The Age of Sustainable Development

It is profoundly depressing to hear pundits and politicians talking about the prospects for economic growth with no reference to either equity or environmental constraints. In the case of New Zealand a “rock star” economy can apparently develop accompanied by dismaying levels of child poverty, excited expectations of new oil and gas discoveries which spell disaster for the climate, and a burgeoning dairy industry paying scant attention to the environmental consequences of its rapid growth.

Fortunately there are more discerning economists on the world stage for whom economic growth is only welcome when it means an end to poverty and when it fully respects strict environmental limits. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute  at Columbia University, is an outstanding example. His latest book The Age of Sustainable Development is heavily focused on the ending of poverty in parts of the world where it remains endemic and is relentless in its recognition of the severe environmental strains that economic development and soaring population growth are placing on the earth systems on which human life depends.

The book was developed as part of a global open online course of the same name offered by the Earth Institute and already taken, Sachs reports, by tens of thousands of students around the world.

The book presents a picture of rapid economic growth and population explosion since the industrial revolution got under way in Britain and spread into Europe and America. But it’s an uneven growth and many countries have barely experienced it, not least, Sachs suggests, because of western colonialism which was more interested in the exploitation of the colonies than in their participation in economic development.

Addressing this lag in development and the extreme poverty which often attends it is a primary task for development practitioners. Sachs dismisses sweeping simplistic diagnoses (corruption) or prescriptions (cut government spending) or referrals (to the IMF) and instead urges diagnoses that are accurate and effective for the conditions, history, geography, culture, and economic structure of the countries in question. Many countries are caught in poverty traps through no fault of their own and the aim is to assist them out of that and on to the first rungs of the development ladder.

Sachs is also alert to the relative poverty within developed countries, including the indigenous societies and other ethnic minority groups neglected in the economic development of the societies in which they are placed. Social justice is integral to the concept of development in his book.

Turning to the question of environmental boundaries Sachs asks whether a world that is prosperous and socially inclusive can also be environmentally sustainable. He argues that with careful and science-based attention to growing environmental threats we can harmonise growth and sustainability. That’s not the “balance” that our own government so glibly claims to be achieving between growth and environmental protection. Sachs aims at a full recognition of environmental boundaries.

His treatment of climate change is a prime example of the seriousness with which he takes the environmental challenges to development. In a packed chapter he offers a lucid explanation of the basic science and the consequences of the human-induced changes to the climate. In this he provides yet another example of the fact that there is no excuse for scientific ignorance among educated people in this issue of such moment for human life. One does not need to be a scientist to understand the basic thrust of climate science.  His conclusion is entirely appropriate:

 “The fact is that we should be truly scared, and not just scared, but scared into action—both to mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions and to adapt to climate change by raising the preparedness and resilience of our economies and societies.”

Not that it’s an easy task. Sachs describes it as an economic problem beyond comparison with any other, for several reasons the toughest policy problem humanity has ever faced. Climate change is a global crisis, meaning the whole world must be mobilised. It is also an inter-generational crisis and humanity is not good at confronting longer-term challenges. It means forsaking the fossil fuels on which the success of modern economic growth has depended. The crisis is slow-moving, making it difficult to sense urgency. The solutions are operationally complex, covering a wide range of changes. Finally, the energy sector is home to the world’s most powerful companies whose lobbying clout is not directed towards climate solutions.

Against this list one wonders that Sachs finds any confidence, but he works his way through the technologies which exist to enable the transition away from fossil fuels, and concludes that the world has climate solutions but that what it lacks is the time for further delay.

Climate change is only one of the environmental issues he confronts. He is equally rigorous on species extinction and the loss of biodiversity, on the capacity to grow food for a still rapidly expanding population, on ocean acidification and a range of other threats.

It’s a daunting picture. Sachs writes strikingly of the difficulties in addressing it:

“…it is very hard in our noisy, disparate, divided, crowded, congested, distracted, and often overwhelmed world to mobilize any consistency of effort to achieve any of our common purposes.”

