Tag Archives: global warming

Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development

sachs-sustainable-developmentThe Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is a good, textbook sort of volume for what I believe to be the general consensus view of the totality of what we are up against, along with potential solutions from a liberal, Keynsian perspective. It is massive, as you might imagine.

Such a simple statement from the Rio Declaration, 1992 — such a basic place to start: “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.” Such a massive failing of ours. The following summits moved to a more practical approach. The 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked to accomplish: “The integration of the three components of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — as independent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002, 2).” (5)

Sachs adds good governance to this list, and sees this group of four pillars as complex systems — he explains:

sustainable development is also a science of complex systems. A system is a group of interacting components that together with the rules for their interaction constitute an interconnected whole… We talk about these systems as complex because their interactions give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves…. Complexity scientists speak of the emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is “more than the sum of its parts.” (7)

Thus the four complex interacting systems of sustainable development:

global economysocial interactions of trust, ethics, inequality and social support networks…Earth systems such as climate and ecosystems; and it studies the problems of governance… In each of these complex systems–economic, social, environmental and governance–the special properties of complex systems, such as emergent behavior and strong, nonlinear dynamic…are all too apparent. (8)

He is not one to discount the progress we have made or question capitalist foundations. I found it interesting that instead he outlines the history before and after the industrial revolution that has brought us into crisis. Before:

The world before 1750 was a world of poverty; one that could nonetheless produce beautiful treasures for human history, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis… Yet for all of those grand monuments, most people in most ages lived difficult rural lives, always on the edge of famine, disease, and early death. (73)


New technologies…were certainly vital, but many complex economic interconnections were needed as well. Rural areas needed higher food productivity to produce a surplus for the industrial workforce… Transport was needed to carry food from farms to industrial towns, and industrial goods such as linnens and apparel from the factories to the countryside. New ports and global shipping carried manufactured goods abroad as exports, to be traded for the primary commodities needed for industrial production. A worldwide supply system began to take hold. And these increasingly complex transactions required markets, insurance, finance, property rights, and other “software” and “hardware” of a modern market-based economy. (75)

This is such a curious reframing of past into a technological modernity. I honestly am amazed that anyone could argue that most inventors and scientists are in it for the money, but he does.

James Watts was after profits and the patent; his aims included intellectual property, glory, and riches. He was working in an environment in which he could succeed, because the beginnings of commercial law existed in England, as opposed to many other places on the planet where such property rights had not yet been recognized. (76)

Side note: Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations same year as Watt produced the modern steam engine — 1776.

Just to show he’s down with the left economists, if not the socialists, he quotes Marx and Engels in support of this view of historical progress.

The bourgeosie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls… (78)

He makes a distinction in this linear progression between endogenous growth and catch-up growth, unrecognised in much economic development theory:

The first is based on innovation; the second on rapid adoption and diffusion… (81)

I think political ecology has a whole lot to say about the politics of that small statement – about all of this. At least Sachs does acknowledge that most of Africa and Asia were held in stagnation by colonial powers, thus unable to even start trying to catch up. He also notes that the legacy of conflict and slavery in the Americas continues today, and the high rates of inequality around the world reflect a legacy of conquest. There is no questioning, though, of the beneficial nature of the economic growth emerging from these roots.

Modern economic growth began in the dark green temperate climate of England, and quickly spread to similar locations in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)… We see that modern economic growth diffused not oly according to geographical proximity (distance from London) but also what we might call “climate proximity,” the similarity of a location to that of England. (117)

So to move on from how we got here to the crisis we face. I am happy, myself, to accept the science on the facts of climate change,  I think this is a great chart to summarise the multiple threats — what the Stockholm Resilience Centre calls planetary boundaries:


So I’ll move on to the social pillar, as I confess if the UN isn’t going to go full-on world-revolutionary-and-transformational, this is possibly as good as it gets.  So his definition of social inclusion:

aims for broad-based prosperity, for eliminating discrimination, for equal protection under the laws, for enabling everybody to meet basic needs, and for high social mobility (meaning that a child born into poverty has a reasonable chance to escape from poverty). (232-233)

Where does that exist I wonder? He continues:

… we must address the challenges of social inequality and human rights across several dimensions. Race, ethnicity, power, conquest, and individual characteristics are all determinants of inequality in society. So too are the political responses, the extent to which power is used to reduce inequality or the extent to which power is used to exacerbate inequalities. (238)

It’s got all the right words in it, you know? Sachs continues to list three of the fundamental forces behind widening inequalities in the

United States, several European countries, and many of the emerging economies around the world.

  • the rising gap in earnings between high-skilled and low-skilled workers

  • the increased use of robotics, advanced data-management systems, and other information technologies, which seem to be shifting income from labor to capital.

  • the political system, which in the United States has amplified the widening inequalities caused by market forces. (239)

He talks about deregulation, the weakening of unions, and throws in this chart on spectacular inequality:


So what is needed?

Education for All:

Yes. He describes the role for universities in:

helping society to identity and solve local problems of sustainable development … Every issue which which we are grappling — poverty, disease, climate change, new information technologies, and so on — requires locally tailored solutions, often based on sophisticated management systems. (273)

So top down. Ah well, he is an expert.

Health for all

Yes. It was way back in 1978 that World health officials adopted the Alma-Ata Declaration — universal health by the year 2000. (276)

We all know how that failed. Sachs can still celebrate the Millennium Development Goals developed that year though.

Food Security:

Yes. Achievable now, but political will? Sadly lacking.

