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Taking Action Online
for the environment, social justice and sustainable development

by Adam Rogers / available through these stores

Chapter 1:
Picking Your Passion, Your Purpose, and Your Principles

 

Many of the diseases that plagued the planet in ages past have been mostly eradicated—polio, yellow fever, smallpox and rinderpest (cattle plague) to name a few, and the tide has turned against many others, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, measles, and hepatitis. Most countries are getting along for the most part—if not because they better understand each other, then because of mutual fears of possible retaliatory nuclear annihilation. In most nations, laws against slavery have been enacted, and labor laws enforced to keep kids out of factories and in the schools. Civil rights and human rights are on the books in most countries, and all citizens have, in theory, equal access to justice and jobs. The world thus is a much better place than it was a few hundred years ago.

But most of us know the world beyond Malibu and Manhattan is not so rosy. A few cases in point:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic exposed inequalities between and within countries, impacting people differently depending on their gender, race, economic status, and geography.

  • An estimated 40 million people worldwide are subject to some form of slavery; 25 percent of them children. More than 60 percent of these slaves are in forced labor, mostly in the private sector. Other examples of modern slavery include child soldiers, sex trafficking, and sexual slavery.

  • According to UNICEF, a child under 15 dies somewhere every 15 seconds.

  • The climate is changing in rapid and unpredictable ways, leaving scorched landscapes, barren farms, and widespread destruction from extreme weather events.

  • In my own country, the United States, where we were taught as children to believe in a nation indivisible with “liberty and justice for all,” we are seeing repeated patterns of social injustice and police brutality against a minority that wants nothing more than the promise inherent in the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

Once we become aware of the world around us (being “woke” in contemporary American parlance), it is hard to just sit and do nothing. Until recently, the only avenues open to us were finding a movement to join, taking to the streets in protest and/or getting involved in some form of relief work or civil disobedience—often at great risk and peril to our personal safety. In March 1965, for example, American civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo heeded the call of Martin Luther King and assisted Dr. King’s movement with coordination support and logistics. This mother of five children was later killed in her car by white supremacists after driving fellow activists to an airport.

While there is still a need to take action physically by volunteering at a local refugee center, donating to important causes, contributing your skills wherever they are most needed, or flying your Black Lives Matter flag where everyone can see it, increasingly there also are opportunities to take action online. Some of those opportunities already exist, while others you may have to create. But before you do anything, you will need to pick a cause to get behind—a purpose for your passion.

Most activism centers on something local. People take action in their neighborhoods when they have seen enough and demand change. The American architect R. Buckminster Fuller once told the world (later repeated by Hazel Henderson, John Lennon, and others) to “think globally, act locally.” Now, with the advent of the internet and social media, we can both act globally and locally by supporting global causes and addressing local challenges in our own neighborhoods.

The Sustainable Development Goals

There have been many frameworks over the years for categorizing and cataloging the world’s many challenges. The most recent of these—and the most effective in my view—is Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs take stock of our present, take responsibility for our past, and provide a call-to-action for our future. Aside from providing a structure through which the world’s governments can align policy goals and objectives, the SDGs present a good menu of options when selecting the solution you want to put your passion behind.

To understand how the SDGs came to be, and before we get into an explanation of what they are, let’s back up to January 1961, when the Europeans were pulling out of their many colonies, and the United Nations resolved that the decade of the ‘60s would be the Decade of Development. American President John F. Kennedy launched the Decade at the UN in New York, declaring: “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Unfortunately, very little progress was made in those first ten years, so a Second Development Decade was declared for the 1970s, and in 1972, the historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in Sweden under the leadership of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (who subsequently became the Director-General of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003). It is worth noting that much of what we see in the SDGs originated in Stockholm with the launch of the 26 principles concerning the environment and development.[1]

One of the seminal issues that emerged from the conference is the link between poverty and the environment, an issue that was carried forward into the “Third” Development Decade of the 1980s. In 1990, the General Assembly concluded that its goals for the Third UN Development Decade had not been attained, and thus set new priorities and goals for the Fourth United Nations Development Decade (1991–2000). Coming early in the Fourth Decade was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), a.k.a. The Earth Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This happens to be where I enter the picture, reporting on the Earth Summit for Earth News and then writing a book about it which was published as The Earth Summit: A Planetary Reckoning (with David Suzuki of Canada writing the afterword).

