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March 2nd, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


March 2nd, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

2015 will be a big year for development. A slew of summits is scheduled to take place this year that will, without sounding too alarmist, determine whether or not we can generate enough political and financial support for a sustainable future.

In July, the Financing for Sustainable Development meeting will convene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Two months later in September, the largest gathering of world leaders will take place at the UN Headquarters in New York, where they will discuss the 2015 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Finally, at the end of the year in December, the Climate Change Agreement at COP21 will be held in Paris.

There is perhaps no person in as good a position to comment on this topic as Jeffrey Sachs, who recently came to LSE to discuss his views. He is one of the main architects of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) and is now playing a key role in creating its successor, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

Sachs was welcomed with a chorus of incessant applause, due perhaps to the LSE’s Fabian tradition of being a social institution devoted to solving the social issues of the day, and I readily concede that I added what decibels I could to the clapping cacophony.

The SDGs, which numbers 17 goals, are a move aimed to galvanize worldwide support towards establishing momentum for sustainable development.

“I am hoping that the current 17 SDG’s can be reduced to 10 to 12 goals through just good wordsmithing,” said Sachs.
“I suppose in German it can just be one long word,” he added with his trademark sense of good humor.

Warming up to combating climate change

While there are many issues that beset humanity, Sachs focused on several of them in his hour-long lecture. The first issue he spotlighted was climate change. Sachs argued that we have transitioned from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, where humanity now has such a large footprint that we are changing the climate and ocean chemistry.CO2 concentration levels

“This is not yay, humanity,” said Sachs.
“This is oh my God, what are we doing.”

A doubling of CO2 concentrations would raise the temperature by 3 degrees Celcius. Last year, we reached 400ppm and also recorded the warmest year on record. We are currently on a worrying trajectory of reaching 560ppm by the middle of the century, which would undoubtedly cause a sharp rise in natural disasters—both in frequency and intensity.

“Everybody knows—except for Rupert Murdoch land—that this is real,” said Sachs.

2014 warmest year on recordAccording to Sachs, the problem of addressing climate change is not about public opinion. A Pew Research Poll showed that 65% of Americans believe that climate change is serious and that something should be done about it. What’s worth mentioning, said Sachs, is that roughly two-thirds of Americans have thought that climate change is a serious issue for the past 15 years.

“And we haven’t acted on it, because of politics, not public opinion. Our democracies are not public opinion aggregators. We do not have the median voter model; we have the median billionaire model” said Sachs.
“Everything is skewed to the right—by a few degrees Celsius. [The billionaires] are cold blooded, by the way,” Sachs added.

Getting people out of poverty—sustainably

Global Poverty RateSome say Sachs is an optimist. But, in my view and in many others’, we fall short of achieving perfectly feasible goals due to the political willpower for change.

“We could have ended extreme poverty by 2025,” said Sachs.
“The world is adopting the formal date of 2030. Absolutely achievable.”

The world has come a long way since 1990, when I was born. Back then, the absolute poverty rate in developing countries hovered around a horrific 43% in developing countries. Now it is down to roughly 16%, or 1 out of every 6 individuals.

But, reminds Sachs, deGini Coefficientvelopment has to be socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The Gifi Coefficient, a measure of inequality in wealth distribution, has been rising in both developing and developed countries, which shows that while the size of the pie is getting bigger, the shares of the pie are becoming increasingly skewed.

This has fueled large public unrest, most notably in the street protests and Occupy movements that have become a commonplace occurrence in many parts of the world. It is important that we not only focus on aggregate growth measures—such as GDP—but also on social inclusion.

Can you hear me now?

worldwide unrest

We are witnessing a great technological paradigm, namely the rapid spread of ICT (information and communications technology). The number of mobile phone subscribers have soared to 7 billion subscribers—roughly 1 phone for every individual.

Sachs provided an anecdote to argue the extent of the spread of ICT.

“My wife and I experienced absolute proof that the whole world is connected. We were up at about 4,000 meters in a little mountain path in Bhutan a couple of years ago,” Sachs began.

“We were at a monastery and the monks from the youngest child up to the elder monk were praying with the scriptures, the scrolls, and the senior monk came and saw us and in his saffron robes—the stars and milky way were all there–and suddenly—Wrrr!—he reached into his robes to take a call on his Samsung Galaxy, and you realize, this world is absolutely connected.”

It is important that this technology be harnessed correctly. Many tech trend followers have already dubbed this year the “Internet of Things,” where things traditionally outside the realm of being connected to the Internet are now getting plugged into the network.

We should, however, be mindful to use the technology correctly.

“Every technology can be used wrongly—we can end up with a totalitarian state, or we can use this technology to solve the problems that we have,” said Sachs.

“There’s no technology determinism, but there is technology opportunity.”

Harnessing the willpower for change

Be it ICT, reducing poverty, or adhering to the SDGs, what the world needs is harnessing the willpower for change, especially from the public sector. Great breakthroughs, such as the Internet, computing, semiconductors, the Human Genome Project, the Higgs boson, BRAIN initiative, and many others have been directed as government-led initiatives.

Decoding the human genomeThe NIH initiated the Human Genome Project in 1990, and in 2000, the human genome was decoded. What’s worth mentioning is the speed of how far cost reduction has proceeding—the cost of decoding the human genome has been brought down to $1,000 in the short span of roughly a decade. A graph shows that the genome cost reduction absolutely surpasses Moore’s Law.

“Fundamental transformations have come from fundamental direction from the state,” said Sachs.

“If you put your money in it, you can get somewhere.”

Find out more about Professor Sachs and his latest book, The Age of Sustainable Development.

Photos from Jeffrey Sachs’ slides.

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