Thanks to Luca Righetti, Elise Bohan, Fin Moorhouse, Max Daniel, Konrad Seifert and Maxime Stauffer for their valuable comments and thoughts on the draft and future steps. Thanks to Owen for telling me to turn this idea into a post! 

 

Summary and introduction

Throughout this post, I will explore some overlaps between sustainability (focusing on Sustainable Development Goals) and longtermism (focusing on Global Catastrophic Risks mitigation). 

I wrote this over a  two-week period to get some tentative thoughts out. My goal with posting this is to find other people interested in thinking about the intersection of sustainable development and GCRs mitigation as well as to  invite feedback for how/if to proceed with research or practical projects in this area. The write-up doesn't represent any strongly held and stable views, but is meant to explore if there is a policy opportunity for longtermists to work with sustainable development policies. More specifically, I want to see if it is worth pushing the next SDGs agenda with a bigger focus on GCRs mitigation. 

Roughly, I want to explore if this is a bridge worth building: 

In the first section, I will briefly overview the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Global Catastrophic Risks (GCRs), explaining why it could make sense to start building a link between these. In section 2, I will explore how GCRs mitigation fits into the SDGs, using COVID-19 as an example of how risk mitigation is foundational to sustainable development. In section 3, I will quickly point out some potential overlaps between longtermism and sustainability and mention the idea of a risk budget as the ultimate non-renewable resource. In section 4, I will portray a way of understanding SDGs in terms of longtermist grand strategies, followed by a final section exploring the pros and cons of building this bridge and possible future steps if it is worth pursuing. 

1. Overview of SDGs and GCRs

SDGs
I am broadly interested in the overlap between sustainability –with its many definitions– and longtermism, but first I want to explore the SDGs primarily for their policy opportunities (other sustainability frameworks could be explored in future posts).

In 2015 the United Nations General assembly set up the Sustainable Development Goals, which are 17 goals meant to be accomplished by 2030. They were adopted by all UN members and are a “call for action” for member states to eradicate poverty and improve different quality of life indicators whilst also tackling climate change and environmental damage. 

Here is a summarized timeline of sustainability and sustainable development:
 

  • The concept of sustainability can be traced back at least to 1700, and was applied to forestry in Saxony. It emerged in a time of scarcity when the mining industry had consumed whole forests and trees had been cut out at unsustainable rates for decades, threatening the livelihood of thousands.
  • 20th century: environmental movements started to point out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed due to the industrial revolution from the 18th and 19th century.
  • In 1973 and 1979 there were energy crises that demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on non-renewable energy resources.
  • 1970s: The concept of "degrowth" (somewhat related to sustainability) properly appeared during the 1970s. It was a political, economic, and social movement that critiqued “productivism”, the paradigm of economic growth, pointing out the social and ecological harm caused by the pursuit of infinite growth and Western "development" imperatives.
  • 1987: Modern concept of sustainable development derived from the Brundtland Commission (appointed by the UN secretary general), intended as a response to the conflict between globalized economic growth and the accelerating ecological degradation. The challenge was to harmonize prosperity with ecology.
    Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. 
  • Evolution of the concept: as the concept developed, it has shifted its focus more towards economic development, social development and environmental protection for future generations.
  • 2000 millennium summit: This meeting was the largest gathering of world leaders in history as of that year. World leaders ratified the United Nations Millennium Declaration.
  • 2015: the United Nations General Assembly  set up the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included in a UN Resolution called the 2030 Agenda.

These are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and they each have sub-goals and targets: 
 


(more on: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/)

 

Why Global Catastrophic Risks mitigation?

Okay, mitigating existential risks would be a cool sustainable development goal, but that seems difficult to push through politically? And it also leaves out some other bad scenarios that we want to coordinate against. I will take a step back and advocate for GCRs mitigation. GCRs are risks with the potential to wreak death and destruction on a global scale, taking the lives of a significant portion of the population and leaving survivors at enhanced risks by undermining global resilience systems (Avin, 2018; Bostrom & Ćirković, 2008). However, the logic of this post could extend to all foreseeable tail risks that are big enough in scale to significantly affect development indicators. 

There are two reasons why I will address GCRs in this post rather than existential risks. First, a bigger awareness of tail risks and GCRs could be an incremental approach to integrate more longtermist and macrostrategic thinking into the mainstream sustainability debate. In other words, from a policy perspective, it could perhaps be easier or more persuasive to tackle risks incrementally, addressing those that seem more available and urgent first, and then moving onto existential risks. 

The second reason is that I want to explore the possibility of framing GCRs mitigation as an enabler of other goals for sustainability. In other words, GCRs mitigation can be seen as a requisite for achieving sustainable development, so it is not a competing but a foundational goal in a sustainable development agenda. For example, with this framing, we wouldn’t need to convince a sustainable development crowd about the importance of safeguarding humanity’s future potential or even about the value of avoiding global catastrophes. If we can agree on some of the existing development goals (like the value of ending poverty), then considering GCRs mitigation as foundational for sustainable development could mean that it is still worth mitigating global catastrophic risks as a prerequisite for ending poverty.

