Towards a sustainable society

Can we see the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN) as a modern way of implementing the message of the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse? This blog explains why this idea is not as farfetched as it may seem. 

The 17 SDGs of the United Nations

Since 2015, the world knowns the SDGs of the UN aiming at a more sustainable global society. The 17 SDGs have been split into 169 sub-targets and it has been agreed to report periodically progress of each nation to the UN. It will make visible to the eyes of the world if commitments to achieving these goals are met or not, although there are no penalties. The biggest gain is that not only governments but also many representatives of the business community want to commit to the SDGs with which these goals can become a force for positive change. Partly for this reason, the SDGs can be seen as an important global step forward.

How did we arrive at the SDGs?

The beginning of the process that led to the creation of the SDGs goes back to the early 1970s (K. Zoeteman, J. Tavenier, ‘A short history of sustainable development’, in: Ed. K. Zoeteman, Sustainable Development Drivers, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK, Northampton USA, (2012), pp. 14-54). At that time the world was concerned with two major issues: combating global poverty and tackling the depletion of resources and  reducing serious environmental pollution. The movement to combat poverty with Official Development Assistance (ODA) was a follow-up to the success of US Marshall aid applied in devastated Europe after the World War II. And the environmental movement became a global factor at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. Driving forces behind the Stockholm Conference included the World Council of Churches and the eco-justice movement and related idealists such as Barbara Ward, René Dubois, Rosemary Redford Ruether, Paul Tillich and Robert Strivers. The visions of Albert Schweitzer, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the book ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson (1962) also played an important role. Not unimportant was the fact that also the report ‘Limits to Growth’ by Dennis and Donella Meadows, which was compiled for the Club of Rome, was published almost simultaneously with the Stockholm conference. This report was a driving force for further developments after the Stockholm conference. As a result, it was recognized for the first time that the problems of the environment and the depletion of resources were seen as linked to the issue of poverty reduction.

Sustainable development aims to bridge the tension between environment and economy/development by seeing them as two sides of the same coin. But the lobby for development cooperation has long been suspicious of this message, due to their believe that pollution abatement would hamper economic growth. The fact that environment and economy must go hand in hand was however also emphasized in 1987 in the famous report ‘Our Common Future’ by the UN Brundtland Commission. The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development by the first Earth Summit, as well as Agenda 21 with actions for the approaching 21st century, were based on this Brundtland report. Part of this package is the Climate Convention. Important other initiatives that emerged from this Earth Summit were the Earth Charter that was formally launched in 2000 in the Peace Palace in The Hague as a global moral compass, and the World Council on Sustainable Development in Geneva, in which leaders of large multinational corporations united to take concrete measures. Overall, it took almost thirty years till a broad interpretation of sustainable development, including environmental protection, economic development and social resilience, was operationalized in the UN SDGs.

The results achieved so far

Has any progress been made after half a century of talking and negotiating? Smog problems in big cities have been greatly reduced in the rich West. Here people often have access to safe drinking water and good sewage treatment. But worldwide, according to the WHO and UNICEF, 30% of the population is still deprived of these facilities. Clear symptoms of uncontrolled environmental problems are the climate problem and the accumulation of plastic in the oceans. We know relatively much about the climate. Global emissions of greenhouse gases, increased by 65% from 22,700 megatons in 1990 to 37,070 in 2017 (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2018). There is also a dramatic extinction of plant and animal species. According to the World Wildlife Fund, since 1970 we have lost 60% of all vertebrate species in nature. That is more than half of all birds, mammals, reptiles and fish in half a century. In that time our population doubled from 3.7 to 7.7 billion. We can see that there have been local improvements for affluent parts of the population, but new, mostly global problems have taken their place.

In the period 1990-2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased significantly, from 1.9 billion to 0.7 billion. This is a nice change that is mainly due to Asia, but does not occur in Africa. Life expectancy has also increased worldwide since 1980, and still depends on the level of prosperity. Such indicators for the SDGs show a clear improvement in the global physical fate of human beings in recent decades.

