Jeffrey Sachs: “It’s going to take two generations …”

Photo of panel on stage with slide showing list of challenges

Click to enlarge

This morning’s Stockholm Seminar on the new UN Sustainable Development Goals — with Jeffrey Sachs as lead lecturer, accompanied by the Swedish minister for development cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, and scientists Johan Rockstöm and Måns Nilsson — was not a tonic of hope. Moderator Johan Kuylenstierna did his best to inject a sense of forward motion and uplift with his usual intelligent energy; but anyone attending would be forgiven for coming away with the feeling that sustainable development is nothing less than a Sisyphean task.

Let me summarize Sach’s lecture and extract some nuggets from the short — very short — panel conversation that followed.

Sachs was mournful on the lack of real progress since Rio 1992, noting that the three “tremendous treaties” that had emerged from that earlier process all had failed. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: no impact. The Convention on Biological Diversity: not even close to achieving the goal. And the Convention to Combat Desertification: so marginal that nobody remembers it. He showed Jim Hansen’s recent work on extreme weather events: they have become shockingly common. The resulting drought drives conflict. Sachs spent a good deal of his time mourning (there is that word again) the relative insanity of climate politics in the U.S., and the near total ineffectiveness of legalistic attempts to save the world via negotiations in the international system.

What has sort of worked, he said, is Sachs’ baby:  the Millennium Development Goals. People can grasp these, he said. Even third graders can write essays on them. Not a day goes by, in the developing world, where a newspaper does not carry a story about some aspect of the MDGs, mentioning them by name.

This was the set-up for the apparent topic of the seminar — the new Sustainable Development Goals that the UN has committed itself to creating, by 2015. Sachs is leading the process of developing them. He had a long list of topics that need to be covered, and did not shy away from the magnitude of the task at hand.

“It’s going to take two generations by my estimation,” he said, “forty years minimum.” And the reason is simple:  the task is so huge. Tackling problems like extreme poverty is easier relative to solving global environmental and resource problems, because extreme poverty is “an anomaly.” Given our technical and economic prowess, it is frankly just “weird,” says Sachs, that so many people are still so poor. And when you invest in making poor people healthier and putting their kids into school, you get results.

Solving climate change and other ills are different, says Sachs, because they are far from anomalies. They are the direct result of the elephantine fossil-fuel driven industrial reality of our all-consuming times. Solving such problems will require tremendous “system re-engineering,” Sachs noted; everything has to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. [Please allow me a short I-told-you-so moment: I’ve been saying and writing the same thing since the late 1990s, especially in Believing Cassandra.]

Can we do it? Sachs thinks having clear Sustainable Development Goals (and a merger with the other development goal processes — these are quite split in the UN/international system) can help do the trick … in a couple of generations, as noted.

But what should the goals be? He noted a few pillars, and they are hardly news to anyone working in sustainability, since they involve ending extreme poverty, achieving environmental sustainability, etc. etc. He posted a list of challenges (see picture). And there the conversation began. Or maybe, stopped.

The following panel discussion was, well, not a discussion. It was more like a short TV interview session, with each of the other panelists getting a couple of opportunities to make a few points. We never really got that “brainstorming” or exploration of what the world’s goals should be, how to set them, how to achieve them. No one challenged a point made by anyone else.

But the interviewees’ points were valuable: we learned from Johan Rockström, for example, that the recent climate data from James Hansen’s team (which, to be technical, shows a shockingly fast rise in the number of extreme weather events that are three standard deviations from the mean) was completely unexpected by most scientists. “The prognosis just five years ago was that [this frequency of extreme weather events] would not occur any sooner than 2050, 2060, or 2070.” This is not exactly good news.

On the positive side, Rockström noted that “Science can now speak with one voice”: that is, the consensus on the urgency for addressing global environmental challenges, and the quantitative values that describe that urgency, are very robust now.

The question is, even if Science speaks with “one voice,” will anyone be listening? There was much patting of Sweden on the back, especially by Sachs, and among Sweden’s virtues are its tendency to “believe in science” as Minister Carlsson said (to warm applause). We had earlier heard the anecdote, from Sachs, that the government of Texas had responded to the recent extreme drought in the United States by convening a three-day prayer weekend. I believe Sachs (like many people) gives short shrift to the many state- and local-level initiatives that are serious and credible; Texas’ tendency to choose prayer vigils over science-based policy initiatives grabs the headlines for obvious reasons. But Sweden is hardly a net-zero-impact spot on the planet, either, as any cursory review of the data will show. We all have a lot to do. A lot to do.

At this point, in summing up my impressions of this event, it would be easy to become lugubrious. But let’s close this mini-report on a positive note — even though frankly, I’m not quite sure how to do it.

Let’s say that this event this morning was a case of “preaching to the choir.” It certainly had that feeling; Johan Kuylenstierna, the head of Stockholm Environment Institute, had noted his pleasure at seeing the auditorium quite full of people, and I recognized quite a number of them as being among the “fire souls” (as we call them in Sweden) for the issue of sustainability.

That’s not bad. Choirs need to be preached to:  it strengthens their spirit and unites their voices, so that they can do their work of lifting the spirits of others. (My mother was a choir director, so I know.)

And the choir, at least in Sweden, is pretty big, and quite committed. The disappointments of international negotiations are not stopping them. They show up for work.

I’m tempted to say, “God bless ‘em” … but for obvious reasons, I’ll refrain.

P.S. Flashed up on the wall as the last slide were pictures of Johan Rockström’s new book, with photos by Swedish NatGeo photographer Mattias Klum, called “The Human Quest.” Interestingly, the Swedish title is totally different: “Our Time on Earth.” I’m not sure what the difference in titles says about the difference between Swedish and English — the English book emphasizes the humans, the Swedish book emphasizes the planet — but I’m sure the book is great.

One thought on “Jeffrey Sachs: “It’s going to take two generations …”

  1. Hi Alan

    Thanks for that.

    Any discussion here about the possibility that we might not succeed in addressing these goals? And how we might prepare for that failure? This issue is exercising me a lot at the moment, but I’ve rarely seen it faced.

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