 


 

2. GCRs mitigation in SDGs

Is there GCRs mitigation in SDGs?

Foreseeable tail risks are not entirely neglected by Sustainable Development Goals. As shown below, for some risks there is a considerable amount of attention devoted towards risk mitigation. Each one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals has targets (or sub-goals) and indicators that track their progress. I will start by portraying which promising targets and indicators could be tackling global risks mitigation. This is a very rough selection because the selecting criteria was “what seems like a risk mitigation strategy”. For some cases, it was not clear the extent to which a target or goal mitigates global risks or not. Therefore, if you are interested in looking at all the targets and indicators, Our World in Data has a great tool to measure progress towards the SDGs.

(feel free to skip the table and go to the following comments directly)

SDGTargets and indicators that could help mitigate global catastrophic risks 
1.No Poverty   7 Targets and 14 Indicators
  • Target 1.5. Build resilience to environmental, economic and social disasters
    • Indicator 1.5.1. number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters.
    • Indicator 1.5.2. direct economic loss attributed to disasters in relation to global GDP.
    • Indicator 1.5.3. number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
    • Indicator 1.5.4 proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies.
2.Zero hunger 8 Targets and 13 Indicators
  • Target 2.4: Sustainable food production and resilient agricultural practices
    • Indicator 2.4.1. proportion of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture.
3.Good Health and Well-Being
 13 Targets and 28 Indicators
  • Target 3.D. Improve early warning systems for global health risks
    • Indicator 3.D.1: International Health Regulations (IHR) capacity and health emergency preparedness.
4.Quality Education
 10 Targets and 11 Indicators
(N/A)
5. Gender Equality 
9 Targets and 14 Indicators
(N/A)
6.Clean Water and Sanitation
8 Targets and 11 Indicators
  • Target 6.6: Protect and restore water-related ecosystems
    • Indicator 6.6.1. change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time.

7. Affordable and Clean Energy

5 Targets and 6 Indicators

  • Target 7.2: Increase global percentage of renewable energy
    • Indicator 7.2.1. renewable energy share in the total final energy consumption.



 