From the Earth Summit came yet another set of documents of great importance, all of which foreshadowed the SDGs. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was concluded and opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro from June 3–14, 1992. The annual climate change “COP” (Conference of the Parties) meetings that happen nearly every year include all countries who have signed on and ratified that document from Rio.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted by all 178 Member States at the Earth Summit, was the first clear, global statement of the links between the fate of humankind and environmental sustainability. The Declaration, a compact set of 27 principles, promoted concepts such the importance of easing human suffering and ending poverty, the importance of the environment for current and future generations, and the need to address inequalities among people and between nations. It also enshrined the two critical economic principles of polluter pays and the precautionary approach. The Declaration introduced principles relating to participation and the importance of specific groups for sustainable development and requested all countries put in place regulations to protect the environment.

Another important agreement to come out of Rio was Agenda 21—a nonbinding action agenda to be executed at local, national, and global levels. My third book on the issue, published by the UNEP, focused on this agreement and was called Taking Action: An Environmental Guide for You and Your Community.

When it was adopted in 1992 at the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 was meant to be a program of action for sustainable development worldwide. Furthermore, as stated in its introduction, Agenda 21 had the ambition of being “a comprehensive blueprint for action to be taken globally, from now into the twenty-first century.” The ambition was high, and so were the stated goals of the Agenda: to improve the living standards of those in need; better manage and protect the ecosystem; and bring about a more prosperous future for all.

The Agenda 21 implementation process set up a review mechanism to ensure regular progress against measured benchmarks. It emphasized the creation of local Agenda 21 agreements through democratic multi-stakeholder processes at the local level to ensure optimal buy-in and support from all sectors of society. As part of this, the UN General Assembly established the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to ensure effective follow-up. From its inception, the CSD has been highly participatory in structure and outlook by engaging in its formal proceedings a wide range of official stakeholders representing both private and public sectors.

Setting and achieving the Goals

And then it was time for another summit. In September 2000, building upon yet another decade of major UN conferences and summits, world leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration. I had joined the UN four years earlier as the head of communications for the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), and I was caught up in the euphoria and promise of this brave new declaration. The excitement in the air was palpable, as 191 countries crafted and adopted the declaration, which committed nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and set out a series of eight time-bound targets—with a deadline of 2015. These new targets became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

What was different this time, compared to earlier expressions of concerns for the plight of the world’s people, was that the MDGs were more like a business plan, with targets, indicators, and timetables. All UN member states (at that time) and at least 22 international organizations committed to achieving these following lofty goals by 2015:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

  2. To achieve universal primary education

  3. To promote gender equality and empower women

  4. To reduce child mortality

  5. To improve maternal health

  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

  7. To ensure environmental sustainability

  8. To develop a global partnership for development

 

When humanity’s final deadline of 2015 arrived for the MDG targets, the 15-year effort was credited with producing the most successful anti-poverty movement in history. A few examples of achievement include:

  • The number of people living in extreme poverty declined by more than half during the 15 years (albeit mostly in China, which had become the world’s factory for everything from Happy Meal toys to iPhones).

  • The proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions had fallen by almost half.

  • The primary school enrolment rate in the developing regions reached 91 percent, and many more girls were enrolled in school as compared to 15 years previously.

  • Only 15,000 children were dying per day in 2015, compared to more than 30,000 deaths daily, before the MDGs.

  • The target of halving the proportion of people who lack access to improved sources of water was also met.

  • New HIV infections were reduced by 40 percent, from 3.5 million cases in 2000 to 2.1 million cases in 2013. In addition, there was a massive increase globally in the number of people living with HIV and receiving anti-retroviral therapy (ART), from 800,000 in 2003 to 13.6 million in 2014. This helped avoid over 7.6 million deaths from AIDS between 1995 and 2013.[2]

 

Taking stock of progress

Following the review of the MDGs, the world again came together to take stock of where we were and where we wanted to be. Although tremendous progress was being made, enormous gaps remained.

As the clock ran out on the MDGs, and governments started taking stock of progress, the UN Development Group convened a Millennium Development Goals Task Force to reach beyond politicians and bureaucrats and connect with the people they represent. What they came up with was an unprecedented global consultation through social media and regional conferences, reaching more than one million people across all countries and from all backgrounds. A special effort was made to reach out to the poor, the marginalized, and others whose voices are not usually heard.

While the results of the MDGs were acknowledged, the consultations revealed the need to learn from and build on them. For example, it is not just the number of children in schools that matter, but what they are able to learn. And increasing women’s participation in national governments is only the first step toward enabling women to have an equal say in decision-making at every level.