Since 2010, a new factor is that the financial sector also has started to look at its contribution to the SDGs. What began as the issue of ‘green bonds’ by the World Bank in order to finance its approach to climate change and to annually report the effects of the loans, has now led to similar financial products in the broader field of sustainability. A new market is breaking new ground. In the first quarter of 2019 alone, USD 50 billion worth of new green bonds were issued, 42% more than the year before ( Through the Green Bond Principles, for example, and the resulting reporting obligations, this flow of money has a significant impact on those who receive loans and on the financial institutions themselves. The impact of these developments on society is expected to be significant. But the question is whether it will be more than a lot of red tape. It is on the outside and not yet on the inside of what sets people in motion.

Where do we find the power to act?

Despite the good intentions and agreements between government leaders, the realization of the SDGs is a laborious process. Many agreements apply at the national level, but governments are not often prepared to use substantial amounts of money for more sustainability. On a smaller scale, municipalities and citizens will have to make that happen, not to forget the role of businesses. The government, especially in the Netherlands, hardly steers in the area of SDGs. The average citizen will not have heard of the concept of SDGs. It is the subject of a small group of motivated citizens and entrepreneurs. Sustainability policy has in certain economic circles a bad reputation because environmental rules are perceived as unrealistic strict, for example in agriculture. There is one recent exception, and that is climate policy. Today’s young people are worried about this and are worldwide demonstrating on the streets. Is there a tipping point in public opinion?

With hindsight, in the last decades of the past century there was a special constellation of forces that made it possible for the first ‘Earth summit’ of government leaders to actually take place in 1992. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the attitude of the heads of government in power, the change in the thinking of major industrialists in the West and in Asia, all contributed to the breakthrough at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Summit. The leaders were a moral vanguard in a way that has not been matched to date. If the Covid-19 crisis of 2020 can generate a similar or even bigger leadership action to settling global matters for the best is uncertain. First reaction of many nations is to focus on national urgencies.  

In this sense, the achievement of the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, after many previous failures, and the agreement on the SDGs in New York, also in 2015, can be seen as miracles, to which Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudatio Si’ of 2015 may also have contributed (Marc Leijendekker and papal envoy Peter Turkson, NRC, 9 November 2019, p.11). These agreements would not have been reached five years later. Under the leadership of the United States it is, in the year 2020, every man for himself, with China and Russia filling the gaps that have been left by the withdrawal of the United States from the rest of the world since especially 2018. There is no world government and the bodies approaching such a function, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Court of Justice, are being disproved by the US.

It must now be acknowledged that the steps forward in taking responsibility for the whole have come about after previous major catastrophes. The whole of today’s international system of co-operation resulted from the ruins of the World War II. The deep crisis of 2008 was necessary to contain some of the excesses in the financial sector. The Covid-19 virus crisis of 2020 is taking place, as said, in an atmosphere of national isolationism. International leadership by governments will only develop if it can no longer be avoided. And whether things can no longer be done differently is often measured by the extent of the indignation among the population.

All kinds of forces are promoting that the necessary leadership develops outside the government rather than within. Examples of such trends include influences of globalization that strengthen companies and NGOs and weaken governments, the social media that erode governments’ previous monopoly position in information provision, and the differences in power between democratically elected political leaders and CEOs of ever larger global corporations. Examples of ‘enlightened’ leadership among leaders of large corporations were Aurelio Peccei (Fiat), Ryuzaburo Kaku (Canon), Maurice Strong (Power Corporation Canada), Stephen Schmidheiny (Eternit) and Paul Polman (Unilever) (Kees Zoeteman, ‘What is behind the leadership shift in sustainable development from politicians to CEOs?’, Environmental Development, 8, (2013), pp. 113-130).

This short sketch makes it clear that international leadership is increasingly a matter of the personal motivation of actors in governments, companies, NGOs and of individual citizens, and the extent to which they are able to convert their inner motives into common action.  

