Articles on this website are classified not just by country and article type, but also by relevant UN SDGs.

What are sustainable development goals?


“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

– Brundtland definition of ‘sustainable development’


Anyone with an environmental degree would be able to recognise the above Brundtland definition. After 20 years as an environmental professional, having worked in a large corporation and being familiar with corporate, financial, and legal frameworks driving environmental liability, the only edit I would make to it is to specify people, after ‘needs’. As in, development that meets the needs of people in the present.

It may seem to be obvious. After all, most people would assume we’re talking about the needs of people. It’s just that, after my corporate experience, I’ve come to realise that in some countries they might mean the needs of private equity shareholders. In fact, for the avoidance of doubt, the definition might have to specify, the needs of natural people, and not ‘legal persons’.

But aside from the nitpicking above, I think it’s the most honest and universally applicable way to understand the UN SDGs. Knowing this definition – particularly the parts I highlighted – will help you understand the category descriptions linked below. It will also make it clearer to you why my descriptions revolve so closely around fulfilling basic human needs, and secondly, the strength of human society.

What are the UN SDGs?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are 17 categories of sustainable development which require global collaboration to address. This is because of sustainability issues that have cross-border and global consequences, and which endanger humanity and the planet as a whole.

They succeed the previous Millennium Development Goals, themselves agreed after long and arduous UN negotiations during a series of conferences on humanitarian and sustainability matters which began immediately after the Cold War ended. (Obviously, the Cold War was what impeded global progress on pretty much every sustainability topic. You can see it in when every sustainability topic, e.g. climate, began to have summits and conferences even though they have been on the UN agenda well before. It is immediately after the Cold War.)

Intended as an improved framework following learning from implementing the Millennium Development Goals, the UN SDGs reflect the intersectionality of sustainability issues, identifying a minimum of 17 topics which all must be worked on together. If they are pursued separately, efforts on one would cause another goal to stagnate, or it can even worsen issues in other goals. Yes, it’s only been about 10 years since the global community figured this out.

On the website, you can read descriptions of what the different SDGs are about, as well as the targets and success indicators that countries have agreed to work on. These should be reflected in your government’s policies where relevant, or at least they should not be contrary to these targets.

Why do I classify my articles by SDG?

As with anything to do with bureaucracy, things can easily become over-complicated. While KPIs are important – because what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done – people are prone to fixating on KPIs to the extent of losing common sense and forgetting the real outcomes the KPIs are supposed to represent.

While this phenomenon is bad enough in government departments and business corporations, it’s worse when it’s about sustainability. Firstly, while you need specialists to solve many of these problems, the issues themselves and the point of fixing them are perfectly comprehensible to the general public. After all, we are the reason for the SDGs in the first place. When a common sense thing is made complicated, it leads to public distrust.

Secondly, most of us have lived our whole lives in an unsustainable world, in systems that drive unsustainability. If you’re not someone with lifelong professional familiarity of sustainability concepts, telling the difference between what is and isn’t sustainable isn’t something you think about a lot. And if the topics are made to be complicated, you might believe you couldn’t understand these things yourself.

I could write articles to explain these topics. But instead, I think it’s better to describe real life, and highlight sustainability issues that you may not have noticed because you’re used to it. Or maybe you noticed, but haven’t quite been able to label what it is that you’ve noticed. And I think travel stories are particularly great, because I get to describe ‘real life’ in many different locations, where people have different combinations of sustainability issues, but also where they are doing well. After all, we learn best by experience and imagining the experience of others, not by reading abstract information.

In so doing, I hope to return to the layman public the power to hold accountable these efforts to fix our sustainable development problems.

Official disclaimer: The content of this publication has not been approved by the United Nations and does not reflect the views of the United Nations or its officials or Member States.

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