In this context he advances the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be put for adoption to the UN General Assembly this year to cover the period up to 2030, taking the place of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted in 2000. The MDG were mainly focused on poor countries, but the SDG will have universal application, and Sachs sees them as offering a sense of common direction to individuals, organisations, and governments all over the world.

Ideas count. Sachs sees that as his most important message. If it seems a frail defence against the inequality and environmental heedlessness which characterises much of our activity it is nevertheless one he stoutly defends. Ideas can have an effect on public policy far beyond anything that can be imagined by the hard-bitten cynics, he claims. Look at the powerful and embedded economic institution of slavery eventually overcome by the ideas and morality of the anti-slavery campaigners. Consider Ghandi’s lead in helping to end colonialism. Think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of Martin Luther King, of women’s rights.

So there’s something of the moral idealist underneath all the marshalling of economic facts and figures and the unflinching analysis of environmental threats which Sachs’ book contains. A stance I find much preferable to the complacent acceptance of the existing order which is still all too manifest in government and business and which bodes nothing short of disaster before the century is out.

9 thoughts on “The Age of Sustainable Development”

  1. An interesting and very dangerous aspect of the TTIP “free trade” treaty that National is pushing for is the loss of sovereignty that is part of this. This will very likely have severe consequences for countries wishing to elect policies that restrict carbon emissions or fossil fuel extractions, as any such policy is likely on a collision course with short to medium term profit interests of affected multi-national companies.

    A good example of how cynical this will play itself out is the sad case of the French water company Veolia (yes it is the business from which many communities in NZ “buy” our own water…) suing the government of Egypt under TTIP regulations over the establishment of a minimum wage!!

    If under TTIP governments are no longer free to establish social policy such as minimum wages without extensive legal battles and risks of significant penalties to multinationals over “lost profits”, then what is the prospect of legislating emissions or fossil fuel extraction or any other case where sustainable development is confronted with shareholder greed of the 1%?

    This is one of the main reasons that we must in my mind reject the TTIP.

    It is bad enough already that every time we open our water faucet in Whykickamookau New Zealand, some change is tingling into the pockets of before mentioned Veolia shareholders across the globe! What a travesty!

    Further reading here:

  2. There is an article on the United Nations development goals in the Economist dated march 28 – April 3. There has been good progress on some goals like better drinking water, others like infant and maternal mortality have had less progress. While the UN has limited direct power itself, simply having these gaols seems to have shamed some countries into making progress.

    There is a discussion of climate change goals as well. That’s if the TPPA allows us to have such things. I mean we mustn’t offend the corporate sector.

  3. If under TTIP governments are no longer free to establish social policy such as minimum wages without extensive legal battles and risks of significant penalties to multinationals over “lost profits”,
    Governments will have to start invoking accountability for the full cost of whatever the particular argument is over. For e.g. “sue us for plain packaging tobacco and we’ll countersue for the FULL costs & penalties of selling a known dangerous product, just as we would for a dodgy electric heater.”
    The problem of course would be to get Governments to acknowledge that there are costs beyond the immediate economics, costs that clearly will be difficult to define, like loss of commons, pollution, sea level rise, etc. Still, there would be nothing quite as effective as being sued by a Multicorp to sharpen their focus.

    1. Sounds good in theory, but… under the TTIP and similar agreements the legal process is “sorted”. It is not courts but “Panels” stacked beforehand to assure that “the public” has little chance against corporate interests:

      Interesting reading. I don’t think that suing corporations for damages done by their practice will become any easier under the TTIP and similar agreements. Conversely however, the corporate enterprises have established a new system of legal arbitration outside of the usual legal systems established by and accountable too our democratic systems. Not only that, the provisions of the TTIP in case of NZ are not even made available to our parliament before our elected representatives are asked to “agree” to it.

