"Sustainability" and "Reversibility": A Genealogical Investigation into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Architect, Planning & Landscape


This research aims to investigate the development of the United Nations
Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), critically reflecting
on the neoliberal discourses dominant within the SDG framework, and
uncovering the potential for a concept of reversibility in environmental
policy and planning. Reversibility, which is grounded in the work of
Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt, connects with the already existing
concepts of the precautionary principle and radical uncertainty, found
within planning as with the policy language of international organisations
in relation to the SDGs. In short, the political concept of reversibility
is understood as the commitment to avoid irreversible consequences
in the face of uncertainty. The research will genealogically investigate
(a) the emergence of three SDGs (9, 11, and 13), to uncover
the dominant discourses, key actors, and their main interests and concerns;
(b) the extent to which irreversibility was taken into account in
the development of the SDGs; and (c) the added value that a political
conceptualisation of reversibility could have for policy planning. Methodologically,
a threefold approach will be applied: firstly, archival research
of documents and meeting notes of the negotiation process of
the SDGs will be studied to identify key actors and interests. Secondly,
a textual analysis of SDG white papers and policy documents will uncover
which discourses have dominated the finalisation of the SDGs.
Finally, elite semi-structured interviews of 40 participants involved in
the negotiation process will be used to explore whether irreversibility
was considered, and if not, why it was excluded.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000762/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2538727 Studentship ES/P000762/1 30/09/2021 30/03/2025 Ellis Douglas