Listening to Jeffrey Sachs’ clarity of speech and eloquent use of the English language, you would be forgiven for thinking he got a thesaurus for Christmas, but his enormous popularity was evident. I was at the LSE event ‘What is sustainable development and how can we achieve it?’ and the room was full to bursting, with the result that anyone with a ticket felt extremely privileged to have secured a place. Being a confessed economics novice I wasn’t sure what to expect, but despite a few inside jokes to please the students, the talk was well targeted towards a mixed, but largely academic audience.
LSE’s Professor Stuart Corbridge introduced Professor Sachs, but proclaimed immediately “Not that he really needs any introduction, but I shall give him one anyway”. Jeffrey appeared delighted to be back at LSE among like minded people, stating “If you invite me, I’ll be here”.
His talk began with a clear economics focus (Jeffrey almost appeared to be testing the knowledge of his audience). He discussed markets, their beauty and wonder, as well as their functionality. He then led onto the aspects of the human world that markets neglect, importantly the poor. It is (apparently) easy to fall in love with the beautiful simplicity of a well functioning economy, but so many fail to also appreciate their destructive complexity. It is only when they don’t work, or we are forced to look beyond this simplicity that the image can turn ugly. Profoundly he argues “Poor people can die in a highly efficient economy”, they cannot buy goods, and can therefore be easily neglected by economists.
Perhaps difficult to fathom in the UK currently, is that globally the economy is still growing rapidly, especially in developing countries where growth is ~5%. The slow and sometimes static growth in developed countries is proof of an interesting phenomenon, that once a country becomes rich, it generally stays that way. The rapid rise in population in the last century, combined with the fact that most countries are moving rapidly towards, or held static in, a developed, consumer driven society, means that the carbon implications of development are serious.
On multiple occasions Jeffrey referred to the work of Johan Rockström, who described the planet as having ‘boundaries’, which acted to convey the impression of vulnerability and non-infinite resources perfectly. “For the first time in history we are using primary resources so fast and there are so many of us that we are hitting planet boundaries”. The focus was very much on the realities of this immediate and pressing challenge to our lives, and Jeffrey did not hold back in stressing the absolute seriousness of the issue. For instance, due to the unpredictability of climate change effects we cannot even guarantee the current level of food production can be sustained, let alone a capacity to increase this. He quoted that the amount of fertilizer required to feed (and not even feed sufficiently those in the developing world) 7.2 billion people amounted to 150 metric tonnes last year, and the biological impact of this in terms of nitrification and hypoxia of waterways is too great for our natural ecosystems to absorb.
Jeffrey’s experience and own personal interest in these issues (indeed he heads up the Sustainable Development Solutions Network), as well as his obvious fame, led to a captivated audience, and it was heartening that so many people were so keen and willing to give these issues their absolute attention. Ultimately this is our only world, and his final words were very much a call to action. “The fact is that we need to decarbonise by 2050 or we will lose our planet; biological systems cannot cope with a rise in temperature of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. Jeffrey proceeded to set the students (somewhat ambitious!) ‘homework’, to solve this issue. “It is your job to do the near impossible, for the very future of the planet”. He stressed that there is no bigger issue to be tackled than the need to ensure that we are not the last generation living on a healthy planet. Whether these rallying words had any effect remains to be seen, but the audience appeared thrilled by the drama of it all.
The Royal Society’s People and the Planet report published in March 2012, covers this topic in detail.
Jeffrey Sachs’ work, and his involvement in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is of great relevance to our policy work on the post-2015 development agenda. A blog update on these activities is due in the near future.