There were also calls for a truly transformative agenda to tackle remaining challenges such as inclusive growth and decent jobs, governance, peace and security, freedom from violence, and environmental sustainability. People overall said they wanted a universal agenda to tackle challenges both for people and for the planet. Equality and non-discrimination also stood out as key messages: people demanded justice, participation and dignity.

The results of the survey were given to and considered by governments during negotiations in 2015 for a follow-up to the MDGs. The process culminated at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, with the subsequent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its core of 17 SDGs.

An overview of the SDGs

When the Global Goals were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, they were heralded as “a universal call-to-action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that every person everywhere enjoys peace and prosperity by 2030.”

Although the 17 goals were formulated by governments, everyone, everywhere is needed to achieve them. Each of us has something to contribute—skills, resources, and creativity – our special and unique talent. All that is needed is the passion, the purpose, the principle – and the opportunity to act.

The possibilities for solving these challenges are endless, limited only by our imaginations and creativity. Each person’s unique skillset will bring a different but critically important solution to the many challenges holding humanity back. If you are ready to do your part, I would suggest starting with a review of the SDGs and exploring where they might fit with your personal talents and interests. The following section provides a brief introduction to the framework. For the full list of 169 targets associated with the 17 goals, please see Annex 1.

GOAL 1: No Poverty

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

— Kofi Annan

The good news is we are on the right track in the war against poverty. Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined from 36 percent in 1990 to just 10 percent in 2015. However, that means more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, struggling to meet basic needs like health, education, and access to water and sanitation—to name a few. Most of these people live in rural areas and mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Studies show that some of the main causes of extreme poverty are the systemic barriers that block groups of people from education, labor or just from being represented in their communities. In order for a community or country to work its way out of poverty, all groups must have equal access to opportunities. In some way, all the goals described below are in some way designed to reduce the barriers and increase opportunities for people to rise from poverty.

Deep pockets of poverty persist in even the richest countries, necessitating urgent action everywhere to reach out to the most vulnerable in society and to ensure that no one is being left behind. The targets to be achieved in the first goal include implementing nationally appropriate social protection systems and ensuring that everyone has equal rights to the economic resources they need to improve their livelihoods. This goal also calls for reducing the risks that come with climate-related extreme events (for example, when Hurricane Katrina hit in New Orleans in August 2005).

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic is reversing decades of progress in the fight against global poverty. The World Bank estimates that an additional 88 million to 115 million people fell into extreme poverty in 2020, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021.

GOAL 2: Zero Hunger

“Hunger is an outrage in a world of plenty.”

— António Guterres 

The second goal seeks to ensure that no one ever goes to bed hungry. SDG2 calls for a complete rethink into how we grow, share, and consume our food.  The current system is not working—it is not sustainable, there is way too much waste, and more than 690 million people go to bed on an empty stomach each night.  And the problem is getting worse: since 2014, the number of people affected by hunger as been slowly on the rise.  Due to the economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020.

As pointed out in the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, overcoming hunger and malnutrition in all its forms (including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity) is about more than securing enough food to survive. What people eat – and especially what children eat – must also be nutritious. Yet a staggering 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet. In sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, this is the case for 57 percent of the population – though no region, including North America and Europe, is spared.

Within Goal 2 are several targets agreed to by governments, including the need to ensure that all people—particularly the poor and those in vulnerable situations—are able to get safe and nutritious food. Other targets focus on doubling agricultural productivity and increasing the incomes of small-scale food producers. This goal calls for a full evaluation of agricultural practices to ensure they are more sustainable and resilient to shocks from extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters.

What can you do to contribute and be a part of the solution?  For starters you can act locally by eating less red meat, and reading The No Mammal Manifesto.  You can also volunteer at a local soup kitchen for the homeless, and help them to mobilize support through their social media accounts. You can act globally by finding a good cause, and supporting it through your online activism.

 

GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

The world has made great progress against several leading causes of death and disease. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. Infant and maternal mortality rates have declined. And we’ve turned the tide on HIV. But there is still a lot of work to do: at least 400 million people have no basic healthcare; 15 million are waiting for treatment for HIV/AIDS; and every 2 seconds, someone aged 30 to 70 years dies prematurely from a noncommunicable disease such as chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, or cancer. On average, people in the richest countries live 31 years longer than those in the poorest ones. That alone causes reason for concern and points to an opportunity on which to focus your activism.

