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Democracy in the Anthropocene? Science and Sustainable Development Goals at the UN

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When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?

Last week, I was one of 28 scientists, and a handful of social scientists, invited by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs to discuss science and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), successors to the Millennium Development Goals.

Two processes to define a post-2015 agenda are ongoing: an Open Working Group (OWG) with country representatives; and a High-Level Panel. These will come together in September 2013, when both report to the UN General Assembly.

But the OWG Expert Meeting left me wondering if there is space for the debate and collaboration needed over the coming months to enable the SDGs to embrace both the ambition required by the anthropocene's 'new era', and the right for culturally-embedded knowledge and ways of life?

Discussions elaborated arguments already made by David Griggs, Johan Rockström, Jeffery Sachs and others, building on the widely acknowledged concepts of the anthropocene - a new geological epoch in which humanity is driving global environmental change - and of planetary boundaries in Earth system processes, which it would be unsafe to transgress.

New evidence of impending climatic thresholds and resource depletion trajectories, biodiversity depletion and valuation, the climate-water-food-energy nexuses, the importance of diversity, and of adaptive management, in a new era which was perhaps best characterised as of unprecedented variability, rather than hard resource limits, were discussed. And dynamic, engaged debate about the roles of science threw up surprising agreement about the value of co-production and transdisciplinarity in the way science is conducted. There was muted acceptance of the value of public and citizen expertise, and that scientists should be bringing plural and conditional advice to decision-making, and limited acknowledgement that sustainability is political, as is the knowledge that shapes goal definition and processes.

My own presentation linked planetary boundaries to social boundaries and an argument for pathways to sustainable development that respect principles of direction, diversity and distribution. Choices amongst pathways are, I suggested, inevitably political, and amongst those following sustainable directions, which to pursue becomes a matter for democratic debate.

Translating these rich discussions into bullet points for a presentation to the UN Economics and Social Council (ECOSOC) was, predictably, a less satisfactory process. Committee-consensus speak crowded out nuance and content in the resultant four slides.

The first slide outlined that, with the earth's life support systems and development agendas under new threat, old ways are not working, but solutions and opportunities exist. The second focused on finding goals that put us on new pathways to human wellbeing that respect natural processes. The third set out new priorities for goal-setting, recognising interdependencies among food/water/energy/land/climate systems, driving forces and systemic risks. Finally, the need for new processes to support the change we need were noted.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with any of the points, but the blandness of their translation into UN-speak, reduced even the minimal political content of the discussion contexts in which they were originally made. Thus when I, and others, argued for language about 'new pathways' - underpinned by a strong concern with what directions those pathways took and the roles of power in steering them - these emphases vanished. Likewise, my efforts to introduce 'diverse pathways towards desired futures' under point four - underpinned by a concern with the diverse values, interests and contexts, and the distributional effects, of different pathways - again disappeared. Governance came across as a managerial process. And points about science-policy engagement lost any acknowledgement of framing and power. In short, in the ECOSOC presentation, sustainability appeared hardly political at all.

However, the authority of scientific expertise went unchallenged, and indeed was bolstered. In responses from the floor, key demands of 'the scientific community' were how to use scientific evidence and authority to push for 'greater ambition' in setting SDGs, and for 'getting the implementation mechanisms right' in this new era of impending threats and limits.

This meeting - and many others like it in the run up to September - raise a significant question: Is there a contradiction between the world of the anthropocene, and democracy? The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and 'hard' environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions. It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.

This is a far cry - as a South African participant pointed out - from some other worlds: on the ground in the global south and north, where people and social movements debate and contest their interests, values and desired futures; and the world according to democratic theory, in which such politics are worth acknowledging and respecting. In this world, there is a need to open up, make uncertainty and ambiguity and dissensus explicit, and foster diversity to cope with it. It is the world that the STEPS Centre's pathways approach attempts to represent and engage with. A Colombian representative alone alluded to this world, asking: 'How can culture be reflected in the SDGs?' A climate scientist's response was indicative: 'SDGs have to work for all societies - or they will fail. Although - he admitted -'more local interpretations are possible.'

We could say there are some non-negotiable targets and SD goals, but there are multiple, experimental approaches - a diversity of pathways - to get there. In response to the Colombian question, I suggested we needed diverse implementation pathways that respond to diverse values and contexts, cultures and ways of life; and respect for diverse culturally-embedded knowledges and expertises in collaboration with formal science.

But we also need to keep the definition of goals open enough to enable their implications from different perspectives to be accommodated; and to acknowledge the diverse social meanings that might attach to apparently objective concepts such as 'planetary boundaries'. If not, then the human rights and well-being that are under threat in the anthropocene may prove not just to be material rights to food, water and energy, but also rights to voice, priorities, perspectives and culturally-embedded ways of life. As the world moves towards to 2015 and beyond, we must be sure that SDG processes remain compatible with these.