The agricultural sector is in fact the most important sector from the point of view of human-induced environmental change. Many people imagine the automobile or perhaps coal-fired power plants to be the biggest cause of human-made environmental damage. And they are indeed major causes of global environmental unsustainability. Yet it is food production that takes the dubious prize as the most important single driver of environmental harms (SDSN 2013). (339)

Crazy. Another reason to support permaculture, or other locally based, minimal-footprint systems like Fukuoka‘s, or New Mexico’s acequia agriculture, which solve all kinds of problems while at the same time improving the planet rather than destroying it.

Another interesting chart:

greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-economic-sector-ipccAFOLU here stands for ’emmissions data from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’ (342)

Instead of any minimally emitting and socially beneficial and extremely cheap systems, though, Sachs promotes more technology, more GMOs, making crops more drought resistant. Making crops more nutritious. All capital- and resource-intensive. And third, using ‘precision farming;.

Precision agriculture depends on information technologies, on detailed mapping of soil types, and often on global positioning systems that can tell a farmer exactly where that farmer is in the field and what is happening in the soil in that part of the farm. (351)

Soil mapping, testing, localized chemistry… Ugh. Nothing about environmental justice here either.

Resilient Cities

Ah, we turn to cities. Sachs gives a summary of the three major features of urban sustainability:

  • Urban productivity. Cities need to be places where individuals can find decent, productive work, and businesses can produce and trade efficiently. The basis for success is a productive infrastructure: the networks of roads, public transport, power … Infrastructure also includes “software,” like an effective court system to enforce contracts. When the urban infrastructure fails, the city is overwhelmed by congestion, crime, pollution, and broken contracts that impede business, job creation, and forward-looking investment.

Enforcing contracts? There will be no tampering with capitalism here, and cities are for business and development and trade.

  • Social inclusion. … (366) The social stability, trust, and harmony in the society (including political stability and level of violence) will be affected by the extent of social mobility. When it is low and falling, protest, unrest, and even conflict are more likely to ensue. Effective urban planning and politics can lead to cities in which people of different races, classes, and ethnicities interact productively, peacefully, and with a high degree of social mobility and trust. With ineffective planning, lack of civic participation, and neglect of social equity, cities can become deeply divided between rich neighbourhoods facing off against slums.

There is nothing here I disagree with actually, though I think a shift in the whole paradigm of effective ‘expert’ planners needs to happen before we can begin to create socially inclusive cities, never mind everything else that needs to happen.

  • environmental sustainability. … Cities need to make two kinds of environmental efforts. The first, mitigation, is to reduce their own “ecological footprint,” for example, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by urban activities. The second, broadly speaking, is adaptation, meaning preparedness and resilience to changing environmental conditions, for example, rising temperatures and sea levels (for coastal cities). (367)

On Climate Change

Ah, the energy sector, such a money maker! 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2013 as ranked by Global Fortune 500, are in the energy sector

1 – Royal Dutch Shell
3 – Exxon Mobil
4 – Sinopec Group
5 – China National Petroleum6 – BP
7 – China State Grid (396)

and then of course, 8 is Toyota, and 9 is Volkswagon — very closely related. I looked up the list for this year, not much has changed:

Fortune's Global 500 2016

The consequences of climate change are, of course, terrifying. There’s lots about that. And once again, Sachs’ solutions are more of the same — capital- and resource-intensive top down solutions that don’t really disrupt business as usual. He gives three. DESERTEC — a network of renewable energy production that links North Africa, the Middle East and Europe into a single grid (you can guess where most production happens, and where most consumption happens).


Second, to tap the wind power along the US coasts.

The third — finally destroying the Inga Falls in the DRC to build the great Inga Dam Project. Surely we can do better.

There is carbon capture, Sachs writes (and this is so damn revealing I think):

If carbon capture and sequestration (abbreviated as CCS) proves to be successful, then there is a wonderful way to reduce CO2 emissions without having to change out current technologies or energy mix! (431)

Yes! We can just keep on keeping on! That somehow really does seem to be the fatal flaw in all of this.

On to the loss of biodiversity. My heart breaks as we lose species after species. I suppose I care about the economic cost of that, but, actually, no. Not really.

So to summarise:

This chart is illuminating if nothing else…

ecosystem-services-and-wellbeing-wriIt sort of lays it all out there, at least. I will have to go to the source for a deeper critique, but I kind of hate one-way arrows.

At Rio 20+ there was a shift from MDGs (not achieved) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 10 of them proposed in 2013  by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) — there are now more.

Goal 1: End Extreme Poverty Including Hunger
Goal 2: Promote Economic Growth and Decent Jobs Within Planetary Boundaries
Goal 3: Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood
Goal 4: Achieve Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, and Human Rights for All
Goal 5: Achieve Health and Wellbeing at All Ages
Goal 6: Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity
Goal 7: Empower Inclusive, Productive, and Resilient Cities
Goal 8: Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy
Goal 9: Secure Biodiversity and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources
Goal 10: Transform Governance and Technologies for Sustainable Development

The 17 SDGs now visible at http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/:


He ends with a salute to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and the English Abolitionists. I suppose that is symbolic of this whole book given those last two were so flawed and highly problematic, yet none-the-less helped win some politically admirable goals. Some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff all mixed together, very carefully, so as not to really shift any of the broader structures or the profits to be made from them, just share the dividends a little more equally. Until we all die as how can this really stop the environmental crisis already at hand?

[Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press.]