Jeffrey Sachs LSE lecture: the missing piece

“Professor Jeffrey Sachs will discuss the choice of Sustainable Development Goals and a policy and normative framework to achieve them.” That was the blurb for last Wednesday’s public lecture at the London School of Economics.

This post-2015 agenda is a hot topic for development economists and Sachs is the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on the pre-2015 agenda, known as the Millennium Development Goals. A “fully booked” notice duly appeared with indecent haste on the LSE website.

In the event, Professor Sachs never quite reached the point of disclosing his choice of Goals. I’m not sure whether he was timed out by the chair or whether he opted for an unscripted messianic plea that LSE’s “future leaders” should go out into the world and hurl themselves into mortal combat with our planetary boundaries.

Either way, I can fill in the missing final quarter of the lecture by the simple expediency of referring to a similar presentation at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last month.

On that occasion Professor Sachs was specific about his favoured headline topics for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals:

  • decarbonise the energy system
  • ensure sustainable food supply and sustainable agriculture to protect biodiversity
  • make our cities liveable
  • stabilise human population at around eight billion

I think we can safely assume that Sachs would add to this list:

  • Eradication of global poverty (to complete the MDG agenda)
  • Provision of electricity for all (his view expressed at the World Summit on the Information Society a couple of weeks ago)

The missing piece of the LSE lecture, recorded at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in which Professor Sachs suggested headings for the Sustainable Development Goals

Most observers would consider this choice of topics to be unsurprising, other than the omission of water and oceans, and perhaps the quest for full employment.

However, the suggestion of an upper limit for world population – discussed by Sachs with some emphasis in Delhi – will be more controversial. The UN’s median projection for 2050 is more than a billion higher than his suggested threshold of eight billion. And numerical population targets are conventionally viewed as no-go policy territory, not least as a result of disastrous family planning policies imposed in India in the 1970s.

Sachs didn’t get as far as mentioning a population limit in the LSE lecture but he did describe the continuation of high fertility rates in rural sub-Saharan Africa as a “disaster for them and their children and their societies….I believe this is completely inconsistent with Africa’s well-being.” He pointed to evidence that the provision of family planning services, combined with keeping girls in high school, can halve fertility rates within a decade.

The Delhi presentation also included reflections on the politics of implementing sustainable development, another area promised but not really addressed at the LSE.

The Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University is an enthusiast for global targets. “Goals engage society whereas treaties engage diplomats and governments,” he said, referring to the current inability of intergovernmental negotiators to implement global treaties. Of the three 1992 Rio Conventions (on climate, biodiversity and desertification), he said: “wonderful as these environmental treaties are……not one of them has been put into operation.”

This faith in articulating a clear sense of direction resurfaced at the conclusion of the LSE lecture. “The ultimate change agent in the world is knowledge….identify alternative pathways, help people to choose them and I think we’ll find our way.”

I’m more inclined to perceive knowledge as a necessary but insufficient condition for planetary salvation. Widespread awareness of the unsustainable nature of modern lifestyles has failed to inspire incisive remedies.

I suspect it will be knowledge about the injustice of global environmental change, rather than its impacts, that ultimately makes the difference. When half the world discovers the extent to which its ecological problems can be attributed to the other half, the cosy era of globalisation may be over.

Professor Sachs’ advice “not to wait for diplomacy” enjoys a rather more regular flow of supporting evidence. A classic Friday afternoon leak of awkward news revealed that the UK prime minister, David Cameron, has dropped out of next week’s final meeting of the UN’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, on account of “other diary commitments”. Cameron is a co-chair alongside leaders of Indonesia and Liberia.

For many UK citizens, this amounts to a profoundly embarrassing abrogation of a commitment made to the UN Secretary-General. If the petty day-to-day politics of one nation state impedes progress in preparing medium term goals for global sustainability, then Professor Sachs could be forgiven for interpreting his brief as a call to action amongst UK students.

“It’s your job to do the nearly impossible on this. What does business-as-usual really mean? You will see it’s frightening. Then you have to take that morally seriously. You can’t just write papers to say ‘gee that’s bad’…..the politicians will not do this job. NGOs without the data cannot do this job. The time horizon is not our choosing. This is not a game. This is the only world and there’s good reason to believe that we are deeply deeply stressed on the current trajectory.”


What is Sustainable Development and How Can We Achieve It? – Professor Jeffrey Sachs at the LSE (audio recording)

David Cameron skips Bali meeting on role of wealthy nations in development from Guardian

Tread Softly briefings on Population