The United Nations 17 sustainable development goals are nominally unprioritized. However, numerically and rhetorically, the list effectively makes development goals more important than the environmental goals. This de facto prioritization, however, is deeply flawed in two respects. First, as early sustainable development theorists acknowledged, the environment is the boundary of, not co-equal to, development, constraining potential progress both economically and socially. The Anthropocene’s rapidly accelerating deterioration of the global ecological and physical processes that make human development possible will ultimately constrain development options and potential. Second, human priorities will also change dramatically as adaptation to climate change — the most visible impact of the Anthropocene — becomes a pressing and unavoidable necessity. Development will become secondary to survival for vast expanses of the human global population, who will demote environmental goals where health and security are at stake. Investing in the long-term resilience of our changing environment, in the resilience of humanity’s response to that changing environment, and in the harmonization of these two new sets of goals, therefore, are the necessary first steps to ensuring that the other sustainable development goals have any prayer of becoming achievable. The Anthropocene calls the entire sustainable development project into existential doubt — or at least puts it into hibernation until these new higher priorities are satisfied — a fact that the purveyors of sustainable development goals would do well to acknowledge.
Craig, R.K., Ruhl, J.B., New Realities Require New Priorities: Rethinking Sustainable Development Goals in the Anthropocene, (Jessica Owley & Keith Hirokawa, eds.), Environmental Law Beyond 2020, Forthcoming