The United Nations’ latest annual ranking of nations by “sustainable development goals” will come as a shock for many Americans. Not only aren’t we “Number One,” we’re not even close. The top four countries are Scandinavian democracies. The United States ranks forty-first, just below Cuba (that’s right, below our Communist neighbor). Countries that outrank us include Estonia, Croatia, the Slovak Republic, Romania, and Serbia.
Every ranking contains some element of subjectivity. But the seventeen “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) developed by economist Jeffrey Sachs and his team are well chosen. They include the absence of poverty and hunger, good health and education, gender equality, clean air and water, and reduced inequality.
The goal of the report is to measure countries’ progress, or development, toward a civilized and sustainable future. As historian Kathleen Frydl points out, “Under this methodology ... the U.S. ranks between Cuba and Bulgaria. Both are widely regarded as developing countries.” Frydl’s essay was widely circulated under the headline, “US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy, inequality.”
To Frydl’s point, the US picture does look like that of a developing country. But how, exactly, does a country that was once “developed” become “developing”? The phrase “developing country” implies that there are countries that have achieved development, and countries that are on their way. It leaves no room for the possibility that a nation, once it developed, can “un-develop” itself. It’s like saying that a “growing child” can become “un-grown.” And yet, that’s exactly what is happening to the United States.
The language of “developed” and “developing” countries carries with it the idea that Western European and North American countries reached an endpoint in the 20th century, one that other nations naturally aspire to and are on the road to achieving. It is the language of post-colonialism (which suggests the United States is now colonizing itself). The words are heavily freighted with assumptions about globalism, capitalism, and liberal democracy. Among them is the idea that these forces bring with them a stability, the kind of benign stasis that Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history.”
Fukuyama has since renounced that idea, and understandably so. The declining status of the United States undermines the historical assumptions about progress that have guided political and financial elites for many decades. Countries like the United States and United Kingdom look less and less like the end-state of history and more and more like declining world powers, like so many that have gone before them.
Perhaps for this reason, the public debate has moved away from the quasi-Utopian ideals of Westernized development and back toward the idea that history is a cyclical process in which empires rise and fall. Anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber find positive qualities in ‘primitive’ societies. Journalists like Chris Hedges adopt the decline of the American empire as a major theme. In To Govern the Globe, historian Alfred McCoy forecasts the decline of American power and speculates that imperial nation-states may soon cease to exist altogether.
The historian Marc Bloch, quoted in Harvey Kaye’s book on the British Marxist historians, sounds prophetic when he writes that history is “the science of eternal change.”
Where does that leave the people of the United States? Other measurements and reports may not place the US below Cuba or Serbia, but most major measurements seem to point one way: down. Life expectancy is declining. Economic inequality is rising. Other measurements are flat at best.
Progress isn’t like rain. It does not, as the Bible says of rainfall, “fall on the just and unjust alike.” Progress, real progress, is made by people working together for the common good. If they don’t work together it slows down, or stops, or reverses itself. The language of “development” is obsolete. We need a new language of cooperation, democracy, and justice. And we need it now, before it’s too late, before the forces of climate change carry us away on the tides of eternal change.