8.Decent Work and Economic Growth           12 Targets and 17 Indicators
  • Target 8.4: Improve resource efficiency in consumption and production
    • Indicator 8.4.1. material footprint, material footprint per capita, and material footprint per GDP
    • Indicator 8.4.2. domestic material consumption, domestic material consumption per capita, and domestic material consumption per GDP
9.Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 8 Targets and 12 Indicators(N/A)
10.Reduced Inequalities 10 Targets and 11 Indicators
  • Target 10.5: Improved regulation of global financial markets and institutions
    • Indicator 10.5.1  financial soundness indicator.
11.Sustainable Cities and Communities 10 Targets and 15 Indicators
  • Target 11.4: Protect the world's cultural and natural heritage
    • Indicator 11.4.1. total expenditure (public and private) per capita spent on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage.
  • Target 11.5: Reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters
    • Indicator 11.5.1. number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population.
    • Indicator 11.5.2. direct economic loss in relation to global GDP, damage to critical infrastructure and number of disruptions to basic services, attributed to disasters.
  • Target 11.6. Reduce the environmental impacts of cities
    • Indicator 11.6.1.proportion of urban solid waste regularly collected and with adequate final discharge out of total urban solid waste generated, by cities.
    • Indicator 11.6.1. annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5 and PM10) in cities.
  • Target 11.B: Implement policies for inclusion, resource efficiency and disaster risk reduction
    • Indicator 11.B.1. number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030.
    • Indicator 11.B.2. proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies.
12.Responsible Consumption and Production    11 Targets and 13 Indicators
  • Target 12.2: Sustainable management and use of natural resources
    • Indicator 12.2.1. material footprint, material footprint per capita, and material footprint per GDP.
    • Indicator 12.2.2. domestic material consumption, domestic material consumption per capita, and domestic material consumption per GDP.
  • Target 12.4: Responsible management of chemicals and waste
    • Indicator 12.4.1. number of parties to international multilateral environmental agreements on hazardous waste, and other chemicals that meet their commitments and obligations in transmitting information.
    • Indicator 12.4.2 hazardous waste generated per capita and proportion of hazardous waste treated, by type of treatment.
  • Target 12.A: Support developing countries' scientific and technological capacity for sustainable consumption and production
    • Indicator 12.A.1 amount of support to developing countries on research and development for sustainable consumption and production and environmentally sound technologies.
  • Target 12.C: Remove market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption
    • Indicator 12.C.1 is the amount of fossil-fuel subsidies per unit of GDP (production and consumption) and as a proportion of total national expenditure on fossil fuels.
13. Climate Action.              5 Targets and 8 Indicators
  • Target 13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related disasters
    • Indicator 13.1.1 is the number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population.
  • 13.1.2 is the number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030.
    • Indicator 13.1.3 is the proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies.
  • Target 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into policy and planning
  • Target 13.3: Build knowledge and capacity to meet climate change
    • Indicator 13.3.1 is the number of countries that have integrated mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning into primary, secondary and tertiary curricula.
    • Indicator 13.3.2 is the number of countries that have communicated the strengthening of institutional, systemic and individual capacity-building to implement adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer, and development actions.
  • Target 13.A: Implement then UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
    • Indicator 13.A.1 is the mobilized amount of United States dollars per year between 2020 and 2025 accountable towards the $100 billion commitment.
  • Target 13.B: Promote mechanisms to raise capacity for planning and management
    • Indicator 13.B.1 is the number of least developed countries and small island developing States that are receiving specialized support, and amount of support, including finance, technology and capacity-building, for mechanisms for raising capacities for effective climate change-related planning and management.
14.Life below Water              10 Targets and 10 Indicators
  • Target 14.1: Reduce marine pollution
    • Indicator 14.1.1 is the index of coastal eutrophication and floating plastic debris density.
  • Target 14.2: Protect and restore ecosystems
    • Indicator 14.2.1 is the proportion of national exclusive economic zones managed using ecosystem-based approaches.
  • Target 14.3: Reduce ocean acidification
    • Indicator 14.3.1 is the average marine acidity (pH) measured at agreed suite of representative sampling stations.
  • Target 14.4: Sustainable fishing
    • Indicator 14.4.1 is the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels.
  • Target 14.5: Conserve coastal and marine areas
    • Indicator 14.5.1 is the coverage of protected areas in relation to marine areas.
  • Target 14.6: End subsidies contributing to overfishing
    • Indicator 14.6.1 is progress by countries in the degree of implementation of international instruments aiming to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
  • Target 14.7: Increase the economic benefits from sustainable use of marine resources
  • Target 14.A: Increase scientific knowledge, research and technology for ocean health
    • Indicator 14.A.1 is the proportion of total research budget allocated to research in the field of marine technology.
  • Target 14.B: Support small scale fishers
    • Indicator 14.B.1 is progress by countries in the degree of application of a legal/regulatory/policy/institutional framework which recognizes and protects access rights for small-scale fisheries.
  • Target 14.C: Implement and enforce international sea law
    • Indicator 14.C.1 is the number of countries making progress in ratifying, accepting and implementing through legal, policy and institutional frameworks, ocean-related instruments that implement international law.
15.Life on Land                12 Targets and 14 Indicators 
  • Target 15.1: Conserve and restore terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems
    • Indicator 15.1.1 is forest area as a proportion of total land area.
    • Indicator 15.1.2 is the proportion of important sites for terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity that are covered by protected areas, by ecosystem type.
  • Target 15.2: End deforestation and restore degraded forests
    • Indicator 15.2.1 is progress towards sustainable forest management.
  • Target 15.3: End desertification and restore degraded land
    • Indicator 15.3.1 is the proportion of land that is degraded over total land area.
  • Target 15.4: Ensure conservation of mountain ecosystems
    • Indicator 15.4.1 is coverage by protected areas of important sites for mountain biodiversity.
    • Indicator 15.4.2 is the Mountain Green Cover Index.
  • Target 15.5: Protect biodiversity and natural habitats
    • Indicator 15.5.1 is the Red List Index.
  • Target 15.6: Protect access to genetic resources and fair sharing of the benefits
  • Target 15.7: Eliminate poaching and trafficking of protected species
    • Indicator 15.7.1 is the proportion of traded wildlife that was poached or illicitly trafficked.
  • Target 15.8: Prevent invasive alien species on land and in water ecosystems
    • Indicator 15.8.1 is the proportion of countries adopting relevant national legislation and adequately resourcing the prevention or control of invasive alien species.
  • Target 15.9: Integrate ecosystem and biodiversity in governmental planning
    • Indicator 15.9.1 is progress towards national targets established in accordance with Aichi Biodiversity Target 2 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020.
  • Target 15.A: Increase financial resources to conserve and sustainably use ecosystem and biodiversity
    • Indicator 15.A.1 is the official development assistance and public expenditure on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • Target 15.B: Finance and incentivize sustainable forest management
    • Indicator 15.B.1 is the official development assistance and public expenditure on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • Target 15.C: Combat global poaching and trafficking
    • Indicator 15.C.1 is the proportion of traded wildlife that was poached or illicitly trafficked.
16.Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions  12 Targets and 23 Indicators
  • Target 16.1: Reduce violence everywhere
    • Indicator 16.1.1 is the number of victims of intentional homicide per 100,000 population, by sex and age.
    • Indicator 16.1.2 is conflict-related deaths per 100,000 population, by sex, age and cause.
    • Indicator 16.1.3 is the proportion of population subjected to (a) physical violence, (b) psychological violence and (c) sexual violence in the previous 12 months.
    • Indicator 16.1.4 is the proportion of population that feel safe walking alone around the area they live.
  • Target 16.2: Protect children from abuse, exploitation, trafficking and violence.
    • Indicator 16.2.1 is the proportion of children aged 1–17 years who experienced any physical punishment and/or psychological aggression by caregivers in the past month.
    • Indicator 16.2.2 is the number of victims of human trafficking per 100,000 population.
    • Indicator 16.2.3 is the proportion of young women and men aged 18–29 years who experienced sexual violence by age 18.
  • Target 16.3: Promote the rule of law and ensure equal access to justice
    • Indicator 16.3.1 is the proportion of victims of violence in the previous 12 months who reported their victimization to competent authorities.
    • Indicator 16.3.2 is unsentenced detainees as a proportion of overall prison population.
  • Target 16.4: Combat organized crime and illicit financial and arms flows
    • Indicator 16.4.1 is the total value of inward and outward illicit financial flows.
    • Indicator 16.4.2 is the proportion of seized, found or surrendered arms whose illicit origin or context has been traced or established by a competent authority.
  • Target 16.5: Substantially reduce corruption and bribery
    • Indicator 16.5.1 is the proportion of persons who had at least one contact with a public official and who paid a bribe to a public official, or were asked for a bribe by those public officials, during the previous 12 months.
    • Indicator 16.5.2 is the proportion of businesses that had at least one contact with a public official and that paid a bribe to a public official, or were asked for a bribe by those public officials during the previous 12 months.
  • Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions
    • Indicator 16.6.1 is primary government expenditures as a proportion of original approved budget, by sector (or by budget codes or similar).
  • Target 16.A: Strengthen national institutions to prevent violence and combat crime and terrorism
    • Indicator 16.A.1 is the existence of independent national human rights institutions in compliance with the Paris Principles.
17.Partnerships for the Goals 19 Targets and 25 Indicators (N/A)

