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Overwhelming and Intertwined SDGs

by Robert Johnston on the 29/01/2019

A little bit about Robert: I am a recent graduate of English and Philosophy in UCD. I was introduced to ideas of development education and global citizenship through UCD Volunteers Overseas. I volunteered in Northeast India in 2017, then returned in a leadership role in 2018. My entire perception was reframed by these experiences, they have catalysed me into reshaping my role in my local and global community. I want to continue learning from and working with people dedicated to fulfilling their responsibilities as global citizens.

Sometimes I feel like a plant. I don’t mean physically, I’m not some kind of human-shaped sunflower. I mean I get overwhelmed, the way plants get saturated by light and stop growing. In a Biology experiment in school, we placed a lamp on one end of the desk, and a plant at the other. We would track how the plant reacts to the light, and gradually move it closer to the lamp. There comes a point where the plant gets too close to the light, and won’t react anymore. Even though the light is what it needs to grow, it just kind of sits there. Lifeless. Still. And I relate to that plant. Take coming to the end of a college term for example. When there’s countless deadlines, group projects to finish, friends to meet up with, your job to keep up and exams to cram for. It can feel as if you get too close to the lamp and you just kind of sit there. Still. Lifeless. While on an exchange programme in Florence, I felt this immobilizing stillness when confronted with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I was one of three Irish representatives sent on behalf of Development Perspectives to work alongside participants from Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Bulgaria. Our goal was to explore concepts like development education and global citizenship through the lens of blended mobility, of learning and working with people of different cultures and backgrounds. One of the first activities was to split into pairs and research one of the 17 SDGs, take notes on chart paper and hang our findings on the wall, side by side, to see the challenges our governments had signed up to participate in. From left to right along this bright orange wall, hung the tasks beset upon each of us to participate in. From ‘Zero Hunger’ to ‘Reduced Inequalities’, ‘Climate Action’ to ‘Quality Education’, I sauntered by these posters as if they were paintings in a museum. I’d read about the long term aims, the short term goals, asked a fellow participant what they thought, compliment them on the cute drawing of the fish they did on ‘Life Below Water’ etc. But eventually I stopped, and started to think not about the posters, doodles and bullet points, but what it would take to live in a world that did have zero hunger, that did have zero inequalities.

I stood before these goals on that bright orange wall and started to think how these goals, regardless of their succinct titles or colourful banners, could be tackled. For ‘Climate Change’ to be addressed we would need ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, for that we’d need ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ and for that, we’d need ‘Partnership for the Goals’ and for that --it just kept going. One goal leading to another. Their root causes are intertwined, bound together in a seemingly inextricable tapestry of global issues. Suddenly the bright orange wall seemed to darken, and the SDG posters began to shine like 17 white hot lamps. And I stood there. Still. Like a plant.

Although I did eventually move, the feeling stayed with me. How could I, especially when in plant mode, have any impact on these global issues? The answer came a few days later. We partook in a workshop lead by the Irish group leader, Paul, that explored the idea of systems thinking, and how it improves upon linear thinking. The idea is that we don’t live in a linear world, but a systematic one. Within the Solar System is Earth, within Earth there is an ecosystem, within ecosystems there are people and within people there are respiratory systems, digestive systems etc. The point is that these systems are complex, and when we come across problems within these systems, it means their solutions must be complex too and we must think about them systematically, and not linearly.


To illustrate the difference in systems and linear thinking, imagine you keep getting spots on your face. A linear thinking approach identifies the spots as the problem and Clearasil as the solution. This approach doesn’t look at the root causes of why you are getting pimples, so if you keep getting pimples you’ll need to keep buying Clearasil. A systems thinking approach you would look at the wider picture of why you are getting spots in the first place. It would take into account you are stressed (perhaps from spending so much money on Clearasil), that your diet is unbalanced or that you have an oily skin type. Taking this wider lens reveals root causes and shows more possible solutions. Instead of buying Clearasil for the rest of your life, you can change your diet and find not only has your skin cleared up but your mood has improved, your less stressed and have more money left over. The point is that complex problems require complex solutions. The SDGS are complex problems. Although they were placed along that wall side by side in a linear fashion, they are not to be understood that way.

It is a linear thinking approach that leads to that debilitating, plant-like stasis. With a systems thinking the approach I see that I too am part of a system. I was not the only one facing those SDGs, I was surrounded by people from different countries, viewpoints and motivations who were standing at that same wall, facing the same problems. Reflective of our greatest challenges, our greatest strength is our togetherness. If indeed the root causes of the SDGs are intertwined then so too are the solutions, so when working towards one you are indirectly affecting another. The SDGs can be an ensnarement of entwined complex problems or a heartening reflection of the interconnected people that work towards solutions. It all depends on your perspective. Power plants do not possess.



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