Systemic Coherence of the UN’s 17 SDGs as a Global Dream


Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens - TRANSCEND Media Service

Rather Than Merely an Arbitrary Outcome of Political Horse-Trading


The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as widely promoted by the United Nations, can be understood as the culmination of humanity’s best effort to respond in a coherent manner to the longer-term challenges of global governance in this period. Together they are  hailed as an achievement for that reason, especially in the light of the lengthy negotiation between 193 countries that the articulation required.

The set of SDGs, whether collectively or individually, continues to evoke criticism. Of obvious concern is whether they will prove to be fit for purpose in the light of other trends which render their scheduled achievement by 2030 improbable ( SDG progress “in danger” of going backwards without change in direction, UN News, 11 September 2019; SDG Indicators, UN SDGs; Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets, OECD, March 2020). Will they prove to be as inadequate as the 8 Millennium Development Goals which they were designed to replace — or Agenda 21 which constituted the precursor?

The articulation of the 169 targets of those goals does not seemingly offer any sense of the pattern of goals in systemic terms — if pattern there is — and has attracted specific criticism, although evidence may emerge to the contrary (The 169 Commandments: the proposed sustainable development goals would be worse than useless, The Economist, 28 March 2015; David Tremblay, et al, Sustainable Development Goal Interactions: an analysis based on the five pillars of the 2030 agenda, Sustainable Development, 28, 2020. 6).

The focus here is not on such critiques but on whether the set of goals can indeed be considered systemically coherent, as might be necessary for sustainable global governance. Nor is it on the particular concern as to whether the relationships between the goals have been appropriately recognized, designed and articulated to guide the processes of strategic governance with which the goals are associated.

Of greater concern here is how a set of 17 goals can be considered coherent and memorable given that that number does not benefit from the assumed memorability, coherence and credibility of the 12-fold sets of goals that are so widely adopted (Checklist of 12-fold Principles, Plans, Symbols and Concepts: web resources, 2011). It is indeed a fact that there is no more understanding or interest in why any such set is itself coherent and memorable in that simpler case.

The distinctive exploration here follows from an unexplored assumption. The set of 17 SDGs can indeed be assumed to be systemically coherent — despite affirmations to the contrary by those intimately involved in the process by which they were articulated. Such participation, and documentation of the process, does necessarily reinforce the sense that the outcome was effectively a compromise emerging from a conventional pattern of political horse-trading and influence-peddling. Subsequent efforts at institutional implementation also reinforce that conclusion.

The argument explored here is that global civilization is indeed “unconscious”, as argued by John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1995) and otherwise with respect to the collective unconscious by Carl Jung. In that condition it could then be assumed that the SDGs are best recognized as a collective dream of hidden possibilities and potential — much as with the famous assertion of Martin Luther King (I Have a Dream, 1963). However, as an inspiring dream, there is the fundamental question of how it is remembered — despite the sense that it was indeed coherent. As with any dream, a sense of fundamental potential and coherence remains, but the detail of how it might become reality remains elusive for civilization as a whole — and may well tend to fade (Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory, 1980; Engaging with Elusive Connectivity and Coherence, 2018).

It can then be argued that intuitively, and without recognizing the fact, that there is a form of resonance between the “global brain” — however unconscious its operations — and its external manifestations like the SDGs. However this resonance can then be understood as deriving from the unexplored higher dimensional organization of the SDGs as discussed in what follows.


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