The path of reversal

Whether or not the ideal of a sustainable society is realized depends on people’s individual choices, that much is clear. The inner motivation to take the other and the Earth into account, is the start of any sustainable society. And that inner motive is difficult for a government to achieve because it cannot be decreed from above. It is precisely in this area that the two-thousand-year-old Apocalypse, if we learn to read it, can give us more guidance. After all, the Apocalypse looks at man in a very different way than is usual in society nowadays, in an inner way instead of an outer way.  The Apocalypse follows a different path than we are used to. As a toddler we are still close to the spiritual world and the parents around us form a protective shell from which we gradually crawl into the world. First there is the classroom at school, then we visit the families of our friends, and so the circle of our outside world grows ever larger. Maybe we are formed from a religious perspective, we learn about the world at school, during holidays, we do an internship, we get our first job, we learn a trade, we get in touch with business, science and art.

And in all this, we are guided by social media with unprecedented technological possibilities and dangers, in short with good and evil in endless refinement. Much earlier than in previous generations and out of the sight of educators, events and facts, real or imaginary, can penetrate the world of our children’s souls and exert influence. Because the child is fascinated, there is a market for merchandise to match, and parents buy off their guilt of not investing enough quality time in their children by giving them state-of-the-art devices with accompanying games and reward systems that keep their attention captive. Even as adults, we are in the grip of a hunger for news and opinions, and do not allow ourselves to reflect, let alone meditate and search for insights that can be found outside the social media.

The outer world of material fears and pleasures has outstripped the inner world of the spirit. Less than a century ago that world of the spirit was still commonplace to Western man. Now many of us feel fortunate to have been freed from that narrow-mindedness.  Of course, the attraction of material pleasures is not new, but centuries, yes millennia, old. The Apocalypse already calls on the reader to ‘turn around’ and take the path to the spirit. But the attraction of material possessions and pleasures is stronger than ever and especially for the children of our time there seems to be no possibility of escaping it.    

After all, it is not easy for those who want to ‘turn around’. He or she has to be able to detach himself or herself from his or her group, whatever it may be, and to go his or her own lonely path that eventually leads to coming into contact with an inner world and what is called the inner teacher. This teacher is there from the beginning, but we do not find him. We develop the opinion that there is no inner teacher and no spiritual world, because we have never experienced it. It is beyond the comprehension of those without inner experiences that this experience is the case because they aren’t open for it. In the Apocalypse this inner voice, this inner teacher, is visible right from the beginning, after John hears a great voice and turns around to see the Son of man.

From this point we start to discern between the forces of light and darkness which manifest themselves around us and within our soul. This is one of the great lessons of the Apocalypse: gain insight into the reality of the forces that work in our souls and then learn to direct them from our self-consciousness. Gaining control means that we think, feel and want to purify ourselves from ego-orientation to service to the elevation of the greater whole that is formed by humanity and Earth. Only in this way we can make progress on the road to a sustainable society in which we see the world around us as ourselves.

How are we tempted to betray our commitment to sustainable development?

Now that we have defined sustainable development as a society in which each individual human being chooses for the well-being of humanity and the Earth on the basis of his or her own insight, love and willpower, we can also identify which inspirations and developments keep us from doing so. And then we inevitably arrive at the three counterforces that the Apocalypse describes as: the false prophet, the beast with the seven heads and ten horns rising from the sea, and the beast with the two horns rising from the earth. An impressive image of this appears in text fragment 35 (Revelation 12:18-13:18).

Ottheinrich-Bibel, 1530-1532, Beast with seven heads arising from the sea and beast with two horns coming up from the earth (Rev. 12:18-13:18)

These three counterforces work in each of us, and emerge in all sectors of society: education, health care, science, art, business, communication and even religion, in short, wherever people are engaged. In each of these areas of society, the workings of the three forces can be identified by examining what is being developed and suppressed spiritually in human beings. We are confronted respectively with the world of illusion, suppression and finally annihilation of the self. To see this, we must learn to look beyond the promises with which techniques and services are marketed. After all, spiritually the influences are often opposite to what is intended or propagated on a physical level.

