The United Nations' sustainable development goals (SDGs) articulate societal aspirations for people and our planet. Many scientists have criticised the SDGs and some have suggested that a better understanding of the complex interactions between society and the environment should underpin the next global development agenda. We further this discussion through the theory of social–ecological resilience, which emphasises the ability of systems to absorb, adapt, and transform in the face of change. We determine the strengths of the current SDGs, which should form a basis for the next agenda, and identify key gaps that should be filled.
The United Nations' sustainable development goals (SDGs) are past their halfway point and the next global development agenda will soon need to be developed. While laudable, the SDGs have received strong criticism from many, and scholars have proposed that adopting complex adaptive or social–ecological system approaches would increase the effectiveness of the agenda. Here we dive deeper into these discussions to explore how the theory of social–ecological resilience could serve as a strong foundation for the next global sustainable development agenda. We identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current SDGs by determining which of the 169 targets address each of 43 factors affecting social–ecological resilience that we have compiled from the literature. The SDGs with the strongest connections to social–ecological resilience are the environment-focus goals (SDGs 2, 6, 13, 14, 15), which are also the goals consistently under-prioritised in the implementation of the current agenda. In terms of the 43 factors affecting social–ecological resilience, the SDG strengths lie in their communication, inclusive decision making, financial support, regulatory incentives, economic diversity, and transparency in governance and law. On the contrary, ecological factors of resilience are seriously lacking in the SDGs, particularly with regards to scale, cross-scale interactions, and non-stationarity.
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The post-2030 agenda should build on strengths of SDGs 2, 6, 13, 14, 15, and fill gaps in scale, variability, and feedbacks.