holes. Let’s not question. And I often found that I was often the only one in some of these settings asking these uncomfortable questions. But I feel like as academics, we should be poking holes into this argument, because development is contested. And when we discuss these with politicians in India, not all politicians, some say we can’t really think about future generations, we have to think about all the problems we currently face. You’re talking about the global goal, fifth floor issues, we’re still stuck at the first floor. So, I’m glad you mentioned that. So that was a bit of a rant on my part.


But going back to you, you’re the guest, one of the many things I like in your work is how you highlight the role of weak institutional arrangements for the successful achievement of these global goals or whatever we’ve agreed on. And this reminds me of what Bill Easterly, you know, said in critiquing the SDGs a few years ago, was it in 2015? He said that they are garble, they are dreamy. A high school wish list. And if you have 193 leaders agreeing on something, then it must be very weak and unimportant. And in some of your work, you seem to allude to the fact that the only way in which this will work is by having weak institutional arrangements where there’s a lot of leeway to governments to do whatever they wish. They’re free to interpret how to do this. What is your take on that? Can we have even stronger institutional arrangements, because the high-level political forum in my view has been a disaster?


Biermann         In terms of institutions, the question is the SDGs, at the current state, they have to work with institutions because these are the institutions that we have. Can goals work with such a set of weak institutions? This is what we analysed. I have argued for stronger institutions for the last 20 years. And what you mentioned with implementation, is a recurrent theme for the last 20 years. On the one hand, people say we need institutional change, stronger institutions. Then others say we should not talk about that. We should focus on implementation. And the result is issues, like climate change, that have not been resolved because I believe institutional change has been too slow. So therefore I think it’s very important to entertain the possibilities that more structural change at the international level is needed in many ways. I think that we need to have stronger governance. And I believe that we need to think about ways to make international institutions more powerful. 


Banik               Frank, I totally agree with you that it is perhaps a bit too early to conclude on how effective these institutions are, and these arrangements are, but the fact of the matter is that we have nine years left and there isn’t much time for the 2030 Agenda to be realized. And despite the kind of challenges that we face now because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the truth is that there was, you know, not much happening. We hadn’t really made much progress. The world was off-track before Covid struck, and so this goes back to the question about implementation and the challenges. So one set of issues that we’ve just discussed are the week institutional arrangements, but are there other issues that you would identify? And I’m thinking of lack of policy coherence as one, lack of integration of the goals, which has been a challenge for many countries. It could be lack of finances, and one of my themes is the lack of political enthusiasm in many countries, including in affluent countries. So how would you explain some of the implementation challenges that we face so far in terms of achieving the SDGs? 


Biermann         Covid is a perfect example of policy incoherence. Governments are talking about the eradication of poverty, talking about inequality, all the fantastic language you find in the SDGs. But when it comes to vaccinations, you buy it for your own country. And you stock up vaccines to a tremendous degree. So that we have huge global inequality when it comes to vaccinations, and this is an inequality in terms of life expectancy, because many people will die because they don’t have access to the vaccines. And governments are engaged in a kind of global competition of getting these vaccines. So I think it’s great in the EU, in a way, that at least in Europe, the competition has been kind of reduced by buying it for the EU and not letting the rich European countries buy all the vaccines. But this should happen on the global level. So I very much believe in the obligation of rich countries to invest much stronger in supporting other countries in having access to the vaccines. Generally also, the pandemic has a major impact on the implementation of the SDGs. It also has certain positive impacts like carbon dioxide emissions in the short-term, of course, because we don’t fly anymore, transportation has been reduced. But on the other hand, of course the impacts will be severe for many people. 


Banik               Do you think politicians actually showed interest in the SDGs in the first five-six years of its implementation? 


Biermann         I think there’s not much indication for that actually. I mean in terms of really changing laws, in terms of reallocating funding, in terms of engaging in new types of cooperation, for example, let’s say the goal of ending hunger. It’s a tremendously important goal, of course, extremely ambitious. But you would expect that there is change, in terms of how our food is governed, the allocation of food, there are so many possibilities of trying to address hunger in the world. And this would require a change in terms of policies in rich countries and in other countries. And this I would not necessarily see. I don’t see huge change in how policies are being conducted to achieve the ending of hunger. But the same as also for all the other goals. We see some change but the question is, is it enough? For decarbonisation, of course, the process is ongoing, but is it enough? I don’t think there is huge enthusiasm of the SDGs among governments, for example, in a way that it certain to generate change. 


Banik               That is also my understanding, except that I found that two countries, the two superpowers in Asia, India and China, have shown considerable political interest at least the President of China and the Prime Minister of India went back home after the September 2015 UN General Assembly meeting and somehow conveyed to their subordinates, to the Ministries, that this was an agenda that could be used. So, there is considerable talk about SDGs now in India, they’re operationalizing it, finding local and regional indicators, and naming and shaming different states. And so is China. Showing considerable interest in green growth. There are some countries like, I find, Rwanda, where there is a lot of interest. But generally, I don’t find there’s been political enthusiasm. So I feel even in the richest parts of the world, somehow, you know, my impression, and I don’t know if you agree with me, that I think you said this earlier in the conversation, that there are far more other important goals. And when I speak to Foreign Ministry Officials, it seems that sustainable development is not really the main policy priority of some of these countries. 


