Will SDGs Fail? A Critical Examination of Their Design

Ernesto van Peborgh
3 min readNov 22, 2023

In 2015, the United Nations introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of seventeen objectives promising a future of prosperity, equity, and sustainability. Yet, halfway through this crucial decade, the effectiveness of these goals is being questioned. Are the SDGs, in their current form, equipped to succeed, or do they possess inherent flaws?

The core criticism of the SDGs lies in their reductionist design, which dissects global challenges into isolated parts. This approach, while providing clarity and specificity, potentially oversimplifies the complex, interconnected nature of global issues. In stark contrast, thinkers like Fritjof Capra advocate for a systemic, holistic approach, recognizing the interdependence of these challenges.

An unsettling revelation from a Nature Sustainability study indicates that progress in environmental SDGs often mirrors socio-economic development rather than actual environmental conservation. This trend suggests the SDGs may unintentionally mask deeper environmental degradation.

The disconnect between the SDGs’ metrics and tangible impacts questions their real effectiveness. Are we addressing the right issues, or merely checking boxes on a superficial list?

Capra’s systems thinking, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of components within a larger whole, offers a crucial perspective. It acknowledges that the collective properties of global ecological and societal systems are more than the sum of their parts.

The need for a systemic redesign of the SDGs is apparent. This involves transcending isolated objectives and adopting an integrated, holistic approach. Actions in one domain, like economic development, inevitably affect others, such as environmental sustainability.

In my exploration of regenerative practices and efforts to embrace systemic thinking, I came across the innovative concept of Regenerative ESGs (REESGs). This term was coined through the profound insights of two influential figures: Bill Reed from The Regenesis Group, a trailblazer in sustainable design and regenerative development, and David Ladouceur, an esteemed recipient of the National Medal of Technology. Their pioneering work in integrating sustainability and technological innovation into business practices is significantly influencing my understanding and application of this progressive approach in the realm of environmental, social, and governance issues.

The emergence of Regenerative ESGs (REESGs) further transforms our approach to sustainability. Moving beyond minimizing harm, REESGs actively seek to add value and regenerate socio-ecological systems. This philosophy of continuous improvement, mirroring nature’s cyclical processes, represents the next step in ESG and sustainability thinking.

REESG advocates for a reevaluation of sustainable design, deeply rooted in systemic thinking and complexity theory. This approach transcends mere harm reduction, aiming instead to regenerate and rejuvenate. It recognizes and leverages the intricate interdependencies within socio-ecological systems, a core tenet of complexity theory. Systemic thinking, in this context, means understanding the dynamic interactions and feedback loops within these systems. By doing so, REESG sets a new standard for ESG impact, embodying a mature, integrated systemic approach to sustainability that aligns with the complex, interconnected nature of our global ecological and social systems.

The integration of REESGs into sustainable development signifies a critical shift. It moves from a passive approach to an active, regenerative strategy that enhances the systems we rely on. Embracing this paradigm is essential for a resilient, thriving future.

In summary, the SDGs, while well-intentioned, require a fundamental reevaluation. The shift to a systemic, regenerative approach is not just beneficial but necessary to address the complex challenges of our time. Only through such a paradigm shift can we hope to achieve true, lasting sustainable development.

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You can access the Nature Sustainability study discussing the relationship between progress in environmental Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and socioeconomic development, and its implications for actual environmental conservation, through this link: Nature Sustainability Study

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Ernesto van Peborgh

Entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker, Harvard MBA. Builder of systemic interactive networks for knowledge management.