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Politics in the Way of Progress

Although the Sustainable Development Goals are almost boundless in their ambition, they are easily achievable for a generation that is wealthier and more technologically advanced than any that came before it. The real constraint is not economic scarcity, but political cynicism.

BERKELEY – There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to tackle problems including poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, climate change, ecological degradation, and many others in between. Clearly, 17 is too many. As Frederick the Great supposedly said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Similarly, those who emphasize everything emphasize nothing.

This points to the problem of forging goals through consensus: they can end up being a wish list for everything short of heaven on Earth. But, to be effective, goals should operate like turnpikes, which allow you to make progress toward a specific destination much faster than if you had taken the scenic route. The purpose of consensus building, then, should be to get us to the on-ramp, after which it becomes harder to make a wrong turn or reverse course.

Still, there could be obstacles on the road ahead. For Tsinghua University’s Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng of the University of Hong Kong, these include “technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality,” but, above all, “populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism.”

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