The adoption of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015 was accompanied by what insiders considered an optimism they have not experienced in relation to UN resolutions before. The relative efficiency in the drafting, the absence of trenches between East and West, or between North and South, and the unanimity of support of the 193 countries speak volumes. In stark contrast, sustainability and dealing with it could be the poster child for what Robert Horn called a social mess (2007: 6): “a set of interrelated problems … resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” Characteristics of a social mess generally, and sustainability specifically, include an absence of a unique and correct solution, interrelatedness of problems, ideological constraints, multiple possible intervention points, resistance to change, value conflict, and political and economic constraints. While these are excellent ingredients for a thorough academic debate, the issues underpinning the sustainability debate are so urgent that, beyond academic reflection and research, much more is necessary than what academics, political leaders, administrators, industry, nations, communities, and individuals are habitually prepared to do.
The 7th World Sustainability Forum in Beijing in September 2018 is an excellent opportunity for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to engage with this topic, to expose the urgency of the issues, and to recognize individual, collective, and national opportunities associated therewith. The WSF2018 in China is also an excellent opportunity to sensitize researchers toward differences in national context and culture, and how considerable progress on sustainability can be made, despite the multitude of challenges and differences around the world.