By separating nature from economics, we have walked blindly into tragedy
Jeffrey Sachs March 10, 2015
Recent news brings yet another example of hubris followed by crisis followed by tragedy. The hubris is our ongoing neglect of human-induced climate change, leading to climate disruptions around the world. One of the many climate crises currently under way is the mega-drought in São Paulo, Brazil. The recent tragedy is an epidemic of dengue fever in the city, as mosquitos breed in the makeshift water tanks that have bought in to maintain supply through the drought.
Welcome to ‘the age of sustainable development’. We are learning a hard truth: the world economy has crossed the “planetary boundaries” of environmental safety. We now face a momentous choice. Will we continue to follow our blind economic model at growing threat to humanity, or will we choose a new direction that finally combines economic progress with social justice and environmental safety?
São Paulo is just one of many such cascading disasters. My colleagues at the Earth Institute of Columbia University recently detailed how Syria’s disastrous war was triggered in part by a devastating drought that itself was a signal of long-term drying in the eastern Mediterranean. Others have used sophisticated climate models and a deep reading of past climate history to show that California’s extreme drought is a foreshadowing of mega-droughts ahead in the 21st century in the US southwest and mid-plains states, as a result of human-induced climate change.
But it happens that 2015 is a key year of decision for sustainable development. Twenty-three years after the Rio Earth Summit, the 193 UN member states have resolved to adopt sustainable development goals (SDGs) this September. Just before that they will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to redirect global financial flows towards sustainable investments in health, education, and renewable energy, and away from dangerous fossil fuels. And in December, they have the final opportunity to conclude a climate change agreement that can keep global warming below the agreed upper limit of 2-degrees Celsius.
These are momentous decisions, yet still badly understood globally. Our mental models, analytical fields of study, and ethical decision making is poorly equipped to handle the challenges of sustainable development. We have been walking blindly into tragedies and more will come unless we learn to open our minds and our ethical reasoning to the current crisis. My new book The Age of Sustainable Development is an attempt to help the public understand both the growing crisis and the ways to overcome it.
We need a new way of thinking, one that tightly links the human-made world of economics and politics with the natural world of climate and biodiversity and with the designed world of 21st century technology. Consider my own home field of study, economics. Sometime in the 19th century, economics largely dropped its traditional attention to land, water and food, as industry replaced agriculture as the leading economic sector. Economists decided, by and large, that they could ignore nature – take it “as given” – and instead focus on market-based finance, saving, and business investment. Mainstream economists derided the claims of “limits to growth.”
Of course this was never correct; economies have always depended on what we now call “natural capital.” Yet the complete separation of economics and nature was the predominant way of economics thinking and teaching until very recently. Libertarian free-marketers in the US and UK hold to this day that climate change must be a hoax because if it were true it would overturn the laissez-faire economic philosophy.
Economics also needs to team up again with the engineering world, to realise that the economy is a designed system, and one in which smart thinking is required to get the right design. Urban historians know that great cities emerge from a combination of planning and self organisation; and in the same way, safe and prosperous economies in the 21st century will need a combination of targeted technologies (eg zero-carbon energy, smart urban grids, and climate-resilient agriculture); forward-looking infrastructure plans at the local, national, and regional levels; and the usual surprises, breakthroughs and evolution of market-based change.
Sustainable development offers not only a new analytical frame, but also a new way of choosing our common future. It suggests an ethical framework that is consistent with the great moral traditions of both East and West. At the core of sustainable development is the normative idea that we must combine economic prosperity with social justice and protection of the physical world. At this advanced stage of environmental threats to the planet, and in an era of unprecedented inequality of income and power, it’s no longer good enough to chase GDP. We need to keep our eye on three goals – prosperity, inclusion, and sustainability – not just on the money.
Fortunately, if we can just draw our attention to these broader goals, we will learn that they are easier to achieve than we might think. We are the inheritors and beneficiaries of one of the great technological revolutions of human history – the digital age – which rivals steam and electricity in its fundamental power to advance the global economy, and to do so in harmony with environmental needs. A zero-carbon global energy system, for example, is within reach thanks to breakthroughs in renewable energy and efficient energy transmission and use.
We have entered a new age of sustainable development whether we like it or not, even whether we recognise it widely or not. As the great biologist E O Wilson has put it, we have stumbled into the 21st century with stone-age emotions, medieval institutions, and near godlike technologies. In short, we are not yet ready for the world we have made. The sustainable development goals will be a vital opportunity to give ourselves new guideposts and measuring posts for prosperity, justice, and environmental safety in our fast-moving, rapidly changing, and dangerously unstable world.