Some comments about the table:

  • Climate change and environmental threats dominate the risk mitigation strategies on the 2030 agenda.
    • Environmental goals, sub-goals and targets are more well defined and specific (maybe not enough to tackle climate change, but at least in comparison with other threats on the agenda). This makes sense in light of the history of sustainable development, since the idea of sustainability was motivated by the need to protect resources and ecosystems.
      • I think this shows our capacity to break down problems into little pieces once we feel something that we value is at stake. We have become increasingly creative at identifying ways to make progress to mitigate this risk through different strategies, even up to a point where the specific actions are too embedded in our habits for us to perceive them as risk mitigation (e.g. I doubt that using eco-friendly products would be perceived as a risk mitigation strategy for environmentalists, but the motivation behind that habit is to prevent a global catastrophe). We could get way more creative at finding strategies to mitigate other risks.
      • It is also motivating to see the range of possible interventions and indicators that climate change mitigation currently has, spanning from laws and regulations to budgets for R&D.
        • One of the biggest obstacles of longtermism is how hard it is to track progress and risk mitigation seems particularly puzzling. Additionally, the debate between short and long term causes usually revolves around the high uncertainty of long term causes, but we could learn a lot from environmentalism as a movement that has managed to convert an uncertain long time frame problem into more manageable pieces of information that track progress and allow accountability.
  • I included the target “11.4: protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage” because in spite of it not being a GCR mitigation strategy, the idea of protecting cultural and natural heritage, or statements such as UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibility of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations are another interesting way to build a bridge between international policy and longtermist thinking. This approach focuses on narratives around what there is to protect when we mitigate risks and the value of preserving our legacy.
  • Goal 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and its sub-goals were puzzling  because they address forms of injustice that are not global catastrophes. However, I included them due to CSER’s research line “Global Justice” and their justification for these forms of injustice as being drivers of global risk. This might still be debatable, and it seems valuable to define which kind of injustice actually seems important to focus on for resilience (comments with ideas about this would be valuable!).
  • This table only includes goals that somewhat intentionally address risks, but it could be argued that the entire agenda covers systemic vulnerabilities that, if addressed, would reduce risks and make us more resilient (e.g. a more educated and healthy population would be better at solving risk cascades). The Simon Institute mentions this point in the paper Policymaking for the Long-term Future: Improving Institutional Fit.
  • However, one of the main takeaways from the SDGs sub-goals and indicators is that apart from climate change, the agenda neglects other more extreme threats like engineered pandemics or AI risks. There is a big opportunity for the existential and global catastrophic risk research community to inform future SDGs agendas.

COVID-19 as an example of GCRs mitigation being foundational to Sustainable Development

As shown on the table, Sustainable Development Goal number 3: Good Health and wellbeing has 13 targets and 28 indicators, many of which are gold standard measures for public health, such as under-5 mortality rate, maternal mortality rate or  neonatal mortality rate. But perhaps the most interesting for our purposes is indicator 3.D.Improve early warning systems for global health risks... 

The COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies why targets such as 3.D should be higher priorities on the Sustainable Development Agenda. It turns out not having good enough progress on indicator 3.D. made us vulnerable to an event that disrupted all of the other SDGs too.  The COVID-19  pandemic paused (and at least temporarily reversed) decades of global progress: It will push an estimated 71 million additional people into extreme poverty (the first increase in global poverty in decades), it will become an additional threat to food systems possibly increasing food insecurity, it caused the temporary closing of schools, causing close to 1.6 billion children and youth to be out of school by April 2020, it interrupted immunization programs in around 70 countries, and the list goes on. 

A philanthropist or policymaker interested in education may have done much more for education by investing in pandemic preparedness and prevention than directly trying to improve education, just because the small efforts that we had been accumulating over time suddenly were threatened by an unexpected virus that we could have prevented had we prioritized it decades ago. If we care about anything (education, health, poverty, infrastructure) we have to care about these events not repeating themselves. 

Perhaps in some years we will have a better understanding of whether or not COVID-19 actually reversed the long term trajectory of sustainable development goals, but even if we bounced back and recovered better than expected (which would make COVID-19 seem like less of a priority from a longtermist perspective), it would still be a huge catastrophe for the 2030 agenda. 

The SDGs did not take biorisks seriously enough, and we can see that from the way in which they had to update their framework in response to the pandemic: as stated on the SDGs main website, the agenda had to shift its approach and framework to focus on COVID-19 recovery.... In a world where we had enough information and warning to suspect that a pandemic could hit us hard, this sounds like bad macrostrategic planning. 

It is also not clear that the SDGs have currently fully internalised this lesson. On the website that addresses why each SDG matters, every goal gives COVID-19’s effects as a reason to focus on that goal.For example, “goal 1:ending poverty matters because the pandemic will push 71 million additional people into extreme poverty”). But isn't this a case of putting the cart before the horse? Shouldn’t that be a reason why we should prevent pandemics in the first place? It looks like the 2030 agenda underestimated target 3.D and is probably still underestimating -and failing to create- many goals and targets aimed at mitigating risks.

3. Longtermism in SDGs and sustainability

Are SDGs aligned with longtermism?

Outside of the scope of risk mitigation, sustainable development as a concept may have some interesting overlaps with longtermist thinking and the history of environmentalism and sustainability could shed light into promising ways of framing the concern for future generations. Here are some thoughts that can be explored further.

The “What is Sustainable Development'' description on the SDGs website has four main bullet points.The first two points could be seen as strongly aligned with longtermism:

  • “Sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 
    Sustainable development is precisely about protecting future generations. It could be that time frames are 15 years (as in the 2030 agenda) instead of thousands or millions of years just because doing so is more practical, politically feasible and psychologically available; not because it would be inconsistent for sustainable development to be applied to the  long term.
  • Sustainable development calls for concerted efforts towards building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for people and planet.
    Resilience? That sounds familiar…

As seen in the history of sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals required levels of global coordination rarely seen before, because it became evident that the need to protect the environment would be insufficient if taken unilaterally by few countries. On Existential risk prevention as global priority Nick Bostrom describes the trend of global coordination to mitigate risks: 

... mitigation projects require wider coordination; in many cases, global coordination. Here, too, some trend lines seem to point to this becoming more feasible over time. There is a long-term historic trend toward increasing scope of political integration—from hunter-gatherer bands to chiefdoms, city states, nation states, and now multinational organisations, regional alliances, various international governance structures, and other aspects of globalisation (Wright, 1999). Extrapolation of this trend might seem to indicate the eventual creation of a singleton (Bostrom, 2006). It is also possible that some of the global movements that emerged over the last half century—in particular the peace movement, the environmentalist movement, and various global justice and human-rights movements—will increasingly take on board more generalised concerns about existential risk.

So, could SDGs be understood as an example of a “singleton” approach towards sustainable development? Even though these goals are neither binding, nor unanimously accepted nor uncontroversial, and even though SDGs are more on the “soft power” side, they are one of our first attempts to set a singleton/long term trajectory for humanity and somewhat agree on it, at least at a public discourse level. 

It could make sense for generalised concerns for existential risks, or at least Global Catastrophic Risks, to be the next step for a framework such as the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN trajectory fits in this “historic trend” for political integration and coordination: 

  • In 1945, countries, tired of acting unilaterally (for short-term gains) and their actions leading to terrible wars (long-term losses) agreed on setting up an institution that would prevent them from destroying each other, even when war seemed like an attractive deal. This agreement was a collective action for self control in favour of long term wellbeing.
  • In 2000 and then in 2015 countries realized that not killing each other wasn’t enough for human flourishing, and that their rapid economic growth (short term gains) leaded to resource depletion and injustice (long-term losses) so they agreed on the MDGs and SDGs to prevent them from destroying ecosystems, even when economic growth seems like an attractive deal (again, collective action for self control in favour of long term wellbeing).
  • What is the next step for a post 2030 agenda? It would make sense that existential security (or at least GCRs) becomes a concern, since countries are realizing, particularly after COVID, that their rapid economic growth (short term gain) is STILL leading to resource depletion AND also increasing the scope of risks that threaten humanity (long-term losses) so a collective action for self control in favour of safety would be convenient.