In a general sense we can observe that physical techniques imitate what already exists spiritually, but for which the human being has to make an inner effort to develop the inner qualities which are in a materialistic way offered by techniques. A few examples may clarify this. 

  • Clairvoyance. By purifying our souls we transcend the priority we tend to give to our direct self-interest. And with this transcendence of the ego, we form a new inner quality which in Hinduism is called the Manas and which symbolizes the Apocalypse by the wearing of a white robe. It is not so difficult to distinguish in our behavior and that of organizations the steps leading to transcending our self-interest in the service of the higher goals. We can find five ‘sustainability attitudes’ that increasingly realize the transcendence of self-interest. These attitudes can be explored for individuals, companies, and countries, using criteria tailored to them. The fact that these attitudes have a long history can be seen from what, for example, Rudolf Steiner and Lao Tse have said in this respect, as summarized in the figure below.

Figure 1 Examples of descriptions of the five sustainability attitudes

In this figure, five sustainability attitudes are typified, starting with pure egoism, and then going from authoritarian morality or group codes to smartness morality or the smartness of the market vendor who gives something to bind customers. On the fourth level we find the sustainability attitude which voluntarily takes into account the interests of others concerned. On the fifth level, stakeholders are open to the best possible common solution that is obtained intuitively. When acting from the fourth and even more the fifth level, we are also approaching the inner conditions for developing the clairvoyance capacity built up in every human being. This clairvoyance is the result of having developed the inner qualities of controlling one’s own ego and lovingly serving the greater whole.

Technical forms of communication do not require the mentioned inner qualities. The technique has alternative ways with pseudo clairvoyance on offer. Without all the inner conditions for clairvoyance, we can physically ‘see at a distance’ with the film, our television, our smart phone, etc. With our mobile phone or iPad, we can comfortably communicate with a caller from a distance, but also others can unintentionally watch and record and analyze data about our behavior and anticipate this with their provision of information to us. Broadcasters on the internet can also realize amoral goals, such as distributing child pornography, etc., without revealing their own identity. For example, the ‘false prophet’ (Diabolos, Lucifer), catching man in illusions, and the ‘beast with seven heads’ (Mephistopheles, Apollyon, Ahriman), chaining  man to materialistic desires,  benefit from the technical solutions to which we can become addicted. The dilemma here is whether we use the machine or the machine uses us. ‘Big brother is watching you’ is no longer science fiction.

  • The Akashic Chronicle. Another example is striving to translate spiritual aspects into material ones, for example, by wanting to take human memories out of one’s head and store them in the cloud. After all, then the individual consciousness would continue to exist beyond death. In this vision man is no more than the brain. Here we see an attempt to technically mimic the akashic chronicle where all the memories from our lives are recorded in the ether world.
  • Eternal life. Another popular example is the group of studies aimed at extending the life span of humans. If nothing exists outside of material life, the conclusion must be that the longer we live, the better. A series of measures works in this direction, such as preventing signs of ageing, replacing worn out parts with prostheses or organs of others, regenerating tissues with stem cells, suggesting youthfulness with cosmetic surgery, freezing bodies in anticipation of later new health techniques, and so on. All this falls under the heading of striving for eternal life. Such eternal life on earth, should replace the eternal life in the spiritual world in the capacity of a purified soul ascended to the divine consciousness. It is a fine example of the falsity of the prophecy that is always preached: technology ultimately provides eternal material life; but it stands in the way of spiritual eternal life. The Apocalypse shows in fragment 27 (Rev. 9:1-12) that there may come a moment when we, as a human being, long for death and cannot find it. In that situation, the gift of material eternal life is turned into its opposite. Apollyon/Ahriman holds man in his grip in that situation and does not let him go to the realm of the spirit. Dying of the body has a different meaning in the greater whole of creation than the end of existence, according to the Apocalypse. It is a blessing of the gods to help us continue our spiritual evolution.

