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In my opinion

When good intentions are not enough: how sustainable development goals at universities can perpetuate the issues they’re aimed to address

Just because a technology or policy is ‘green’ does not make it immune from reproducing harmful colonial and capitalist relations.


Sustainability is a buzzword on many Canadian university campuses these days, and for good reason: we are facing unprecedented ecological challenges on a global scale. Specific institutional commitments vary, but as recently reported in this publication, several universities have committed to supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has been done by integrating the SDGs into events, research funding, coursework, fellowships and strategic plans.

Universities’ embrace of the SDGs can be understood partly as an effort to ensure that they are fulfilling their role as producers of socially relevant knowledge, and preparing graduates to address the challenges of our time. However, universities are also charged with protecting spaces for social critique, and our graduates need to be prepared to engage with diverse and dissenting viewpoints. Thus, while the overall direction toward allocating more attention and resources to addressing climate change and related challenges is a positive one, there is also a need for ongoing reflexive and rigorous engagements with multiple perspectives about the SDGs and related initiatives. This includes making space for perspectives from students, staff, faculty and community partners that are critical of the SDGs and of how universities seek to achieve them; and/or that propose alternative visions of sustainability, development, prosperity, education, and global citizenship. It is also important to hear Indigenous voices in particular in their efforts to reframe laws and policies, including the SDGs, by centering the rights of nature.

Many decolonial, post-colonial, post-development, Indigenous, and Global South scholars have problematized mainstream responses to climate change, including sustainable development itself. They suggest, for example, that sustainable development does not represent a significant departure from previous iterations of development rooted in capitalist- and Euro-centric paradigms of change; and fails to consider that centuries of economic growth, disproportionately benefitting the West, have largely led to contemporary social and ecological challenges. These scholars argue that the uncritical adoption and implementation of efforts like the SDGs risks obscuring the role of historical and ongoing colonial dynamics in creating the problems that the goals propose to address.

Sustainable development efforts seek to balance exponential economic growth with ecological sustainability. Growth and sustainability are presumed to be reconcilable based on a questionable promise that increased energy efficiency and technological innovations will decouple growth from environmental degradation. Beyond the question of whether these innovations will emerge fast enough to avoid further climate catastrophes, reducing sustainability to a set of technological problems renders the ethical and political dimensions of climate change as well as responses to it, invisible. If we fail to consider these dimensions, we risk reproducing neo-colonial patterns that are common in mainstream efforts to address global challenges, including: 1) unequal, paternalistic, and extractive relationships between dominant and marginalized communities; 2) simplistic solutions to complex problems; and 3) ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility and change.

Read also: Embracing development, sustainably

As Indigenous scholars like Kyle Whyte have pointed out, just because a technology or policy is “green” does not make it immune from reproducing harmful colonial and capitalist relations. For example, carbon trading programs like UN REDD (which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) are framed as socially accountable responses to climate change. However, as one of my research collaborators Chief Ninawa Huni Kui has argued, in many cases REDD has further empowered governments to alienate Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories and livelihoods, while exposing those who critique REDD practices to vigilante and state-sanctioned violence, and allowing multinational corporations to continue producing high carbon emissions. In other words, some efforts that purport to address climate change and ensure sustainability ultimately result in the reproduction of business as usual, with a green coat of paint.

Universities can only build long-term relationships with international and Indigenous partners based on trust, respect, reciprocity, consent, and accountability if we ensure their concerns about the potentially negative impacts of the SDGs, REDD, and other local and global mainstream climate change initiatives are taken seriously, rather than tokenistically engaged. How can we meet our stated commitments to serve the global public good and grapple with the enormity of the challenges we face if we seek only celebratory, feel-good narratives about sustainability, and fail to identify and learn from the failures, complexities, contradictions, and tensions that inevitably arise in efforts to mobilize social and global change on an interconnected and highly unequal planet?

In response to these complex dynamics, universities should commit to pluralize and democratize their approaches to sustainability and development by ensuring that critical and alternative perspectives are not only welcomed but actually inform and shape institutional policies and practices. This includes making space for critiques of the role of universities themselves in contributing to the creation of climate change and social inequalities. It also means making space for conversations that are inconvenient and uncomfortable, but that address important ethical and political concerns.

Ultimately, this commitment can help protect the university’s role as a critic and conscience of society, and encourage the ethical production, translation and integration of multiple knowledges that could address climate change and other pressing challenges. Such an approach can also help ensure that we are preparing graduates with the capacities they will need in order to address uneven power relations, navigate plural perspectives, collaborate with diverse communities, and take responsibility for their role as both part of systemic problems and part of the solutions that can emerge if we work collaboratively toward imagining different ways of living together on a finite planet.

Sharon Stein is an assistant professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia.

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  1. Jacira W. Rodrigues / May 6, 2021 at 20:12

    Dear Sharon,

    Thank you for such thought providing article.
    I am from a developing country with years of university experience in developed countries. During several years I have noticed this practice from wealthy universities to implement projects which could ‘save’ the poorest in challenging situations in far away countries. Quite often, these well intentioned institutions would leave once their project funds have ran out and plenty of publicity photos have been taken. How much their help was truly impactful to local communities? Have they taken the time to listing to the priorities from local communities or were they significantly eager to provide a ‘ready-to-use’ solution for a problem that they think it is priority? What is exactly the role of universities when ‘social engagement’ is a topic on the rise?
    Best wishes,

  2. Karen Beazley / May 12, 2021 at 08:32

    Just a quick response from a full professor at Dalhousie University to applaud this perspective and confirm that it is held up on the east coast, too. Universities need to support and make space for critical analyses of the SDGs, too. The SDGs retain the fundamental, underlying problems of colonial, capitalist and anthropocentric worldview and systems. ‘Yes’ to embracing Indigenous Rights, governance systems and centering of the rights of nature. Nothing less than transformational change in these underlying systems will get us through the biodiversity, climate and humanitarian crises we face.

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