Is “Decoupling” a Realistic Strategy for Achieving the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda is predicated on the belief that it is possible for countries to sustain economic growth without relying on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. The buzzword denoting this aspirational paradigm is “decoupling”, which is defined, broadly, as to separate, disengage, or dissociate [one thing] from something else. In SDG terms, decoupling requires “all countries, rich and poor, to adopt sustainable technologies and behaviors that decouple economic growth from unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.”

The idea of decoupling is attractive because it implies that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of business-as-usual economic growth by simply decoupling this growth from the harmful production and consumption patterns that have caused icebergs to melt, extreme weather events to proliferate, and global temperatures to rise at unprecedented rates.

It is for this reason that many critics argue that the concept of decoupling is nothing more than a Neoliberal Fantasy which gives “force to a vision of a ‘sustainable development’ for neoliberal capitalist economies, and in the process provid[es] essential ideological support to the SDG agenda.”

These critics argue that the concept of decoupling fails to challenge the existence of a neoliberal capitalist system that has “internalized” the environmental impacts of growth. In other words, critics say that the capitalist system underpinning the SDG agenda is the same economic model that is responsible for today’s environmental catastrophes.

To better visualize this disconnect, think of one of those beautifully produced television ads extolling the work of a major oil company like Exxon Mobil or BP. If you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven for thinking these companies existed only to better mankind through the development of new, clean technologies that will bring the world back from the brink of environmental Armageddon. But none of these ads tell the viewer to consume less household energy, to ride bikes instead of driving cars, or to move off the grid. And that’s because encouraging the type of consumption patterns that could advance the SDGs are incompatible with an oil company’s bottom line.

Look at Elon Musk’s Tesla car company, whose direct-to-consumer sales model has faced stiff opposition from car dealerships across the U.S. The purported reasons for this opposition are issues such as safety standards and consumer protection. But in reality, the U.S auto industry doesn’t want Tesla dealing directly with the consumer because it cuts out the “middleman”, who, in this case is of course car dealerships across the U.S. Another underlying reason is that Tesla’s electric cars threaten many of the income generating services—such as oil changes, battery replacement, and tune-ups—that are the lifeline of traditional car dealerships.

Back to the SDGs and decoupling. Can we realistically expect the private sector to act against its own short-term interests in order to pursue a set of well-intended but highly aspirational development goals? Or are these expectations akin to asking a fox to provide security for the inhabitants of a henhouse?

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