      These deals are as George Monbiot says, a full frontal attack on our democratic sovereign powers and establish a new tier of law just for the 0.01% who have control and ownership over the international juggernaut corporations who benefit from these treaties immensely.
      It establishes a system under which it will be much more difficult to advance environmental regulations since the cost will be rolled entirely onto the governments (read tax payers) through these back room dealings.

      1. The TPPA gets worse Thomas. Ratification is not by parliamentary vote, it is purely a cabinet decision. Treaties and trade agreements etc are decided by cabinet.Thanks for the links.

  4. Jane Kelsey has done some articles in the Herald on the TPPA. The following is from the Herald March 27.

    This is quite a good one that has some specific detail leaked from the TPPA, discussion of investor dispute tribunals, and examples of corporate action against governments in Canada and elsewhere. Europe has rejected these tribunals as being too remote, closed and secretive with no right of appeal. There are also questions about the bias and vested interests of some people who have served on the tribunals.

    The TPPA seems to be handing a great deal of power to corporate and elitist interests, and seems to weaken the public good. I suspect our government will be much more reluctant to pass any law that has even the slightest chance of upsetting some global corporate given their power and our reliance on them. This could all have a chilling effect on legislation relating to things like the environment, smoking, foreign investment or employment rights.

  5. As a result of various conflicts I’ve been in I long ago adopted this policy:

    In a democratic system, If any deal, communication, financial statement or other matter requiring decision is before me, or before a committee of which I am part, is secret or anoanymous, it does not exist, cannot be upheld or complied with.or responded to.

    An actual example to qupte myself at a meeting:
    “No opening statement, no closing statement, no debt!”

    I have always found this policy of mine totally effective where I have had a say.

    Hence I will not be able to recognise any outcome of TPIP which I as a citizen have not been part of, i.e. any secret agreements. No vote for TPIP in Parliament under those conditions can stand.

    Somewhere way back in my life I read predictions about energy and oil interests. I paraphrase as I do not recall exact words with accuracy: “they will oppose any developments that threaten their profits and power”, “humanity will have to learn to detect lies – selfish intent is a good test” .. Refering to interlocking directorates as “The forces of darkness”: No country is free of their attempted control”. What an excellent example in TPIP?


  6. To refer directly to the subject of this book “sustainability” and to soil management, the Guardian article by Monbiot “Treating soil like dirt” I described to some people as “The scariest article I’ve ever read”. I went to the fully referenced article on Monbiot’s blog ” Ploughing On Regardless” . At the bottom I found a link to a video on “Permaculture”. I was not able to get an error free download there but did succeed in getting all 37 minutes at

    It is compelling stuff, you’ll certainly learn a bit about Jordan, and there are a couple of much too short voice music clips near the beginning and end of the “edited on a cardbord box” section starting about 5 minutes in.

    They already get 50°C in summer. Where is the demonstratively successful permaculture in Jordan going to go when global warming makes the area uninhabitable. Nevertheless the examples of self sustainable soil management are inspiring.

    I have noted the fervour of soil biologists and their propensity for extravagent mission statements “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”. However, Lawson goes on to say that the “problems” are those of pollution and supply line and I infer that by “World” he is evoking the world as referenced by the would be gardener – a subjective view.

    Monbiot notes that the word “permaculture” is missing from government sites in UK, just as the word “sustainability” has been removed from NZ government media, or so I’ve heard. In Florida terms like “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and “sustainability” are officially banned – ““We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact,” 🙁

  7. Age of sustainable development against Dumb, Dumber, Republican…
    The US state of Wisconsin is in the news… its Republican brick head brigade legislating away global warming:
    Like the proverbial three apes they simply don’t want to see, hear or speak about “it”.
    The nation that landed on the moon is sliding off the cliff, dragged down by an almost comical (if it was not so serious) theater of right wing dullards, logger heads and Machiavellian tricksters.
    Wake up America!

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