What can you do to contribute to and be a part of the solution? First, act locally by taking good care of yourself. Eat well and avoid things that harm your health. If you live in a country without universal health care, join others online and advocate for change. Read through the SDG3 targets in Annex 1 and see if there are any areas where your online skills can make a contribution.

GOAL 4: Quality Education

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

—Malcolm X

Madiba was right – it is through education that solutions to the many challenges we face will be discovered and implemented.  It is education that enables humanity to build a platform of knowledge and then reach from there to discover to heights and reams of potential.

The world is making great progress in achieving universal primary education. But still, 260 million kids are not in school, and many of those who are in the classroom may not be getting the education that can empower them to build strong, sustainable societies when they graduate. This is not a challenge limited just to poor countries. In the United States, more than 1.2 million kids drop out of school each year because the quality of education is so bad it inspires no hope.

What can you do? On the local level, if you have kids, be involved in their education. Know their teachers, go to meetings, volunteer, and elect politicians who care. Find ways to volunteer teach online. If you live in the United States, UPchieve (upchieve.org) is a free, online platform that connects low-income high-school students with live volunteer coaches, any time they need it.

For its part, the United Nations, working through its member countries at the national levels—and from there to your community—has set a few important targets to achieve by the year 2030. These include ensuring that all kids are able to complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education, and that all adults have equal access to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university.

GOAL 5: Gender Equality

"No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens."

—Michelle Obama

Aside from being denied access to the same opportunities as men, women often suffer from physical and psychological abuse at home, on the street, and in the workplace. In at least 49 countries, there are no laws protecting women from these attacks. Based on data from 87 countries, one in five women and girls have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within the last 12 months. During the pandemic, it has become even worse, with cases of intimate partner violence skyrocketing around the world.

SDG 5 seeks to change all this by leveling the playing field and ending all forms of discrimination and violence against all women and girls everywhere. It seeks to put an end to forced marriage and female genital mutilation and empower women through enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology. Of particular importance is the call for women’s active participation in decision-making in political, economic, and public life.

 

What can you do to be a part of the solution? If you are a man, be alert. If you or someone you know is part of the problem, then change and be part of the solution. If you see something online or AWK (away from the keyboard), say or do something. Join groups like #metoo online and help spread the word that enough is enough. Look through the SDG5 targets in the annex for more ideas on what you can do.

GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

“Water is the driving force of all nature.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Water should never be taken for granted. While substantial progress is being made in increasing access to clean drinking water and sanitation, billions of people—mostly in rural areas—are left out. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people do not have a toilet they can use. In fact, worldwide, more people own a mobile phone than have access to a toilet.

At least 80 percent of wastewater goes into waterways without adequate treatment—often entering drinking water systems downstream. Without a clean water source, populations suffer from poor sanitation, disease, and premature death. More than 800,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhea each year, with 88 percent of those deaths caused by drinking dirty water. SDG 6 seeks to change all that by cleaning up our water and improving sanitation.

Without access to clean, safe sources of water nearby it is nearly impossible for communities to have adequate sanitation facilities or practice good hygiene. Conversely, without proper sanitation and hygiene, any safe water will quickly become contaminated and water projects will no longer work to improve health.

Globally, SDG6 seeks to establish clean and potable water as a right and not a privilege. It calls for improving water quality by reducing pollution and eliminating dumping of garbage, sewage, and hazardous chemicals into our waterways. One important way to achieve this goal is to increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and to support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.

You can act locally by appreciating the water you have and not wasting it. Be careful what you throw in the garbage—and avoid chemical fertilizers. If you want to take action in this area to ensure fresh water and sanitation for all, check out what organizations like water.org are doing.

 

GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

“The future is green energy, sustainability, renewable energy.”

— Arnold Schwarzenegger

The seventh of 17 SDGs looks at getting electricity to the one in seven people on this planet who have no light at night. It also seeks to ensure that those who have reliable energy get it from renewable and clean sources so as not to pollute the air and worsen climate change challenges. SDG 7 calls for affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy for all by the year 2030. That gives us just ten more years to ensure that every child in the world can turn on that light at night, so they can do their homework as part of SDG 4.

While a billion or more people live by candlelight, energy elsewhere just pours out into the sky. We have all seen images of the earth at night, with huge swaths of land lit up until morning and visible far into space. Each year, more and more of the earth gets covered in light, providing security and opportunity, but at what cost? In 2016, the sum total energy use around the world came from 80 percent fossil fuels, 10 percent biofuels, 5 percent nuclear, and just five renewable (mostly hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal). Something must be done soon to shift those numbers around before we either run out or run over the earth’s carrying capacity to deal with pollution and carbon buildup in the atmosphere. The production of energy is responsible for around 60 percent of greenhouse gases, the main contributor to climate change.

