The Age of Sustainable Development – Review

Author: | Date: 7 December, 2015 | Category: Book Reviews | Comments: 0

The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, April 2015. Columbia University Press, 160 pages, ISBN 978-0-23117-315-5. RRP £23.95 (paperback)

The Sustainable Development Goals were agreed at a UN Summit in New York in September 2015. There are 17 major goals, expanded into 169 targets. In briefest summary, the heads of state and government representatives set an agenda for “transforming the world” by ending poverty and hunger, protecting the planet from degradation, ensuring all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives, and fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies free from fear and violence. Their intention is that this be fully implemented by 2030.

No one is better qualified to engage with the complexity of this than Jeffrey Sachs, economics professor, advisor to governments around the world and especially to Kofi Annan and now Ban Ki-moon (who wrote the book’s foreword).

The 540 pages of The Age of Sustainable Development are beautifully produced. The style is brilliantly clear and accessible; the scope is broad, the scholarship deep, the importance huge. Sachs argues that sustainable development is the greatest, most complicated challenge humanity has ever faced. The world is uncertain, complex and confusing, faced with powerful vested interests, and with long lead times in building infrastructure. The problems are multi-generational. We have little time left to face up to the challenge of moving economies and societies on to sustainable development. If we do not make this change peacefully, equitably and urgently, it will be forced on us by ecological disruptions in coming decades.

What is needed is, first, a careful analysis of the complex interaction between the three primary factors of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability – to which Sachs adds a fourth: the need for good governance; and, second, proposals for practical action at local, governmental and international levels. Sachs offers both in what is one of the most important books published in 2015. He notes that the first clear diagnosis of the challenges of facing global limits to growth was in 1972, challenges that were reaffirmed by the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), and then “we have frittered away the last 22 years”. “This is not exactly a world standing on the precipice and acting with due urgency!” “For a species that depends on the beneficence of nature … we are doing a poor job of protecting the physical basis of our very survival”.

Sachs describes the analysis that is needed as a “science of complex systems”, namely the interconnectedness of the ecological and human systems on which we depend. This involves the global economy (and the scourge of extreme poverty), social systems and institutions (inequality, social mobility, discrimination, social cohesion), our environmental life-support (living within planetary boundaries – the safe operating limits of the earth’s carrying capacity for a growing human population), and the problems of governance (including the implications for democracy of the huge lobbying power of multinational companies).

The success of the Millennium Development Goals (2000 – 2015) in reducing extreme poverty give weight to Keynes’ insight that technological progress can bring an end to extreme poverty. The greatest challenges are in Africa (with high fertility rates) and South Asia (with high population density). Is it possible to reconcile the continued growth of the world economy with the sustainability of earth’s ecosystems, growing population and diminishing biodiversity? Many environmentalists argue that we must cease the quest for limitless growth, at least in the Western world. Controversially Sachs believes that choosing the right technologies and radically reshaping the world’s economic institutions will enable us to achieve continued growth while honouring planetary boundaries. This is the hope of political and business leaders, but there must be serious doubt about the feasibility of indefinite growth in the “safe space” of the planet’s ecological limits. Whether Sachs takes human sin and selfishness seriously enough is a question. He does not give as much attention as Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality) to the failure of political institutions in reshaping our current damaging economic structures.

Much of the book is given to practical policy proposals. Sachs aims for a broad-based prosperity, eliminating discrimination, empowering women in the work force and in their reproductive health. He argues for investment in education (human capital), at all levels- particularly in the poorest countries. He is scathing about the social and educational policies of the US (and the UK) that contribute to growing inequality and low social mobility in what used to be “the land of opportunity”. Good health is at the centre of well-being, and Sachs has a ten-point plan for investment in health in the poorest countries. How a world of 9-11 billion people will feed itself is a major question, requiring changes to industrial agricultural practice and creating a sustainable farm system. We need to abandon turning corn into ethanol for cars. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, Sachs provides pointers in planning, water supply, waste management etc. for creating more resilient cities. Sachs has major chapters on climate change and the urgency – despite powerful lobbies to the contrary – of ceasing our dependence on fossil fuels; and on biodiversity, including deforestation, in the face of major species extinctions.

Sachs concludes with a look forward to the Sustainable Development Goals, of which he was a major architect, having headed the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. If – as is greatly to be hoped – these goals truly represent the political will of the world’s leaders, what is needed now is action.

Dr David Atkinson (Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Southwark)


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