Photo by Janus Clemmensen on Unsplash

By Chúk Odenigbo

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an audacious attempt at getting the whole world to advance in unison towards a better standard of life for everyone, regardless of the circumstances or the location under which they were born. Described as a “blueprint,” the United Nations were bold in choosing to set a goal for the whole world since the variations and differences within a country alone are sometimes overwhelming, let alone across the entire planet that we share together. The SDGs recognise that in order to have an effect on issues that concern us all, we must have shared goals and desires.

The SDGs are interesting in that although they each have a theme, they remain open to interpretation and adaptation to accommodate for the needs of each country. They are malleable and mouldable while still retaining their original purpose  an incredibly important factor as only in being formulated for the host country do the SDGs gain tangible meaning. As we think about the future of environmental sustainability in Canada, the first question we have to ask is what does environmental sustainability mean in a Canadian context and what are the barriers to success that we face within our own borders?

Touching upon almost every SDG, environmental sustainability is a conundrum that our current structures struggle to address in a way that is both effective in action and understood/accepted by the general population. Canadian structures, ranging from the federal political base, to the division of powers and responsibilities between federal, provincial/territorial and municipal levels of government, to the actions of the private sector, and even to the multiculturality of our nation, all play into a skewed sense of temporality. We are constantly looking at the past and the present, but rarely to the future.

We are still dealing with the effects and legacies of institutionalised racism and linguistic/ethnic discrimination. We are continually celebrating the Canadians who came before us, hailing their heroic actions or interventions. When we vote, we think of the right now. Who is good for the moment? Or we hold an ache for the good old days. Who can bring us back to that time? The measurements of success we use are cross-sectional — they evaluate what is currently going on, and compare it to the past.

How often do we project to the future? Have we ever demanded an apology for the injustices that the future generations are surely going to face due to our actions or inactions in the present? A Nigerian chief once said, and I paraphrase, that the world is made up of many dead, a couple living, and infinity yet to come. Environmental sustainability is defined by the need to ensure that future generations retain, at a minimum, the same amount of natural/environmental resources as the generations of today. It is an inherently future-oriented concept that talks about tomorrow, rarely discussing today and never looking at yesterday. Therein lies the problem: our culture, our systems, our structures — they all contextualise and measure the benefits of things as they stand today in comparison to the past.

We don’t elect leaders that will create a better world for when we are gone, we elect leaders that either give us a sense of nostalgia for a wonderful past long gone, or to deal with the problems we are observing right now, in the present. But do we not have a duty for those coming in 50, 100, 1000 years to elect leaders and to make decisions that benefit them? Do the leaders of Canada not represent all Canadians, not just those who are living, but those who will come to be?

The environmental movement often harks to the past, in a constant state of longing for pristine nature that is untouched by humanity, but many in the environmental world are starting to question this frame of mind. Given that we, collectively as a society, have acknowledged the anthropocene, an age where human beings are the largest force of change on the planet Earth, certain environmentalists argue for abundant futures that incorporate postnatural environmentalism.

What does this mean? In essence, the argument is that there is no longer anyway to dissociate human activity from nature/the environment and as a result, we need to change the way we think. Rather than looking to the past with longing, or looking at the present with despair, Erle C. Ellis, for example, states that “[t]he only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Environmental sustainability touches upon each SDG: protecting and improving biodiversity (goal 14 and 15); maintaining and conserving ecosystem services (goal 2, 6, 7, 11 and 12); addressing and improving health (goal 3); and, counterbalancing societal hierarchies and ensuring better access (goal 1 and 5), just to name a few. Given how overarching the environment is, and how intertwined our societies are with it, no progress can be made without good government and societal structures in place (goal 16) and a multitude of interdisciplinary partnerships and players, including citizen action, private corporations and nonprofits (goal 17).

As we look for ways to incorporate the future into our culture, into our actions, into our systems, and into our measurements of success, we will find that environmental sustainability will come a lot more naturally to us because we will be in a frame of mind and in a frame of being that enables us to fully exercise the full latitude of the concept in its purest most powerful form. That is to say, since environmental sustainability is such a future-oriented abstraction, it can only be properly conceived when the systems that seek to address it and measure its success are geared towards the future as well.

“It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.”

― John Guare, Landscape of the Body