By Ava Rawson
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) were adopted by all of the United Nations member states in 2015, and were created to ‘provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’. The Western-normative dogmas generate doubt regarding whether they can and should ethically be prized as the universal benchmark for sustainability and environmentally just living standards that the UN touts them to be. Although the goals address global issues of importance such as climate action, gender equality and the protection of life above and below water, there is not a single goal or subsequent target that specifically calls for the decrease in the use of fossil fuels, or any goals related outrightly to lowering carbon emissions.
Despite a problematic construction, what is an even more limiting factor to a just transition to sustainability should the SDGs be implemented universally by 2030, is the financing structures that support them. When the stakeholders in control of the capital are multinational corporations and private financiers, development projects become synonymous with investment opportunities. Those whose lives are directly affected through their literal proximity to the project become relegated to a peripheral consequence of the financial return that is expected by the shareholders. Through the investment process the human impact, and thus any negative consequences the project brings, is severed both through the literal distance between the flow of capital and the project itself and in the financialization of the SDGs mission.
What these stakeholders view as ‘development’ oftentimes contradicts what local communities desire. Through their investment these actors are also given preferential treatment in the decision making process compared to other stakeholders, effectively controlling the constructs of development itself, ie. what development is, who it is for, how it is enacted, at what sale, and where. It is because of this model that trickle down economics has dominated development discourse. This model of development’s primary objective is economic growth with the hope that poverty alleviation will come as a result. This argument is particularly ludacris within the context of the SDGs because the financiers oftentimes are not even in the same hemisphere as the projects their capital is responsible for– nothing is tricklin down, it is being extracted and exported to the global north. When development is prioritized based on its capability for financial return only cost-effective projects are prioritized, most of them lying in SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 9 Industry Innovation and Infrastructure.
This framework is highlighted particularly well in the case of the Oaxaca Windfarm on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico. With a shallow understanding of the project, the creation of new wind energy projects is presumably good, it coincides with SDG 7, 8, 9, and 13, and more broadly influences SDGs 11, 16, and 17. What prevents projects like these from having the onslaught of beneficial ramifications they promise is the financial structures that underlie them as a result of the facilitation of foreign investment by the national government. The role of the state within this context, and similarly in others, was that as a facilitator of glocal capital rather than as a mediator negotiating between the interests of local communities and international financiers. As a result, the site becomes a landscape of government endorsed settler-colonialism with the companies importing their own engineers and workers to establish the project denying opportunities to the local community. When operating within a wider ecological framework, pluri-cultural encounters deal with how the use of land is imagined under the imposition of an external power in contrast to local ontologies. These different actors feel the same wind on the same isthmus in Mexico and understand its value within their own cultural systems. Ontological clashes are not uncommon in a globalized world, what is problematic about these encounters is the propensity for western stakeholders to impose their understanding of value as the objectively righteous and inevitable end goal for all stakeholders. The dominating and expansive nature of capitalism’s processes of commodification, in this instance tackling the commodification of wind, is an epistemically violent tactic that allows for the benefits of the project of the disproportionately divided. The financial return goes back to the investors in the global north, the energy generated goes to distant industrial manufacturers (not the local community), and jobs go to westerners who were asked to relocate. The local community does not see the wind farms as a ‘gateway to progress’ as the investors would, an ontological subversion of itself. A local community members describes their position in relation to the developers:
“What is happening here, is happening in a lot of places in this country and in this state and it needs to be halted. Because I think the progress of modernity is a threat to life itself – it is going to kill us. It is a hegemonic power that does not respect any other way of life and it has to be stopped”
The implementation of the wind turbines here is a cultural imposition of western frameworks perpetuating linear development models (that are built on racist herarchies) which is perceived as directly threatening the lives of those surrounding the project. Through the prioritization of investment in the ‘green economy’ through the development of the wind energy sector in the region, the reality of these projects presents a violent attempt to secure investment over all social costs. Academics and activists alike in the region use discourses of the genocide-ecocide nexus to desribe what is happening to the Indigenous community with the intrusion of the wind turbines. It is precisely because of the financing structures under capitalism that prevent widespread acknowledgement that what is happening due to the development of windfarms in the region is a form of genocide. Genocide is understood as an ‘intent to destroy’, but because the primary obligation of any business under capitalism is the financial return to their shareholders and investors, the subsequent death, displacement, illness and cultural fragmenetation as a result of the projects is seen as a separate entity, as a consequence peripheral to their primary intent.
The complete lack of altruism within the model is arguably genocidal and dependent on the external flow of capital into the projects from individuals and companies with no moral or ethical obligation to the proximal communities beyond whatever their standards of human decency may be. Although some may argue that the dispossession of one Indigenous community on a singular isthmus in Mexico does not outweigh the benefits ‘inherent’ to the installation of renewable energy resources, the case study is used to highlight that sustainable development projects have the same opportunities for social degradation that traditional resource extraction projects do, and that the financial structures that support them might actually predispose them to be similarly oppressive in nature. These power structures not only figuratively neglect communities that have historically been oppressed and exploited through racially motivated colonial development strategies of forced labor and resource extraction, they literally perpetuate the further marginalization of communities and Indigenous stakeholders within sustainable development projects by mimicking the same finance structures that came before.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image source can be found here.
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