This week’s SDG Conference Bergen 2023 was a major event, bringing together over 1500 participants from 117 countries through online participation. I was privileged to serve as co-chair of the conference program committee along with my esteemed colleague, Professor Beate Sjåfjell, head of the Sustainability Law team at the University of Oslo's Faculty of Law.
As the head of the Sustainable Health Unit (SUSTAINIT), a new initiative at the Faculty of Medicine that blends critical sustainability studies and global health, I was particularly gratified to lead the conference on this year's theme of "Just Transformation". Our focus on the vital but often overlooked connections between environmental well-being and human equity aimed to highlight the challenges and compromises inherent in the pursuit of a just and sustainable future.
The conference featured a fantastic line-up of speakers including
▪ Jonas Gahr Støre, Prime Minister of Norway ▪ Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and former UNDP Administrator ▪ Hilda Nakabuye, Environmental Rights Activist, Founder Fridays For Future Uganda ▪ Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of Medicine, University of Oxford ▪ Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School, and Holberg Prize Laureate
Are the SDGs good enough?
A recurring theme at the conference was the question of how fundamental the transition to a sustainable future needs to be.
Do the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a framework that is radical enough for human civilization to achieve sustainability?
Most speakers seemed to agree that “sustainability”, when understood broadly, can offer a comprehensive approach to balance environmental protection and social and economic justice.
But a challenge with the current sustainability agenda is its tendency to downplay political diversity and difference. Telleria and Garcia- Arias have even argued that Agenda 2030 is “a depoliticizing political device that makes an inherently political issue look not political”.
We must challenge the socio-economic order
Importantly, the sustainability discourse has too often accepted the dominant socio-economic and cultural order. But as Albert Einstein said, “no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”
A fair transition to sustainability demands that we critically examine the underlying assumptions, premises, and biases associated with the prevailing concept of sustainability.
As underlined by several speakers, sustainability cannot be defined universally but should be grounded in the specific experiences and values of those it affects. Science needs to blend with local knowledge.
This year's SDG conference provided a valuable opportunity to recognize and embrace the diverse perspectives and forms of knowledge surrounding sustainability and the persistent perpetuation of injustice that underpins the current socio-economic order. In my opinion, the conference effectively highlighted the importance of acknowledging these issues and working towards creating a more equitable and sustainable future.
Photos by Silje Katrine Robinson