This goal recognizes that we have yet to tap into the enormous potential of renewable energy sources, and that our dependance on fossil fuels is really keeping us in the age of dinosaurs. It calls for more international cooperation and research into renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology. However, a caveat: as massive profits flow from the status quo and into the coffers of vested interests, any move to change the game will no doubt be met with strong resistance.

You can take action locally by turning off the lights when your leave the room and encouraging other through your online activism to do the same. Switch to clean energy if you have a choice, and let others in your community know about their options and the consequences of those options. If you have a car, consider taking public transportation whenever possible—and encourage others to do the same.

 

GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

“Decent work is at the heart of the search for dignity for the individual, stability for the family and peace in the community.”

— Juan Somavia

Over the past 25 years, the number of workers living in extreme poverty was declining dramatically until the onset of the 2020 pandemic. In developing countries, the middle class made up more than 34 percent of total employment, a number that has almost tripled between 1991 and 2015.

The vision of SDG 8 is to promote sustainable economic growth—that is, economic growth that does not steal from future generations just so that we can all party now. SDG 8 calls for full and productive employment and decent work for all—work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace, and social protection for families. More than 700 million people who are lucky enough to have jobs are unlucky in that they live in extreme or moderate poverty, earning less than US$3.20 per day. I think we can agree that is not very decent.

This goal calls for full and productive employment for everyone, without exception, including for young people and persons with disabilities. It calls for an immediate end to modern slavery and human trafficking and for the prohibition and elimination of all forms of child labor, including the use of child soldiers. It wants to see equal pay for work of equal value instead of the current situation which compensates men more than women for the same work—on average 20 percent more. To help level the playing field and bring increased revenue for all workers, the goal envisions higher levels of economic productivity achieved through diversification, technological upgrading, and innovation.

Any activities that encourage entrepreneurship and job creation are key to achieving this goal, as are effective measures to eradicate forced labor, slavery, and human trafficking. What can you do? As an online activist, you can uncover and expose incidents of labor abuse, rally others to your cause, and shame those employers who exploit and abuse their employees. Conversely, bring positive attention to and shine lots of social media light on those companies and organizations who are doing the right thing.

 

GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but building on the new. “

—Socrates

We know that one of the best ways to reduce poverty is to promote good business, especially small- and medium-size enterprises that put people to work in local markets and help the world to achieve Goal 8 regarding decent work. However, outdated and crumbling infrastructure makes that difficult—as does the digital divide that keeps four billion people off the internet. It’s hard to get your goods to market if the roads are bad, the bridges too dangerous to cross, and there’s no internet for connecting with customers. SDG 9 looks at building and maintaining resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation. I like this last one best, because we need new ideas moving forward to address the challenges created by the limitations of the old ideas.

This goal calls for the development of high-quality, reliable, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure. A global response to SDG 9 is needed, similar to what American President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented during the Great Depression in the 1930s. In less than a decade, Roosevelt’s “New Deal” built roads linking markets and producers, people and communities. Bridges connected lands that were once separated, and airports made people airborne. Power lines brought light to homes that hitherto lived by candlelight. And while all this was achieved, the unemployed were once again employed—doing decent work and earning decent wages.

This goal also calls for upgrading infrastructure and retrofitting industries to make them more sustainable, with increased resource-use efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes. In other words, what is needed is a global Green New Deal that combines Roosevelt's economic approach with modern ideas such as renewable energy and resource efficiency, in a way that stimulates the economy, creates jobs, improves infrastructure, and advances new technology.

 

GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

—Adam Smith

It is almost a cliché to point out that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer—but this critically dangerous trend is the tip of an iceberg that could sink our Titanic civilization. While there may always be rich and poor, is it necessary for the richest 1 percent to own 2/3 of the world’s wealth? And worse, for them to pay low or no taxes—public money needed to improve infrastructure, support education, and develop a country's full potential? These concerns, along with unequal access to justice, are part of what sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

SDG 10 seeks to reduce all inequalities, which are often based on age, gender, disability, race, religion, or other status that people are born into. Addressing this problem is not communism, as some people think—it is just common sense. To hit this challenge head-on, governments agreed through the SDGs to progressively achieve and sustain income growth for the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the national average, and to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”

This goal also calls for the complete elimination of discriminatory laws, policies, and practices that skew economic advantage toward certain segments of the population, while blocking opportunities for others. It calls for continued financial support to be directed toward less advantaged countries and communities, leveling the playing fields and giving everyone a chance at success. As big banks are often part of the problem, achieving this goal will require improving the regulation and monitoring of financial markets and institutions. Lastly, as migration brings proven economic benefits to both host and origin countries, SDG 10 calls for supporting safe migration and mobility for people seeking opportunities beyond their home turf.

GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

“We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.”

—John F. Kennedy

Seventy years ago, the population of this planet we call home was just over two billion people, 30 percent of whom lived in cities. Now, we are approaching eight billion and more than half are in cities—urban areas currently growing by three million people a week. Ideally, cities are nice places to live, filled with cultural expression, opportunities for education, and jobs. In most cases, however, that is just not the case. Worldwide, close to a billion people live in overcrowded slums with inadequate or often nonexistent water and sanitation services, inadequate shelter, and limited or no access to healthcare and education.

Climate change is exacerbating the urbanization challenge. If things go unchecked, the World Bank estimates that natural disasters caused by the rapidly changing climate may cost cities $314 billion each year and push 77 million more urban residents into poverty.

SDG 11 calls for making cities safe, smart, and sustainable by improving urban planning to serve rather than smother. It seeks to put a solid roof over everyone’s head through safe and affordable housing in communities linked by safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems. It envisions lots of green and public spaces, available in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities. The picture SDG 11 paints appears utopian but is achievable with the right investments and urban policies.

This goal is definitely one that calls for thinking globally and acting locally. Look around your neighborhood to see what you can do to keep it clean. Start or join a community garden and use a listserv or WhatsApp group to organize people. Or volunteer at a public school and teach kids how to engage properly through social media. The possibilities for you to engage and contribute to the sustainability of your own neighborhood are limited only by your imagination.

GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

“Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.”

—E. F. Schumacher

This goal basically boils down to a story of haves and have-nots. Those who have, have and waste too much, while those who have not, well—have not—have not much clothing, have not hope, and often have not much to eat, despite the fact that a billion tons of food is thrown away each year. We live in a world where two billion people are overweight, while another two billion go hungry.

To confront this reality, SDG 12 calls for rethinking the way we produce and the way we consume. How can you contribute to this goal? Well, in a word: de-consume. Think carefully before you buy something. The next time you look at a menu or go shopping, be responsible and ask yourself, “do I REALLY need this?” Through your social media activism, convince others to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Achieving sustained and sustainable economic growth requires that we urgently reduce our ecological footprint by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources. Agriculture, for example, is the biggest user of water worldwide, and irrigation now claims close to 70 percent of all freshwater for human use. Most of this is directed toward the livestock industry, making beef consumption one of the most irresponsible examples of production and consumption in practice today. The good news afforded by this shocking realization is that you can make an enormous contribution to saving the world by simply rethinking your menu—and convincing others to do the same.

GOAL 13: Climate Action

“Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse.”

— Bishop Desmond Tutu

More than 97 percent of serious climate scientists agree that the rapidly changing climate is causing extreme and unpredictable weather events and causing millions of people to suffer. They also agree that the intensity and unpredictable nature of this pattern is due to human interference in normal cycles. Sure, there have been natural glacial cycles on Earth since the beginning of time, but the amount of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has thrown a monkey wrench at Mother Nature.

The news is filled with stories of extreme weather events impacting communities around the world, from Mexico to Madagascar. No country is spared the effects of climate change, although the severity seems to be hitting hardest those least responsible for its causes. Sea levels have risen by about 20 cm (8 inches) since 1880 and are projected to rise another 30–122 cm (1 to 4 feet) in the next 80 years.

According to the UNDP, the annual average economic losses from climate-related disasters are now in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Furthermore, the human impact of these disasters is staggering, with 1.3 million people killed between 1998 and 2017, and 4.4 billion injured.

Some naysayers claim combating climate change will undermine the economy and economic growth. They could not be more wrong or more misinformed. Conservative estimates project at least US$26 trillion in economic benefits by 2030 if bold action is taken immediately. The energy sector alone will create around 18 million more jobs by 2030 if it upgrades and expands into renewable technologies and invests more in research and development.

What can you do? If you don’t believe in climate change, wake up and smell the smoke (if you live in California or in Brazil, it may be the smoke that wakes you up). Reduce your carbon footprint—be a part of the solution. If you live in a democracy, pressure your elected leaders to take action and be innovative by supporting new tech that carries us forward—creating new opportunities that help grow our economies instead of dinosaur tech, like coal and oil, that is holding us back in the dark ages. Familiarize yourself with the facts, and help the world achieve SDG 11 by spreading the word.

