Review of Eschenhagen’s presentation on the unsustainability of the SDGs

Stockholm was the site of the first United Nations conference addressing environmental protection 50 years ago, which marked the beginning of international environmental policy. This anniversary provokes the question of what has been achieved since then. Nothing positive, if María Luisa Eschenhagen from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín, Colombia, is to be believed. Invited by Dr. Michael Handke from the Institute of Geography and Jun. Prof. Rosa Lehmann from HCIAS, Eschenhagen held a discussion with participants of the Open Lecture “The NON-Sustainability of the 17 Global Sustainability Goals: a perspective from the South” last Thursday, June 30, 2022, at the New University of Heidelberg. 

From environmental protection to sustainability

The basic question that permeates Eschenhagen’s professional career is what has been achieved by global environmental policy over the past 50 years. In doing so, she looks back at past attempts at the UN Conference in Stockholm, the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – where environment and development were strategically linked for the first time – and finally the formulation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. According to Eschenhagen, at the latest since the SDGs, the global sustainability agenda is no longer oriented toward the actual causes of environmental problems. Rather, she says, a neoliberal development model is now the substantive cornerstone underlying the SDGs. Under the mantle of the SDGs, this model continues to expand unhindered. In other words, the SDGs are used for greenwashing, meaning economic growth continues unquestioned but now somewhat more inclusive and sustainable. According to Eschenhagen, despite all attention and efforts, environmental problems are escalating. 

Critique of the Sustainable Development Goals

In principle, she says, the particular SDGs are difficult to criticize, because who wouldn’t want to reduce starvation or poverty? Nevertheless, inequality has increased during the period of the large-scale SDG agenda. Eschenhagen raises three fundamental criticisms of the SDGs in support of her main argument: 

1) The SDGs in their formulation lack a clear definition of what is meant by sustainability. 

2) She also criticizes the linkage of sustainability with the dominant understanding of development. She considers the latter to be an organizational structure that governs the entire social world. Development is a discourse that creates abnormalities by constructing dichotomies between e.g., the first and the third world. This promotes the continuity of the current economic model without addressing it. Instead, the focus is on environmental management as a silver bullet without questioning the underlying power relations. 

3) The SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 sub-targets. This structuring of subdivision into measurable indicators for the overall goals assumes that it is possible to solve all environmental problems through successful management of the respective sub-targets. Eschenhagen notes that this thinking is based on an understanding of the environment as an object that has its epistemological[1] roots in positivism. Herein, environmental elements are objectified, fragmented, and reified, she argues. Similarly, the SDGs thus follow a logic by which solutions to the world’s environmental problems can be achieved through technological adaptations. According to Eschenhagen, this idea prevents a deeper understanding of the causes. 

Alternative concepts on sustainability from the global south

Building on the research of her doctoral advisor Enrique Leff, who is one of the most important figures in the field of Latin American political ecology, she understands the occurrence of environmental problems as an expression of a crisis of civilization. Therefore, and this is her central argument, the rationalities, e.g., scientific, instrumental, or economic, that underlie a respective measure, have to be questioned as the epistemological basis of the destruction of life before rushing to implement “solutions” to the environmental problems that arise at any given case. The dominant cosmovision of Western modernity toward nature and life, she says, is based on the assumption that the physical environment can be determined linearly, causally, and unambiguously by independent and free human thought. False dichotomies such as culture-nature, subject-object, body-mind have been developed from this, which complicate the perception of human dependence on nature. Instead, she suggests looking at the environment with remote and alien eyes in order to overcome the dominant Eurocentric perspective.  

While Eschenhagen does not find a satisfactory answer to the question of what is meant by sustainability in the SDGs, her research has focused on alternative concepts, mainly from Latin America. These critically engage with the epistemological basis of the hegemonic discourse of sustainability found in the SDGs, which is perceived as a new form of colonialism. She particularly emphasizes the distinction between the problematized dominant scientific knowledge and other (local) forms of knowledge that often follow a rationality of the environment  (Leff 2004). In doing so, she explicitly relies on indigenous knowledge, for example the frequently cited Sumak Kawsay or Suma Quamaña,i.e., the principle of the Good Life (Buen Vivir) developed from indigenous knowledge of the Quechua and the Aymarafrom the Andean regions of Ecuador and Bolivia  (Kothari et al. 2014). The SDGs, in turn, completely ignore indigenous or even local knowledge, and instead pursue a profoundly economic agenda, she argues, leading to her hypothesis that no significant change is possible until modern epistemological foundations are, themselves, challenged and substantially reinterpreted.

Identifying scientific rationality not as a solution but rather as a cause of environmental crises naturally provoked major discourse in the ensuing discussion with students, doctoral students, and academic lecturers. While some attempts by the audience were made to illustrate the openness of scientific analyses to local knowledge, Eschenhagen repeatedly stressed the generally problematic assumptions of scientific methods. According to her, through its universalistic claim to validity, the scientific system structurally excludes other knowledge that does not result from the same methods. Two further examples of structural exclusion mechanisms of the scientific system are the crucial importance of the English language and the economically focused logic of the most prestigious scientific journals.

According to Eschenhagen, in representation of the global South, contributions from Latin America respond more adequately to a holistic rationality of the environment. With Victor Toledo, for example, Eschenhagen emphasizes the importance of the political ecology perspective, through which it becomes clear that sustainability as a research area is merely a techno-economic expression of what decision-makers understand as sustainability. Instead, she argues, it is necessary to focus on the power relations that constitute social reality, which are completely left out of SDG discourse. While sustainability research is characterized by complex thinking, it lacks in critical thinking. In an attempt to conceptualize the relationship between social processes and nature, Toledo uses the model of social metabolism, which consists of both material and immaterial dimensions. The former deals with the process of the appropriation of natural resources to their disposal. In the second dimension, the immaterial part of society is thought of as the cognitive, symbolic, institutional, legal, or technological framework of the material dimensions (Toledo 2013).  


Eschenhagen’s presentation impressively illustrates the centrality of power relations addressed by postcolonial and political ecological perspectives. However, Eschenhagen’s remarks left the distinction between the epistemological basis of scientific rationality and critical research such as Latin American environmental thinking somewhat unclear. While she attributes the former to the global North, the latter problematizes and deconstructs scientific and economic rationality as the basis of environmental destruction. The remaining impression is of opposition existing between the monolithic epistemologies of the North as the cause and that of the South as the path out of the multiple environmental crises. Yet, within the dominant power relations, there is criticism of the hegemonic positivist epistemology from the global North, just as in the global South, where an understanding of the environment has been established that results in the exploitation of humans and nature on a daily basis.

[1] Epistemology deals with the conditions of justified knowledge.


Kothari A, Demaria F, Acosta A, 2014. Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to sustainable development and the Green Economy. Development, 57 (3-4), 362–375.

Leff E, 2004. Racionalidad ambiental. La reapropiación social de la naturaleza (Primera edición, Segunda reimpresión). Siglo XXI Editores, Madrid (España), xxi, 509 páginas ;

Toledo VM, 2013. El metabolismo social: una nueva teoría socioecológica. Relaciones Estudios de Historia y Sociedad, 34 (136), 41–71.


Rafael Hernández Westpfahl

HCIAS Doctoral Candidate


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