Let’s move on, Frank, to the final a set of issues, which is related to your latest book. You’re such a prolific writer. I’m in awe of all your publications. And this really has to do with the Architectures of Earth System Governance, which is a book I believe that came out last year. And I recall from the beginning of our conversation, you said there are all of these other terms that have come up that have in many ways replaced or maybe made a stronger case for sustainable development or a different kind of development agenda, than sustainable development. You mentioned planetary boundaries. And now we also have earths system governance. So, what is earth system governance? Is it a totally new term? Is it governance and sustainable development in one? And how is it different from some of the other related terms on development?


Biermann         I currently work quite a bit on new attempts of conceptualizing what used to be called environmental policy or environmentalism. And this was based on this, I would say, old idea that there is an environment of humans. This kind of a binary conception, or dichotomy, that there are people on the one hand and environment or nature on the other hand. I think this is an outdated idea, because right now, this has sometimes been conceptualised in the Anthropocene idea, that right now we have reached a state in planetary development in which humans are tremendously important in shaping planetary processes, such as the climate system. In a sense, the entire planet is totally dominated by people. It’s all kind of an integrated ecological system. And this is what we try to conceptualize in the term earth system governance, so that it’s not any more environmental policy, that there is an environment out there that we can protect. But there are integrated systems that bring together humans and non-human agencies in the climate system, in the ocean system, in the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity, and in the food system, in water, and many other systems exist at planetary scale where people and non-human agents are integrated and interacting and that we have to understand these systems from a governance perspective. And this means going beyond the old idea of environmental policy and moving forward to an integrated perspective that is based on systems of planetary scale. This was the idea of earth system governance. 


Banik               If you were to identify certain key building blocks and structural features of this, what would those be, Frank?


Biermann         Once you accept this post-environmental framing that we are no longer just looking at the environment, but seeing people as part of the system that brings together social and ecological factors, then the question is about the institutional architectures and how they’re organised. For example, look at climate. You have on the one hand, you have one institution, how climate policy is being framed, which is the UN Convention on Climate Change, but then you have so many different institutions that are also addressing this issue at international or national level, you have it at the transnational level, science institutions – all these institutions are trying to work together in addressing the climate change problem. And we are conceptualising this as an issue of architecture. So, architecture is kind of this metaphor that we have chosen to describe the integration and sometimes also conflict among a variety of international and national actors that are all dealing with one issue. And this has been for the last 10 years a major research topic in the earth systems governance community, and the book that you mentioned is trying to bring the findings of this together. Questions such as, how can we explain for example change in complex architectures? Questions about the impacts that we have. The research question is then what is the variation impacts of these different types of architectures over time. And that’s what we try to analyse, and this is all part of this book that is relatively conceptually. I’m just one of the editors, but we have forty authors that have participated.


Banik               In terms of say concrete policy prescriptions, when you were describing this earth systems governance project, I was reminded of the Brundtland Commission’s iconic 1987 report, Our Common Future, where it asked how are individuals in our world, in the real world, to be persuaded or made to act in the common interest. And it concluded that the real answer lies in education, institution development, and law enforcement, and that many of the problems of resource depletion, environmental stress, etc. arise from disparities in economic and political power. So, I thought that was an important part of what the Brundtland Commission’s Report was highlighting. But what is also has done, or did in 1987, was to highlight the role of economic growth. That it was about making sure that growth worked for the poor. It was about changing the quality of growth. In recent years, there’s been a growing movement advocating for de-growth and saying that it is not all about GDP growth. How does this fit into this earth systems governance framework? What is the role of growth? Because that for me is one of the key policy prescriptions and an area of considerable disagreement among policymakers. What should countries be striving for and to what extent should they be prioritising economic growth?


Biermann         For the growth debate, the fixation on economic growth I think is wrong. And the indicators that are used. You look at the news, and the welfare of a country, the progress of a country, or the quality of a government so to speak, is measured in GDP growth. And I think this is totally wrong. This has been criticised a lot in the last 10-20 years. We need different indicators. Partially, the SDGs, despite all the criticism, you could take some of these targets as alternative measurements for progress of a country and progress of the international community, beyond, or as an alternative to this fixation on global GDP. On the other hand, I think, I mean I share a lot with the de-growth movement, there’s no doubt about that, but on the other hand, it’s sometimes perceived as being focused on de-growth per say. And I think the focus should be on issues we discuss in the SDGs, for example the eradication of poverty, health, energy for all, water, and all the other issues that are part of the SDGs and the larger sustainable development agenda. This is what we want to achieve. I think the target should be the welfare, per say, and whether it means growth or no growth or what type of growth is a secondary question. 


Banik               I’ve really enjoyed our chat today Frank. Thank you so much for coming on my show.


Biermann         Thank you so much and such a pleasure to be on your show.


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Thank you for listening to In Pursuit of Development with Professor Dan Banik from the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment. Please email your questions, comments and suggestions to