GOAL 14: Life Below Water

"Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans."

— Jacques Yves Cousteau

When you see Earth from space, it looks like a beautiful blue pearl because three-quarters of our home is covered in water. More than three billion people depend on the ocean for their primary source of protein. Oceans also absorb about 30 percent of carbon dioxide, buffering the impacts of global warming. Most importantly, oceans are home to more than 200 identified species, but there may be millions more yet to be discovered.

But if oceans are so magnificent and beautiful, why do so many people treat them like a toilet? Massive islands of garbage bigger than Texas are floating around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Cruise ships filled with happy holidaymakers dump a billion gallons of sewage into the ocean every year. At current rates of decline we will see no more seafood by the year 2048.

SDG 14 is another goal where you can easily take individual action to make a difference. There are many opportunities to get involved in protecting our oceans. Surfrider Miami is an organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. They also have a good command of using social media to connect with supporters and to raise awareness of critical issues in southern Florida. Check them out on Instagram.

Another organization, VICE Impact, helped organize a user-generated social media competition about marine litter and oceans, enabling average beachgoers to get involved in a global issue. All they had to do was tag @UNEP and use the hashtag #CleanSeasPhoto for their image and messaging to be recognized by the United Nations via shout out on Twitter and Instagram.

Through this goal, governments worldwide have committed to take action to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution from all sources and to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems. It is doubtful, however, that much progress will be made without active citizen participation and pressure, both online and on the beach.

GOAL 15: Life on Land

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

—William Shakespeare

Life on land includes us humans and everything within the web of life on which we and the web depend. This goal calls for saving mountain ecosystems, ending deforestation, restoring degraded land, and taking urgent actions to end the poaching of protected animals. It also calls for more enlightened and logical management of the finite resources on which we all depend. Each year, 13 million hectares of forest are lost. In Brazil alone, nearly 10,000 square kilometers of the Amazon Rainforest were destroyed in 2019—30 percent more than the year before. Why? So that the world can eat hamburgers. Cows are Brazil’s biggest export, and most of them are shipped to China. We need to rethink what we eat, before a tragedy of the global commons becomes a consequence of our tragic lack of common sense.

There are plenty of ways you can support efforts to achieve this goal. Governments, for their part, have committed to conserving, restoring, and promoting that all forests be used sustainably, so their presence can be ensured for future generations. This goal also seeks to ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems and to enhance their capacity for providing benefits that are essential for sustainable development. It calls for urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and to integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning.

If you choose to embrace SDG 15 as your own, look to others for inspiration. One of the best organizations I have seen to make good use of social media to promote life on land is World Wildlife Fund. Whether by sharing a Facebook post, signing up for an e-action (a WWF petition) or joining Earth Hour, WWF is focused on making it as easy and intuitive as possible for people to get involved. In terms of specific areas of focus, WWF works across the major social media channels of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

GOAL 16: Peace and Justice and Strong Institutions

If you want peace, work for justice.

—Pope Paul VI

This goal seeks to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. It includes three crucial targets: to end all forms of violence; to end illicit arms flows; and to combat all forms of organized crime. For the 1.2 billion people who live in fragile and conflict-affected areas, these targets are long overdue. For this goal to be reached, we all need to get on board with the solutions and embrace peace in all that we do.

As of today, 70 million people have been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Forty-nine countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence. A billion people are legally invisible because they are refugees who cannot prove who they are.

Goal 16 calls for the immediate end of the abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against children. The governments who signed onto this goal (that would be all of them) also agreed to significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organized crime. They also agreed to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms” and to “ensure equal access to justice for all.”

I cannot imagine many of these lofty goals being achieved without the wise, expeditious, and creative use of social media. As communication technology continues to evolve mobile devices become dominant platforms for accessing information, social media is an important tool for promoting peace, combating corruption, and ensuring elected officials stay honest and transparent. A good example is I Paid a Bribe, an Indian website that collects and publishes anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid, and bribes that were expected but not forthcoming. Another good example is RosPil, a Russian website that provides volunteers with a platform to dissect Russian government contracts and tenders for signs of corruption.

