SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Dr Jason Hickel
Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics

What is so refreshing about the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that they recognise the inherent tension between economic development and the ecology of our planet. The preamble affirms that ‘planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home’ and underscores the necessity of achieving ‘harmony with nature.’ It commits to holding global warming below 2°C, and calls for ‘sustainable patterns of production and consumption’.

This language signals awareness that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that we cannot continue chewing through the living planet without gravely endangering our security and prosperity, and indeed the future viability of our species. However, the core of the SDG programme relies on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place – ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption. SDG 8 calls for ‘at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries’ and ‘higher levels of economic productivity’ across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of the SDGs. They call for both less and more at the same time.

The contradiction

This call for more growth comes at an odd time – just as we are learning that it is not physically possible. Currently, global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by about 50% each year1. In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists tell us that we are blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed and witnessing the greatest mass extinction of species in more than 66 million years.2

The hard truth is that our ecological overshoot is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries, particularly the West.

SDG 8 calls for improving ‘global resource efficiency’ and ‘decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation’. However, global material extraction and consumption has in fact doubled over the past 30 years, and accelerated since 20003. Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping, trucking and air miles – along with all the stuff those vehicles transport4. Our tropical forests are set to disappear by 20505. By 2100, we will be producing three times more solid waste than we do today6.

Efficiency improvements are not going to cut it. Yes, GDP growth is still necessary in poorer countries; but for the world as a whole, the only option is intentional de-growth and a rapid shift to what Herman Daly called a ‘steady-state’ economy that maintains material throughput at ecological equilibrium7.

De-growth does not mean poverty. On the contrary, de-growth is perfectly compatible with high levels of human development8. It is entirely possible for us to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter: human happiness, wellbeing, education, health, and longevity. This is the end toward which we should apply our finest engineering minds and the development of new technologies. Indeed, the surer route to poverty is to continue on our present trajectory, for, as Joseph Stigltiz said, in a world of ecological overshoot, GDP growth is diminishing living standards rather than improving them9.

We need to abandon GDP in favour of a saner measure of human progress, such as the genuine progress indicator, which assesses how citizens are progressing socially and economically. However, the SDGs pass this urgent challenge down to the next generation - at the bottom of SDG 17 it states: “by 2030 build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP.” In other words, they shelve the problem until 2029.


But what of employment? After all, that is what the rest of SDG 8 focuses on. To the extent that de-growth requires eliminating unnecessary production and work, we need to think seriously about that other big idea that has captured public imagination over the past couple of years: a universal basic income. How to fund it? There are many options, including progressive taxes on commercial land use, financial transactions, foreign currency transactions and capital gains.

Let’s face it, in an age of rapid automation, full employment on a global scale is a pipe dream anyhow. It’s time we think of ways to facilitate reliable livelihoods in the absence of formal employment. Not only will this assist us towards necessary de-growth, but also allow people to escape exploitative labour arrangements and incentivise employers to improve working conditions – two aims that SDG 8 pursues. What’s more, it will allow people to invest more of their time and effort into things that matter: caring for their loved ones, growing their own food, nourishing communities, and rebuilding degraded environments.

1National Footprint Accounts, Global Footprint Network, 2016
2Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet, Will Steffen
et al., 2015
3Global Patterns of Material Flows and their Socio-Economic and Environmental
Implications, Stefan Giljum et al., 2014
4Bernstein research, as reported in Business Insider, 2016
5John Mongilloand Linda Zierdt-Warshaw, 2000
6Environment: Waste Production Must Peak this Century, Daniel Hoornweg, et al., 2013
7From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady State Economy, Herman Daly, 2014
8The Proximity of Nations to a Socially Sustainable Steady-State Economy, Daniel O’Neill, 2015
9The Great GDP Swindle, Joseph Stiglitz, 2013