Recently, I had the chance to talk with some friends about the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promoted by the United Nations. Specifically, we focused on the society portrayed by these goals. The scope they cover is really huge. Despite the meaning of the acronym, the goals do not deal with environmental protection only. In actuality, they depict a sort of ideal society, at least from a Westerners’ perspective. Economically, the outlined scenario seems to be a perfect trade-off between liberalism and communism. To put it differently, we can probably think about it as a kind of socialism 2.0, combining principles of social justice and equality with respect for individual freedoms — by the way, the holy grail chased for decades by many Western countries (for instance, see the Third Way.).
Although not explicitly mentioned, technology plays a crucial role in achieving these goals. From a sustainability standpoint, a drastic energy efficiency upgrade is a must. This, in turn, can only entail a massive use of advanced automation, made possible by increasingly refined forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Ultimately, this process will probably result in a further acceleration towards the workless society I have already talked about here. In addition to technology, another element that appears to be indispensable for the construction of such a society is an extensive and robust wealth redistribution mechanism. In principle, this can be done in many different ways, but it is not easy to translate into practice. Although what China will carry out is not devised to cope with mass joblessness, nor to achieve social justice, large-scale wealth redistribution is exactly what is about to happen in that country. Apparently, it seems that the Chinese government’s decision is driven by the danger of breaking up social cohesion because of severe inequality between the richest and the poorest classes. Ironically, this is happening in a country that has adopted an ultra-liberal approach — despite being formally communist — in accordance with the trickle-down theory (i.e. rich elite’s well-being benefits the entire population). Anyhow, the new Chinese laws being issued are an example of how redistribution can be put into practice, which, to some extent, reminds me of the proposal called webfare. This is an idea of the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris and consists of taxing the capital gains of web and social platforms as compensation for them appropriating our data. In Ferraris’ vision, the human being’s worth is not based on what he or she produces, but on the level of education and the development of their potential. In his proposal, the resources retrieved with the aforementioned taxation should be destined precisely for these purposes.
Returning to the topic of this blog, the question is as follows. The effects of climate change are obvious to almost everyone. Assuming this is mainly caused by human activities, it is indisputable that the fear of facing potentially deadly catastrophes is a formidable boost for the SDGs, as confirmed by the almost unanimous adherence to this UN program. That said, how concrete are the possibilities that the society outlined by these goals will become a reality? Here is a list of some of the biggest obstacles to overcome in my opinion.
- Technically, the challenges ahead seem immense. But I believe it is only a matter of time before mass manufacturing — where the bulk of the workforce is concentrated today — becomes an almost entirely machine-driven process in which the presence of humans becomes the exception. I didn’t realize at first that I myself contribute actively to the achievement of the SDGs. Already today, I indeed work daily to develop AI-based solutions for my clients to innovate and optimize processes in the world of manufacturing. It won’t happen tomorrow, but I believe that in a few generations, fully automated manufacturing will be a common scenario at least in some parts of the world.
- From a geopolitical perspective, it is by no means a given that all countries see climate change as a threat to their survival. Or rather, in the balance between the positive and negative effects it brings, there may be some nations that predictably will benefit more than others. For example, vast areas now unsuitable for cultivation because the climate is too harsh could become endless expanses of fertile land. Or think about the melting ice at the North Pole. This phenomenon could change the strategic balances of that area because it could open new navigation routes and make possible, at least in theory, military invasions previously thought unthinkable. Nations that are pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy may look favorably at this process.
- Last but not least, I mention what is perhaps the most important factor, the human one. By this, I mean that the SDGs, although completely acceptable, from my standpoint have a serious shortcoming. On the whole, they express a typically Western vision of the world. Starting from the unquestionable environmental problems we face, these goals characterize the well-being of humanity in terms of parameters — be they sociological, economic, environmental, etc. — that are fundamentally quantifiable and measurable. That is, they are all quantities that pertain to the domain of rationality. There is practically nothing traceable to the psychological sphere. This is an immense universe whose surface neuroscience has just begun to scratch. So we do not know much about it, yet. However, I think we all know how essential it is for the well-being of humanity. If we wanted to express the concept in terms dear to Greek philosophy, we could perhaps say — the readers of the blog who are experts in philosophy will correct me if necessary — that all the SDGs live in the domain of techne while none refer to the sphere of psyche. So the question is: are only techne-related goals enough to depict the society we should aim for? On this subject, I like to recall an episode that happened to me years ago. I had the opportunity to interview an Iranian electronics engineer who had been living and working in Silicon Valley for several years and who surprisingly applied for a position in my company. He told me that he had built a very good career in the US and was doing quite well financially. When I asked him why he wanted to move here, where salaries are much lower than in Silicon Valley (which he was perfectly aware of), he told me that every year he spent a vacation in Tuscany with his family and that he literally fell in love with Italy. Beyond the extraordinary beauty of our country, the candor with which he ultimately answered displaced me: “because those who live in Italy are happier.” In conclusion, tentatively assuming that the supposed imperfection of the SDGs may not be an issue for us Westerners, it would be interesting to know what people belonging to different cultures think about them. Although the psyche sphere plays a different role in their worldview and societies, do they feel equally involved in this visceral and, dare I say it, almost anthropological change that is potentially looming over us?