GOAL 17: Partnerships to Achieve the Goal

“United we stand, divided we fall”

—Aesop

This last (but not least) SDG advocates for increased global partnerships and cooperation to achieve the previous 16 goals. This include a call for more development assistance where richer nations support the public budgets of developing countries—currently at the tune of $150 billion a year. However, this figure falls short of commitments that have already been made, which require developed countries to commit at least 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income (GNI) to combating poverty and supporting the development of poor countries. So far, only six countries have reached this threshold: Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

While much of the discussion around this goal focuses on partnerships between governments and institutions, the real action must take place at the local level. Five years into the SDGs, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez called on all sectors of society to mobilize for a Decade of Action on three levels: global action, local action, and people action. Studies have shown that many people like you are ready to answer this call. From providing medical care to patients diagnosed with the coronavirus to tackling climate action, from giving technical assistance to monitoring post-disaster reconstruction, an estimated one billion people are already volunteering globally in different ways and with different capacities to achieve the vision of a better world.

In many aspects, this is what the book is about: to provide you with a few tools, ideas, and insights to take action and volunteer in whatever way to fight social injustice, help to end poverty, and to protect the environment so it can sustain future generations. Through the internet and social media, the world is now more interconnected than it has ever been, enabling institutions, organizations, movements, and individuals to partner up and help each other in overcoming their challenges. Your contribution will be as unique as you are, and your impacts will merge with those of others to push the world in the direction it needs to go. It may seem overwhelming at times, and you will probably encounter waves of discouragement as you proceed with your activism. But never give up, and now that what you are doing is important.

The SDGs and COVID-19
 

I do believe that a world formed and informed by the SDGs could avoid future pandemics like the one that has spread like a tsunami across the world in 2020. To give but a few examples: Goal 2 calls for promoting improved nutrition, which reinforces our immune systems and keeps us healthy. We know the virus preys on the sick, so Goal 3 seeks to ensure good health for everyone and provide an infrastructure for developing and quickly transporting vaccines. The single, most powerful weapon against most pandemic-causing viruses is education—Goal 4. We know viruses thrive in unclean environments: Goal 6 calls for improved sanitation everywhere. Goal 9 calls for fostering innovation to solve development challenges and develop effective medicines. Goal 10 calls for reducing inequalities, which leave the most vulnerable in society at a disadvantage and more likely to catch and pass on a virus. And lastly, we know that global challenges can only be solved through global partnership—Goal 17.

The SDGs and the Black Lives Matter movement

In 2013, three Americans, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, created #BlackLivesMatter as both a hashtag and a platform to organize a movement in response to the acquittal of a man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American high-school student. The movement gained momentum the following year after two high-profile deaths of unarmed African American men (Eric Garner and Michael Brown). Since 2014, other high-profile deaths include Tamir Rice (2014), Laquan McDonald (2014), John Crawford (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castile (2016), Terence Crutcher (2016), Antwon Rose (2018), and so many others. Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African American man, was pursued and fatally shot in 2020 while jogging in Georgia. A few months later, when George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protests ignited around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. From London and Lausanne and from Tokyo to Sydney, people took to the streets to express the need for police reform and racial equality.[3]

Although political action is necessary to address the many imbalances in the world, I believe the Black Lives Matter phenomenon is at its core a statement of fact—that ALL lives DO matter. It also, in many ways, is calling for action on the SDGs. For example:

  • SDG 1 seeks to ensure that ALL men and women, regardless of race, have equal rights to economic resources to ensure dignified livelihoods

  • SDG 10 calls for reducing inequalities based on “race and ethnicity” within a country. and

  • SDG 16 calls for “access to justice for all and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

 

In my own online advocacy, I sought to bring attention to these two interrelated and symbiotic movements, the SDGs and Black Lives Matter (BLM). During the summer of 2020, I attached a flagpole to my Harley Davidson with a 5-foot (1.5 meters) BLM flag on the back and then drove up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States from Virginia to Maine. I shared this advocacy on social media using the hashtag #bikers4blm.

Coming next

We will now move on to a discussion of how one might contribute to the above causes through the strategic use of the internet and social media. Time is of the essence, and we are running out of it. As I write these words, we are halfway through 2020 and in the midst of a pandemic, leaving us less than ten years to achieve the goals just discussed.

The following chapter will help you to prepare the groundwork for your online activism by thinking strategically – that is, setting your goals and preparing the steps to achieve them. In the words of Napoleon Hill:  to plan your work so you can then work your plan.

 

[1] Dive deeper: https://bit.ly/3qFe7MB

[2] Dive deeper: https://www.mdgmonitor.org/

[3] Dive deeper: https://cnn.it/3m1hw4Q

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