The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals should make more room for culture, writes Victoria University’s Marco Sonzogni

As child I grew up in a small village in Northern Italy surrounded by animals and farmers. The cycle of the seasons and twinned tempo of farm life absorbed me. One day a neighbour took me into his stable and showed me three ways of milking a cow. Since then I’ve been under the spell of numbers and numerology too. There is something upfront and unalterable about numbers yet they can also enshroud reality in mysteries and conspiracies: the bone-marrow in the alternative spinal cord of human evolution; the Jiminy Cricket in our private and collective consciousness.

The Italian philosopher, scholar and author Umberto Eco was fascinated by lists, by how they punctuate the history of western and eastern civilisations. Be it the catalogue of a Medieval library or of Don Giovanni’s international love affairs; the ingredients in an ancient Chinese recipe or the RSVPed names for a tight-security event; mihi or mantra — humans from every corner and culture of our planet number their ideas, intentions and actions, as if it makes it easier to make them true and real.

“17 seems to me as good a number as any to describe the steps to make a paper airplane — or to make a better world.”

The Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai painted 36 views of Mount Fuji. The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. The literary critic William Empson and an ABC television drama series share seven types of ambiguity.

So 17 seems to me as good a number as any to describe the steps to make a paper airplane — or to make a better world. This is the number of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, championed at Victoria University of Wellington by our Sustainability Office and through the University’s commitment to helping New Zealand and the world develop a sustainable and resilient future.

These action-points call us to change, in some cases drastically, the way we think and live. Each and every goal is necessary and urgent, and there cannot be true and lasting sustainability unless we embrace and embody the concept and choices it entails holistically.

This is how I read goal 17 anyway: as an invitation to work together and add up the numbers so the total is concretely more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, I sensed something was missing — the feeling one has getting ready to travel, making a mental and physical note to remember to take the passport …

Toward Sustainable Development Goal 18?

In June 2016, going through my inbox while waiting to board my Air New Zealand flight from London back to Wellington, I saw an email from publishers Routledge. They were asking me to read and write a blurb for Michael Cronin’s new book, Eco-Translation: Translation and Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene.

I have always considered Cronin a visionary and inspirational scholar so was not surprised he had taken his expertise in translation studies to the heart of environmental debates. But what his book made me realise is that culture, in its literal and metaphorical meaning, was somehow absent from the narrative framing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Then again, I thought to myself, it is not explicitly there because culture embraces them all. Still…

Research quickly revealed that, on the one hand, culture “can be regarded as a fundamental issue, even a precondition to be met on the path towards Sustainable Development”; on the other, however, “the theoretical and conceptual understanding of culture within the general frames of sustainable development remains vague”. It follows that “the role of culture is poorly operationalised in the environmental and social policies” (quotes from the Investigating Cultural Sustainability European research network). This realisation triggered my desire to delve deeper into the concept and consequences of cultural sustainability.  

So the aim of this week’s international and interdisciplinary Cultural Sustainability Symposium at Victoria University is precisely “to increase understanding of and determine the role of culture in sustainable development based on multidisciplinary principles and approaches” (quote again from Investigating Cultural Sustainability).

Our speakers — who include Michael Cronin — and sponsors recognise and celebrate the singularity and diversity of humankind in harmony with the planet now and for the future. Could this be the definition of Sustainable Development Goal 18? Come along and tell us what you think.

 Cultural Sustainability Symposium, 7–10 August, Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Marco Sonzogni is a Reader in Translation Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment