Visions of the Future: a Look at the Sustainable Development Goals

Images were recently circulated on social media of paintings on cigarette cards from the year 1900 that imagined life in the year 2000. Some of the predictions managed to hit not far from the mark – for example, automated farming machines and a helicopter. Others, such as underwater civilisations and flying policemen, have yet to be achieved, even with the wonders of modern technology. The message is clear: predicting the future is a tricky business. Such, perhaps, were the sentiments of the 147 world leaders who gathered at the UN Headquarters in New York on 6th September 2000 for the Millennium Summit to discuss the role of the UN in the 21st century and, in the process, decide exactly what they wanted the world to look like by 2015.

Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Côté © 1889, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Côté © 1889, some rights reserved.

This vision of the future was laid out as eight (relatively) simple and clear goals that were known as the Millennium Development Goals.[1] Various UN agencies conducted serious research during the two years leading up to the event in order to determine exactly what their priorities should be and what was realistically achievable. The Brahimi Report, for example, was the basis for the goals pertaining to peace and security, and the World Bank and the IMF were involved in the layout of the economic goals. Just as we can laugh at those cigarette cards with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to examine the goals and discuss everything that has yet to be achieved. Instead, however, I want here to look at where we can go from this point onwards, and look at how the UN has proceeded in terms of building the next vision for the future.

There is nothing new about the UN setting goals for bettering the world. Bjorn Lomborg points out that between 1950 and 2000, on 12 separate occasions, the UN set out a goal calling for some form of universal education, which was also one of the MDGs.[2] In addition, UN initiatives on combatting disease, particularly AIDS, were already well in place by 2000 under the jurisdiction of the World Health Organisation. So if many aspects of the MDGs were already very much in motion by 2000, it was the seventh of the goals that has perhaps gained most public attention in the course of the last 15 years. The seventh goal is “to ensure environmental sustainability”, and it is this goal that the UN has decided to take forward, in my opinion, as the focus in its next set of targets: the Sustainable Development Goals, which are to be achieved by 2030.

There are 17 SDGs each featuring numerous individual targets, so the UN has clearly attempted to be more specific in the outlines of this set of targets. They can broadly be broken down into five areas of focus.[3] I will look at each before discussing the effect that the emphasis on the environment will have on these goals.


The new outline features five goals that are related directly to economic growth and the increase of wealth across the world. Statistics show that this is one of the areas that the MDGs seem to have been least successful in achieving: the wealthiest one per cent has got wealthier and the poorest one per cent has become poorer. Economic corruption remains rife. The UN’s decision to put greater focus on this – particularly in the goal to “reduce economic inequality within and among countries” – shows the priority that this must take in the next fifteen years.


Progress has been made in those MDGs related to diminishing hunger and certain diseases (most notably HIV/AIDS) but we remain a long way from the level of eradication that the MDGs hoped for. One criticism of the MDGs was that their focus on HIV/AIDS was a bad use of resources and that more lives could have been saved if time had instead been put into more research on malaria. The more holistic and absolute approach has now been taken: universal education, ensuring healthy lives and totally ending hunger.


The SDGs have less of a focus on global peace as more of them focus – as we will see – on partnerships for environmental sustainability. If anything, this gives the doctrine of world peace greater credence: it runs through all the goals, with few of them being possible without international cooperation and trust.


Many of the goals focus on partnership, both between countries and industries. The focus of this partnership, however, has changed from building economic or social relations, but rather to ensuring environmental sustainability.


As mentioned, this is the real shift in focus for the SDGs: the UN has gone from focusing entirely on human needs to focusing on broader environmental issues. Five of the seventeen SDGs focus on the environment, as opposed to just one of the eight MDGs.[4] This shift acknowledges that the future to come will be one where we will need to take a more holistic approach to the world in which we live. People are beginning to seriously ask the question: what would be the point of solving world hunger or building international ties if in a few decades the world is not habitable?

By having far more numerous and specific goals than the MDGs, the UN has made the right decision: we need to be able to think big but be specific at the same time. Sustainability needs to be our watchword in the decades that are to come. It is not enough to decide to eradicate an evil of mankind like hunger: preserving our planet so that we will be around to enjoy the fact that it has gone is far more important. It is impossible to know quite what the world will look like in 2030, but by being both focussing on sustainability the UN has proved their commitment to the future. People should know about these goals and care about them – not just government officials, but ordinary people too. If the focus of the adaptation of MDGs to SDGs has been the adoption of a more holistic approach to society, then it is necessary to take this approach in our society. We can only achieve environmental sustainability by working together – or else that cigarette card painting of a town entirely flooded by water might be more accurate than we thought.





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