Risk budget as the ultimate non-renewable resource 

As seen in the previous section, sustainability has focused so far on protecting the environment (or preventing a specific set of risks related to the environment).  Why is the environment the main concern of sustainability? Perhaps because sustainability was born when the long term consequences of our actions started to be visible, and the obvious immediate consequence that was available to us was environmental damage. Probably the environment made it to the sustainability agenda (and not AI safety or engineered pandemics) because its effects started to be more psychologically available to us and we had some warning shots like extreme weather conditions and economic losses due to resource depletion. Climate is probably less neglected because its effects operate in time frames that are more psychologically identifiable to us and to our current tracing mechanisms, while other risks are harder to understand and grasp unless we zoom out and acquire an even longer time frame (longtermism). 

However, the meaning of sustainable development doesn’t imply that environmental threats should be their main concern. SD is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, so any threat that compromises future generations should be an area of concern and risk mitigation makes more sense  as a foundational aspect of sustainability.

The Precipice introduces the idea of a risk budget: 
Protecting humanity’s long-term potential is a key form of sustainability. The current period of heightened anthropogenic risk is unsustainable—we can get lucky for a while, but eventually the odds are going to catch up with us. In many other cases people can do well by taking calculated risks, but here our entire bankroll is on the line, so if we eventually lose—even once—there is no coming back. We could thus think of our accumulated existential risk over humanity’s future as a kind of risk budget—a budget that has to last for our entire lifespan, the ultimate nonrenewable resource. Responsible stewardship of humanity’s potential would involve lowering this risk as quickly as possible and setting in place the safeguards to keep it low in order to allow humanity to flourish for as long as possible”

The concept of sustainability helps us to think in terms of interchangeability between natural capital and human capital. A very weak form of sustainability suggests that natural and human capital are interchangeable (i.e. natural resources such as forests or coral reefs may decline as long as human capital is increased to compensate for this). Strong sustainability states that these two types of capital are complementary but not interchangeable. 

Perhaps we can frame X-risks/GCRs in a similar way. This could be a version of sustainability whereby safety is a third variable, which cannot be interchanged with human or natural capital at the rate at which it is being traded today. In particular, we are seeing that as natural capital increases, we are not only sacrificing natural capital but also security (our ultimate non-renewable resource), both at unsustainable rates. 

4.How could Sustainable Development Goals fit in longtermist grand strategies

The Sustainable Development Goals could be an intermediate step/shorter term version of big-picture macrostrategy planning (an example of macrostrategy planning could be the three phase grand strategy suggested on The Precipice: 1.reaching existential security, 2.long reflection, 3.Achieving our potential). Both grand strategies and SDGs set unified trajectories for humanity, but the fact that they differ so much in time scales make them seem irreconcilably different in some aspects due to the fact that short term goals sometimes oppose long term goals. In this section SDGs are categorized as “short term” only because their time frames are very short in comparison to longtermist scales, but the 15 year duration of SDGs is actually a surprisingly long term compromise to protect resources even if that requires shorter term sacrifices. 

Comparing SDGs to even larger and longer term strategies brings similar tradeoffs: short term thinking is about solving urgent pressing issues (such as the SDGs addressing inequality, poverty, gender and racial discrimination, etc) and some disregard for even longer term consequences. SDGs may make some sense for a 15 year time frame, but they don’t keep track of long term patterns that are imperceptible at the micro level (like X-risks and emerging technologies, etc). Sometimes, shorter term goals (SDGs) not only neglect long term goals, but even have an uncomfortable tension with them. For example,  ending poverty could come at a cost for safety or environmental resources. The concept of sustainable development is actually a very useful framework to understand tensions between short and long term goals because it was motivated by those tradeoffs. Therefore, I don’t think that the tradeoffs between short-term SDGs with longtermist goals present deeper incompatibilities than the tradeoffs  already present between the sustainable development goals themselves (like goal 14.life below water versus goal 2.zero hunger). Unsurprisingly, the long term side of the tradeoffs is mostly represented by environmental damage in the SDGs. 

To understand how SDGs are a zoomed in version of macrostrategy efforts to reach existential security, it can be useful to visualize it in Nick Bostrom’s graph for the challenge of finding a safe path: 

Here is the original one: 

And here would be my guess of the change in direction that something like SDGs as a macrostrategy intent would pretend to do if they were achieved: 


 

