Solutions for Sustainable Development

Economist Jeffrey Sachs addresses global challenges during special lecture at GW.

December 05, 2012

It’s appropriate that Hurricane Sandy prevented Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City, from traveling to Washington, D.C., in October to give a lecture on sustainable development at the George Washington University. 

“It’s par for the course. Our systems aren’t working. They’ve very vulnerable and the situation is getting worse,” said Dr. Sachs during his rescheduled lecture Monday in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ City View Room. “That’s the challenge of sustainable development.”

Dr. Sachs is a prominent figure in the field of sustainable development. He serves as special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals and director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He’s also the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Health Policy and Management at Columbia, co-founder and chief strategist of the Millennium Promise Alliance and director of the Millennium Villages Project.

“This is not an easy subject for us because it’s open-ended. It is an unprecedented set of challenges, and there are no known answers,” said Dr. Sachs. “There is a lot of good science. There are uninformed and informed decisions, but there is no proof that the world will achieve sustainable development. And there are real questions as to how it will achieve sustainable development.”

Dr. Sachs defines sustainable development as a society that aims to end extreme poverty and promote economic well-being; encourage social inclusion and individual rights; achieve sustainability of ecosystems, resource use and management; and practice good governance.

Dr. Sachs’ lecture was part of GW’s Sustainable Development Forum, a series of talks by leaders in academia and in policy, which will attempt to set the research agenda for sustainable development following the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The forum is sponsored by the Institute for International Economic Policy, the GW Institute for Sustainability and Planet Forward.

“Sustainability is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and the George Washington University has decided to take it on,” Ram Fishman, assistant professor of economics, said during his introductory remarks.

According to Dr. Sachs, the world is not on a sustainable development trajectory. Instead, it’s facing mounting challenges like rising inequality, environmental degradation, rapid population growth, depletion of resources and extreme poverty affecting more than 1 billion people. That’s why, Dr. Sachs argued, there must be sustainable development goals included in the next phase of global development.

“The massive floods, the massive droughts, the massive instability of the climate system – the world has already tipped into the world of extreme events. We’re in a massive and accelerated hit for a worst case scenario,” said Dr. Sachs. “This is a real problem.”

Dr. Sachs criticized the U.S. for not doing enough to support sustainable development and called upon universities to play a larger role through the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which was launched in August. The network aims to mobilize scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society and the private sector around sustainable-development problem-solving at the local, national and global levels. Dr. Sachs said the network will focus on finding solutions for challenges such as urban sustainability, food security, low-carbon energy and economic development. Ultimately, the network will assist countries in developing sustainable long-term development pathways.

“I’m a huge believer in our role as universities in having both responsibility and capacity to help solve these problems,” said Dr. Sachs. “What I hope comes out of this network is a global network of problem-solving and activism by the universities saying what we need are knowledge-based solutions. This is complicated stuff. There is no easy answer to the problems of combining economic growth and environmental sustainability.”