Closing in on a solution

The week from Sept 23 saw a whirlwind of activities and emotions around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Rightly so, as four years have passed since all 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) adopted the 17 global goals as the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda on Sept 25,2015.The week was filled with conferences, summits, meetings, discussions, reflections, reviews, showcasing of solutions, concerts and festivals related to the SDGs, not to forget reminders and exhortations by a 16-year-old climate activist.

But what has been accomplished so far? How close are we to a solution to the world’s problems? Have we progressed much in tackling hunger and poverty on a global scale? What about the continual destruction of natural environments, burning of forests, pollution of the oceans and water systems, soil degradation, species extinction, biodiversity loss and collapse of whole ecological systems that sustain life on earth? After four years of global activities, have we figured out how to embrace social inclusion and leave no one behind, treat the marginalised, disabled and vulnerable communities with respect and offer them decent access to basic needs, employment, business opportunities and comforts of life? These communities have been underserved for far too long. Has there been a shortage of sustainability solutions and experiments in the last four years? No. Just last week, Sunway was invited by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to present the Sunway Sustainable City model at the Inaugural Global Solutions Forum in New York in conjunction with the UN General Assembly. The solution is about transforming non-arable wasteland into liveable cities and the opportunity for others to emulate. Another achievement, also in New York in the same week, was Malaysia's Mae Ooi and Chelsea Chee being selected to present their food waste composting technology, called MAEKO, at the UN Solutions Summit at the UN headquarters. Theirs was among the top 10 — out of nearly 1,000 — submissions on sustainability solutions submitted worldwide.

Closer to home, in a repurposed building in the Medan Pasar and Jalan Hang Kasturi neighbourhood, the blind and visually impaired community led by Stevens Chan and his Dialogue in the Dark Malaysia team showcased their SDG solutions at the Art Includes 2019 Festival. It was a celebration of diversity and featured talents that were beyond one’s imaginations. Products and services from this community were also sold, and there was a Concert in the Dark. Half a block away, in a similarly old building, another social enterprise, Pit Stop Community Cafe, fed the homeless and poor around 5.30pm in the usual fashion. To the founders, staff and volunteers on this mission, every week is an SDG week.

There is no shortage of sustainability solutions or creative enterprises doing good for society and the environment. With a rapidly increasing number of able entrepreneurs and enterprises driving the social and environmental agenda, that is, entrepreneurs who do not allow themselves to be constrained by resources and who are motivated by a deep sense of purpose, we may be closing in on a general solution to the world’s problems before 2030.

How can we contribute to the momentum if we are not one of these creative entrepreneurs? How can we support their efforts and missions as commonplace individuals? We can if we make the right decisions in our daily consumption activities, when we spend our incomes on goods and services. We can choose the products and services of enterprises that do good to the environment and society over those that do bad, and remain resolute. We need to constantly remind ourselves and influence everyone else to do the same. When making conscientious buying decisions, we can help good businesses scale up their operations and amplify their impacts.

Our national income is about RM1.5 trillion. How individuals, corporations and the government spend this income matters a lot. This is the essence of demand-side economics and the focus on consumer spending. It is about time this spending favours sectors and organisations that favour the well-being of people and the planet. If we do this with determination, sustainability solutions like the ones that we have seen will have a chance to scale up to form the global solution that we have been searching for. We may be close to a solution.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum on 27 March 2019.