In addition to the actions of Lucifer and Ahriman, who oppose the principles of creation, birth, death and resurrection, there is an emerging third counter-force, which the Apocalypse calls the beast with the two horns. This counter-force fundamentally wants to prevent the evolution of man and Earth by hardening man and preventing him from developing towards his divinity. Lucifer and Ahriman are servants to this third counter-force. This third force is aimed at robbing man of his or her self, for therein lies the human capacity to develop higher. And without the self, the path to sustainable development cannot be pursued.

7. The struggle for the self

The third counter-force is Sorat, or Satan as the Apocalypse often calls this force. Satan refers to the demon who acts as the adversary of Christ from the beginning to the end of man’s creation. Sorat is the Sun demon. Sorat appears last on the world stage at the moment that man can develop the higher self. Before the moment of the incarnation of Christ in man Jesus, Sorat had little to seek on earth. Sorat is called a black magician, whose aim is to prevent the development of the higher consciousness in man by disproving the self of man and shattering it.

Man, who enters the spiritual world and unfolds his higher self, becomes in our eyes a white magician, who can create and heal with his power to love and compassion. On the other hand, we see man who develops black magic. Such a human being falls prey to the amorality and the abuse of creative spiritual forces. The black magician has found his way to the spiritual world but he stumbles and uses these powers to satisfy his own lust and desire at the expense of others. Is Ahriman an even more developed being than Lucifer in his will to do evil, Sorat’s will to do evil is again stronger than the one of Ahriman. Sorat, the great black magician, rebels against the Father God (R. Steiner, 1905, GA 93a, Grundelemente de Esoterik, p.149); R. Steiner, 1909, GA 110, Geistige Hierarchien un ihre Widerspiegelung in de physischen Welt, p.178). The effect of Sorat becomes visible in excesses around human sexuality such as sadomasochism, in the use of nuclear power and even more so in the impact of meteors on planets that can disrupt their normal course around the Sun and thus life on Earth.

In summary, all three counter-forces are involved in the frustration of the SDGs. Lucifer’s impulses make man insensitive to the consequences of his own actions for others and the Earth:  me first, my company first, my country first, after us the Flood. The SDGs are often confessed in name, but in practice they are only used for so-called green-washing. The ahrimanic impulses include everything that consists of calculation, filling in standards, exercising power on the behavior of others to one’s own advantage, approaching the SDGs through a multitude of measurements and calculations, using algorithms in a hidden way to influence individuals in their behavior, participating in extensive administrative burdens that can only be delivered by large companies, etc. It is therefore important to look soberly at the current proliferation of measurements about achieving the SDGs. Accountants and inspectors can check figures and calculations, but they cannot look into people’s souls, where the heart of the sustainability movement is to be found. What matters is that the individual human being is given the choice to shape life from a high level of attitude. For this it is important that the attitude is anchored in the inner experience, which, to speak with Lao Tse, makes Tao alive again.

But it is precisely the ability to have inner experiences that is under attack at present. The combined luciferic and ahrimanic inspirations offer man an illusionary highway to the spiritual world and peak experiences with drugs, Viagra and an endless supply of potentially interesting sexual partners. But the result is that it confuses the self and makes man more materialistic. The personal self is meant to be on its way to the transformation into the higher self, the Manas, the real humanity as described in the Apocalypse. And that requires the ability to independently obtain conscious perceptions of the inner world of the spirit. This requires silence, humbleness, clear consciousness and independent judgment. How can young people learn this in the midst of the permanently present social media, presenting themselves on Instagram and with blogs and vlogs, etc. in order to get likes?

The deepest attacks on the self are initiated by Sorat. First, of course, in small groups with extreme behavior, and through songs, raps and films with which young people get used to black magic practices, such as the pleasure of killing, to prepare for deeper seductions later on. Knowing the characteristics of these practices is essential in order to be able to draw a line at them in time. Anything that undermines the integrity of self is the most fundamental evil we face in our time, for which there is hardly a cure. Preventing each individual human being from getting to that point is therefore of the highest importance.

Only if the integrity of the human self can be maintained, the path to a more sustainable society can be taken. This makes the SDGs a manifestation of our ability to win the battle for the self.