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Book Launch for The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs hardly needed any introduction at the March 2nd launch of his new book, The Age of Sustainable Development, hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  Gathered in the audience below the chandeliers of the Casa Italiana was an attentive group mostly comprised of Columbia students and faculty, including Professor Sachs’ own gurus Jim Hansen and Dick Nelson, as well as students from Professor Sachs’ recent MOOC (mass open online course), which has gone viral.  As Sachs himself noted when thanking Columbia University Press for creating such an aesthetically beautiful tome, the evening’s event very much felt “all in the family.”

Speaking eloquently without seeming to consult any notes, Professor Sachs began with the timing of this publication: “We have an opportunity in 2015 to set things on a better course…this is…the last clear calendar moment.”  If you’re thinking this is beginning to sound a bit melodramatic, you’re right – but it’s also true, Sachs argued.  “Never before was our species capable of doing both the good and the bad that is the drama of sustainable development.”

What followed was a lecture filled with optimism and energy despite the slew of bad news Sachs delivered.  Planetary boundaries are being violated and pushed into dangerous areas.  The world is experiencing more droughts and floods and fires and extreme temperatures than ever before.  This is causing an increasingly unstable world – instability that extends beyond the physical into the realms of politics and economics.  Regions that are already stricken with violent conflicts, like the Middle East, are getting drier and hotter, which will create even worse food insecurity and more violence.  And while our survival as a species is being threatened, population is continuing to skyrocket.  But in the midst of all the doom and gloom, Sachs made space for moments of laughter.  “Jim Hansen has ruined my days innumerable times,” Sachs quipped, pointing at Hansen in the audience, “You have left me sleepless, nervous but I hope at least energized to try to do something.”

The question now is not whether or not we can do something, the question is will we do something.  Sachs is pushing for a paradigmatic shift in the way we use energy. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which Sachs is director of, has built the groundwork for this shift in their Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which asked fifteen countries (including the US, the first time we have created such a plan) to create nation-specific strategies for decarbonization.  Although each pathway was unique, they outlined three main steps: 1) energy efficiency, 2) decarbonization of electricity, and 3) fuel switching for our transport fleet to electric sources.  Through this project, the SDSN showed that all major economies can decarbonize at low cost.  The technologies are there, all we need to do now is act.

The action Sachs is calling for is nothing less than starting off a sixth Kondratiev Wave: sustainable development based on digital technologies. When you look at the growth of mobile phone subscribers over the last thirty years, the curve skyrockets to seven billion within the last ten years, almost mimicking the curves representing the geometric growth of population, GDP and C02 levels.  In this age where we can stream House of Cards on our phone, Sachs said with a smile, we should be able to address the challenges facing us and grow not only in a robust way, but a sustainable way.

What are these challenges to sustainable development, you may ask.  Sachs has an answer for you: 1) income inequality and social exclusion; 2) the continuing poverty trap in parts of Africa and Asia; and 3) growing environmental crises.  “This is a test – and we are failing.”  These hurdles will hopefully be addressed with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are in the process of being negotiated by member states at the UN.  At the moment seventeen goals have been drafted, although Sachs is pushing for ten (“I’m preaching the power of the word ‘and’…no one’s listening”), covering everything from ending hunger to curbing climate change; a final list will be agreed upon at the UN Sustainable Development Goals summit this year.

Sustainable development is certainly an overarching theme for 2015.  Along with the SDG summit in September, which Sachs expects to be the largest gathering of world leaders ever, there are two other major conferences scheduled.  COP21 is the more well known of the two, when the global community will gather in Paris this December to decide on a meaningful climate change agreement.  But before that, in July, the UN is hosting a conference on Financing for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa; as Sachs pointed out, along with deciding what to do, we also need to figure out how to pay for it.

Sachs did not mince words on the subject of money.  He spoke candidly about the role the oil industry is playing in US politics now (“I may send books to all one hundred senators”) and praised universities for fostering innovative environments separate from the commercial world (“money and profits disable our thinking”).  Frustrated by the fundraising challenges in the global community, Sachs has his eyes on the 41 billionaires living within a couple miles of Columbia and their collective wealth of $6.4 trillion; he invited the audience to accompany him door-to-door for a different type of trick-or-treating.  “There is no shortage of wealth to solve our problems,” he said to applause, “we are choosing the world we want.  There’s nothing we can’t do right now.” 

And that could be used to sum up the tone of the evening.  Sachs’ lecture was neither hopeful nor pessimistic but realistic; he did not paint a rosy picture of the world today and yet he fully believes that we, as a species, are capable of change.  His overarching message is that in this age of the Anthropocene, we are the ones in the driving seat.  Do we want to be drunk drivers, not caring where we go or who we hit along the way?  Or will we decide on a new destination for our collective road trip and actively figure out the best way to get there?  If you agree with Jeffrey Sachs that we want to be better drivers, then looking at a map based on sustainable development seems like a very good place to start. 

Kaia RoseComment