Why Today is the Most Important Day of the Last Ten Years

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It’s a cloudy Sunday afternoon that threatens to become uncomfortably cold. I sit in a lounge outside the Honeysuckle Hotel in Newcastle’s tourist precinct. Twenty metres away a one man band is playing Chuck Berry songs to which a group of five fifty-somethings from the Eagle Rock Dance Club are jiving. Beyond them small groups of people gather around a slew of vintage cars that are on display. To my right a couple of teenagers are skateboarding.Pedestrians trickle by at a steady rate. Families, couples, friends, people out on their own. I love it, this kaleidescope of human existence. People enjoying one another and the world in which they live.

I suspect most are completely oblivious to what may well be the most important meeting of the decade taking place today in New York, where world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly will formally endorse the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals that will shape the course of the future.These goals are a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of 8 goals that formed a shared agenda for development between 2000 and 2015. The SDGs build on these by broadening the focus to lean towards a future in which economies grow in an ecologically sustainable way and the fruits of growth are enjoyed by all humankind. The preamble to the goals reads

The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet:

People
We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.

Planet
We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

Prosperity
We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.

Peace
We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.

Partnership
We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focussed in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.

The ambition is lofty, but the hope they carry is not. Realising these ambitions is within our collective capacity. The last 15 years saw incredible reductions in poverty around the world and should the global community continue to invest in health, education, and infrastructure, and open opportunities for the world’s poorest nations to trade there is no reason systemic extreme poverty cannot be eliminated by 2030. We know what it will take to combat environmental degradation and can do it affordably. Never before has humankind experienced freedoms and peace at the level we do today and the possibility of using soft power to enlarge their proportion of humanity who share these freedoms.

The cold, hard political reality is that the aspiration of the goals will outstrip their realisation. Greed, selfishness, and the inability to see those outside our borders as our neighbours will conspire to water down our action toward the goals. Nonetheless, if we take them seriously they will guide us to a much better future than exists now.

The members of the Eagle Rock Dance Club, the owners of the vintage cars, and the skateboarding teenagers around me may remain forever unaware of the significance of this day and might never hear about the SDGs. That is simply the nature of things. It will not be them that determine the role Australia plays in narrowing the gap between the aspiration of the goals and their realisation. That will fall to a smaller group: our political leaders, our people and institutions of influence, and those of us who are inclined toward justice for all those living in poverty.

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