I would see SDGs as a strong push for coordination (possibly one of our strongest so far, at least intentionally and/or symbolically), depicted by the green line moving the rocket further; now our rocket is smaller and further away (if the green line is supposed to be facing towards the viewer, then it should be larger. I am assuming here it is facing opposite to the viewer, but I have seen mixed ways in which people understand this tricky 3D graph). With technology my guess is that it also means a little push upwards, taking into account goals such as # 9:industry innovation and infrastructure or #4:education, which are technology enablers. However, there are some goals that are meant to preserve natural resources and that could restrain technology growth a little bit; it is also hard to know if without the SDGs the push upwards would have been even greater, making SDGs overall a push downwards. For now, my guess is slightly upwards, represented by the blue arrow.  On the “insight” dimension my guess is also a slight increase; it is easy to imagine how a society that achieves the 2030 agenda has more insight than one that doesn’t. However, it is unclear that the insight gained is properly one aimed at achieving existential security. Despite the uncertainty on the “technology” and “insight” dimensions, my guess is that SDGs do shift our trajectory somewhat into the safe zone, but the rocket is still facing upwards, the engines are on, we have a lot of fuel and the pushes don’t seem enough to keep us away from all of the dangerous zones. One big problem from the new rocket is that it is very focused on avoiding one particular dangerous region: a climate crisis, but neglects all of the other dangerous zones that it can bump into (dangerous technologies, engineered pandemics, etc). The rocket looks for sustainable states without resource depletion, so it only avoids the dangerous region where it loses all of its fuel, and that only leads to a short term sustainable state but not a sustainable trajectory. Quoting Bostrom again:

“We should perhaps therefore not seek directly to approximate some state that is ‘sustainable’ in the sense that we could remain in it for some time. Rather, we should focus on getting onto a developmental trajectory that offers a high probability of avoiding existential catastrophe.”

And Ord (2020) in a similar quote:

"Our ultimate goal is long term sustainability: to protect humanity’s potential so that we have the greatest chance of fulfilling our potential over the eons to come. The right notion of sustainability is thus not about getting into a sustainable state as quickly as possible, but about having a sustainable trajectory: one that optimally trades off risk in getting there with the protection of being there. This may involve taking additional risks in the short term, though only if they sufficiently reduce the risks over the long term."

5. Explore possible cons and pros of building this bridge and future next steps

Going to the UN and turning an idea into an international goal sounds like… the first obvious idea that someone interested in anything would have, and I am sure there are also evident reasons why it isn’t that easy or ideal. This  section is meant to capture some of those reasons (asking readers for more in their comments), and also explore if this could shed light into possible policy paths for mitigating risks. 

Cons (or important considerations for why it could be bad):

  • GCRs are a set of problems of different magnitudes and time frames (AI safety requires very different actions than bioweapons) and it is not evident that the specific frame of the SDGs is the correct way to address them.
  • SDGs are not binding and some risks are too urgent or catastrophic to be addressed by soft power mechanisms starting in a post-2030 agenda. We might not want to wait so much for some risks and b. We might want to set binding regulations instead.
  • We might want to use different bodies for different problems. Why the UN or why the SDGs? In this post it’s mainly due to their popularity and global macrostrategic framework, but perhaps we don’t need that to address risks and other organizations and frameworks would be better (G20, OECD, local governments, etc...)
  • We might want to frame some anthropogenic risks more as crimes than as goals (making risk mitigation more a concern of legal frameworks or organizations that are better at handling those problems). However, a caveat for that is that SDGs do include the prevention of some crimes as part of its goals and there can be something valuable in framing these issues in an aspirational way rather than a punitive one.
  • SDGs are not unanimous or uncontroversial, some see them as a very top-down “Eurocentric” grand strategy.
  • There could be more evident tensions between traditional sustainability and mitigating global catastrophic risks and solutions that are good for one would be detrimental for the other. Maybe the existential and global catastrophic risks mitigation crowd  would exchange current human capital for safety at a rate unacceptable to sustainable development crowds, even more when mitigating existential risks, which is far from being a concern for current sustainable development.
  • Security topics (like disarmament) are not currently prioritized in SDGs and they require continuous efforts to situate within the SDGs in order to receive the attention they should (UNODA, 2018). If there is already a reluctance within SDGs to focus on nuclear security, —a popular topic among UN crowds—, it could be even harder to prioritize other less known and understood risks inside the agenda.
    • Actually, this could be an interesting discussion for another post. Is security being perceived as a “narrow minded” or shortsighted approach by sustainable development crowds? Or even a right-wing approach? (I’m thinking of discussions about prioritizing security over education or debates around funding the police vs funding schools, where security is sometimes seen as addressing the symptoms and not root causes of problems).

