Jeffrey Sachs talk at Stanford – on Sustainable Development

Fortunately for me I’ve had the opportunity to hear my two favorite Harvard-educated famous white males this year. One being Bill Gates and the other being Jeffrey Sachs. I used to worship Jeffrey Sachs back in high-school when I first read “The End of Poverty” (not so much now) but I was still elated to hear him at Stanford and luckily enough my roommate and I were able to find front row seats at his talk. I took some vigorous notes about his talk and which I’ve copied below, hope you enjoy!

Picture from the front row, unfortunately my iPhone isnt the greatest for pictures.

Designing a Path to Sustainable Development – by Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent development economist, came to speak at Stanford last Thursday (a long time ago). His talk centered around the path to sustainable development, which he described as “the most complicated problem on the planet” and “the defining challenge of our time”. He defined sustainable development as the process through which we continue material progress (especially for the poorest of the poor) without hindering our world’s healthy ecosystem functions.

Sustainable development, he said, is a very complicated problem. It is often the root of many other global issues such as terrorism and it cannot simply be solved by market forces. To better understand sustainable development, Sachs listed 6 key features of the problem:

  1. It is a global issue: climate change is one of the many global problems, and that it doesn’t matter where the emissions come from because it impacts all of us. Sachs also commented on how our national institutions aren’t adequately prepared to address such global issues.
  2. It is an inter-temporal problem: we see the effects of sustainable development over a long period of time. Often it is due to a stock effect and not due to a flow effect, for example the accumulated stock of carbon emissions matters, not the amount that is emitted in a given year.  The problem with stock effects is that we may be crossing certain thresholds or tipping points in our environment and these problems may be irreversible.
  3. The involvement of ecosystems: many of our natural ecosystems are under stress right now because one action has several indirect effects on other parts of the ecosystem. Our markets don’t the hold the interests of our ecosystems at heart and hence allow us to get  away with many environmental crimes.
  4. There is profound uncertainty: There are a lot of things we don’t know about our ecosystems and how we interact with our environment. For example, it was out of pure luck that humans were able to detect the hole in the o-zone layer when we did. Right now we may be on the brink of several environmental catastrophes without even knowing it.
  5. There are several ramifications of population growth: Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich was very right when he said our world cant sustain as large a population as we have. Sachs said that all the problems we are going to face would be infinitely easier if we have a much small population.
  6. The solutions to these problems involved large scale technological transformation: markets aren’t all they are cut out to be and we will require technological transformation that goes beyond what markets may provide us with.

Sachs argued that right now we are far from the path of sustainable development. He talked about a 10,000 mile stretch of drylands from Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia that was degrading rapidly from our current practices. This area of environmental degradation is also an area that houses much political and civil instability. Sachs claimed that we have misdiagnosed the problems of these areas to be rooted religious ideologies while they are at root problems of water scarcity and hunger. This misdiagnosis is a common hindrance to sustainable development.

Sachs plead for action and described 2 risks for our inaction:

  1. Depletion of vital resources
  2. Pervasive environmental degradation

He stated that the path towards sustainable development doesn’t involve just maintaining our fossil fuels or minerals, but rather maintaining the capacity of our global ecosystem to keep us alive.

Sachs believes that the problems that we face are solvable at a modest cost. The real problem lies in the coordination of these solutions through institutions at the national and global level.

Interestingly enough, Sachs remarked on how Malthus was right all those years ago. Our population has grown above capacity and hence billions of people around the world are not meeting their basic food needs. He quoted that 1 billion people are starting, 1.5 billion more have micronutrient deficiency and that another 1 billion people are malnourished.

With reference to global warming, Sachs declared agriculture as the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Following agriculture, energy and then industrial toxics were the next biggest contributors. The problems we face are bounded and do have definable solutions, for example we can shift to a sustainable food and energy based economy. But there are certain steps we need to take in order to make this shift.

One of the steps is to stabilize population growth. If we assumed that all families would return to a replacement level of 2 children per family, then the disproportionate number of young people would cause the population to further grow to 8 billion people. The largest population growth is within the poorest populations and that we need to help these populations stabilize their growth by providing them with family planning and education. If Africa continues to grow its population at its current rate, then its population will increase by 1 billion people by 2050. The per capita income cannot grow if the population is growing that fast. Other steps towards a path of sustainable development include moving towards sustainable agriculture, behavior change towards better practices and switching towards cleaner energy.

Dr. Sachs made a very compelling argument for the feasibility of these solutions. He stated hat a comprehensive list of changes to get us on the path towards sustainable development would cost us almost 1% of the US GNP. Weighted against the long-term health of the planet, this is a very small cost to pay. He compared this to the amount of military spending in the US, where each soldier abroad costs the US $1 Million.

The Copenhagen summit was also highly criticized. He mocked the fact that after two years, only 4 pages were written on how to bring our world on a path of sustainable development. But this underlined the institutional problems that our world faces. As part of this discussion, Sachs also criticized President Obama for not campaigning for certain environmental policies.

One way in which Sachs believes that we can begin global dialogue on these matters is by identifying common human values. To create change at a global level we need to combine the environment, economics and ethics. Sachs emphasize that the capacity of our institutions to implement such change is limited and made a request to the university to see itself as a global problem solver. Universities worldwide need to take the initiative to implement such change. As his lecture came to a close, Sachs did assign the audience with a peace of homework, and that was to read or listen to John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at the American University – I have read it and I encourage you all to do so.


About alalani
I grew up in Tanzania and now I'm a student at Stanford!

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