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.