Possible pros: 

  • Wide initiatives are already in place to comply with the goals, such as Education for Sustainable Development. This step would unlock a lot of resources and future opportunities for longtermism.
  • The effects of Covid on the SDGs indicators could be a good opportunity to persuade policymakers of the importance of tail risks. Acting now might be unusually high leverage to get these ideas into practice.
  • The Simon Institute mentions some relevant points in the paper on Policymaking for the Long-term Future: Improving Institutional Fit:
    • “Pursuing and building on the UN 2030 Agenda is a concrete path forward to place longterm considerations at the heart of policymaking. The SDGs have been picked up by all sectors as guiding directives for responsible action. Even though they can be instrumentalized for reputational boosts, their popularity is likely to have contributed to a shift in the societal narrative around sustainability (Pedersen, 2018; Scheyvens, Banks, & Hughes, 2016). Yet, many more resources must be allocated to some of the most pressing issues of our time, such as the governance of emerging technologies. Developing a post-2030 agenda that incorporates our suggestions would therefore be a priority for policymakers in the 2020s”.
    • “We suggest that identifying, understanding and targeting systemic vulnerabilities (Ord, 2020), as done by e.g. the UN 2030 Agenda, represents an effective approach to improving resilience for long-term flourishing”.
  • Some promising precedents e.g. the definition of SD being about protecting future generations,  UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations (1997), other UN bodies dedicated to risk mitigation.
  • It creates a way of public accountability that is not legally binding but gives a platform to “embarrass” states that are not complying (hopefully no country will want to be the one messing up the SDG tracker, or it would at least call media attention and political pressure). This could also be useful in setting a broader soft norm that supports X-risk and GCR mitigation.

Are there more? What are these pros and cons missing? (again comments appreciated )

Possible next steps to explore

  • Explore the real effect of SDGs. Do they actually set trajectories or reflect trajectories that were already in place? (I guess both)
  • Explore how other actors in the GCR mitigation community relate to sustainable development.
  • Explore the link of risk mitigation and sustainability in a broader sense (outside of SDGs).
  • Refine the concept of the risk budget and its relation with sustainability.
  • Explore how the post 2030 agenda will be set and who has influence on it.
  • Explore if the scope of time in the post 2030 agenda could be extended, setting goals for the long term, even if they are less tractable, and then sub-goals for the next 15 years). How could that be achieved? And the next agenda could be a process of “thinking backwards”, so even if the scope of sub-goals is 15 years, they would correspond to a major goal for “where do we want humanity to go” and what we would need by 2045 to achieve that.
  • Exploring how the SDGs are fed by scientific and technical communities to see if we could replicate that (for example the interaction between the IPCC and SDGs).
  • We could explore if the current infrastructure and institutional design for sustainability could be a place to push for measures to protect future generations. The concept of sustainability is about representing future generations in decision making and maybe we are not taking enough advantage of that.

     

Those are some of the ideas that I would like to explore further and hopefully identify policy opportunities if it ends up being an interesting path. All feedback is appreciated to determine if this should receive more time, attention and coordination (or to put it out there and leave the record in case it’s not).  

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Thanks for the post. I'm convinced about the case for extrapolating from UN SDGs to GCRs, and I think stating it explicitly is relevant because attention is a scarce resource: companies and governments often use SDGs as a focal point when they want to signal virtue - public companies might even be required to explicitly state what SDGs they are aiming at in their sustainability reports.

I wonder what other areas have failed to get into SDGs - e.g., there's absolutely no concern for animal welfare, as the goals and targets are explicitly worded in conservationist terms. Most material I've read about this is limited to argue that animal welfare and SDGs are compatible - even this call for papers from MDPI (due on 30 jun), which might interest someone doing research on the area.

Thanks Ramiro! 
Yes, the efforts private and public companies make in order to be or at least appear to be "aligned" with SDGs is one of the things I find most interesting and worth making use of.  They have been widely adopted across different sectors perhaps because they included private & non-profit sector in their elaboration (and great outreach and communication strategies as well I'm guessing). Also worth studying how they became such a big deal (and also explore until what extent they are a big deal or more a symbolic statement).

The concern for animal welfare is a very interesting case study, thanks for pointing that out! I've had it in the back of my head but haven't thought too much about it. I will point this out to Ana Diez from Argentina, she was interested in finding case studies of overlaps (or significant differences) between SDGs and EA's cause prioritization. 

Great work Angela! Congrats!

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On “5.Cons” I would have added info hazard.

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Not the main topic of this piece but I wanted to comment on that: I agree that violence/security has become too much of a "right-wing issue" and that this is a problem for solving the problem. However, I think this also derives from the almost absent problem of violence in 1st world countries. Both you and I are from Latin America and we know how much of a issue this is in here. The rule-of-law is the most basic precondition so that people may have some stability in life and therefore social development. However, I cannot remember if I ever saw that debated in EA circles. I will therefore use this opportunity to leave this link to a TEDTalk by Gary Haugen from International Justice Mission: https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_haugen_the_hidden_reason_for_poverty_the_world_needs_to_address_now

Thanks Fer! 
Good points, I will add info hazards. 
Thanks for the TED talk! ugh yes... violence sucks haha :(   I also haven't seen too much about that in EA circles but I have seen it more present in development circles, like JPAL and IPA with their crime and violence initiatives. I'm curious why on the longtermist side of interventions violence and crime play such an important role in EA (like preventing great power conflict or nuclear weapons) but on the shorttermist side it's more focused on health interventions (is it because it's harder to measure than health interventions so they will never beat a GW recommended charity, which is not a problem for the longtermist side when expected value can make violence prevention a great deal?) 

Thanks again for your comments!