Nation & World

Sachs insists new technologies essential

4 min read

Economist says that sustainable development is ‘central challenge of our times’

Jeffrey Sachs, the internationally renowned economist, returned to his alma mater Monday (April 14) to give his prescription for saving the world. Sustainable development, he said, is the “central challenge of our time.”

Sachs made his remarks delivering the “Annual Distinguished Visitor Lecture,” sponsored by the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.

Sachs, whose latest book is “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet,” is reluctant to give up on economic growth (“That would be too easy”). Nor does he want to give up on preserving the environment. “That’s naïve,” he said.

“Is there a way to reconcile these objectives? The only reconciliation that I can see is through considerable technological change.”

He called for “a quite basic turn, not away from economic development, but away from the technologies we have at our disposal.”

“We need not just R&D,” Sachs said, “but RDD&D — research, development, demonstration, and diffusion; and not just commercialization, but rapid uptake around the world.”

Speaking without notes for well over an hour, pacing the stage of the very full Lecture Hall B in the Science Center with a handheld microphone, Sachs made an impassioned plea for the United States government to re-engage in the scientific research he said was essential to developing the new technologies that are the only hope for achieving continued economic growth and preservation of the natural environment.

“Where we are right now,” Sachs said, with the level of production and the size of the global population — “is literally unsustainable.

“We can’t go on doing this. This isn’t a matter of conjecture; it’s a matter of arithmetic.” He called the emission of greenhouse gases “the biggest thing” on the list of concerns.

He also strongly implied that some rethinking of current systems of patent protection was in order, because developing countries are often unable to pay patent-protected prices for new technologies.

Sachs said, “Economics has not been the most helpful of all the disciplines” in thinking through today’s difficult problems. “But economics has a lot going for it once it gets its head straight.”

The problem is that, traditionally, economics has literally factored the Earth out of the equation.

He recalled that the second book he read in his economics course in the fall of 1972 as a Harvard freshman was “Limits to Growth” — a book assigned, he said, “so that the professor could make fun of it. … The economic world has been disconnected from the physical world for about a century. … The models we used literally wrote the resource base out of the theory.”

These more “elegant’ economic models made for simpler math, Sachs said. But they also made it seem as if clear-cutting forests, for instance, could be a rational economic choice — “completely feasible short term.”

Sachs said his new book lists promising new technologies that may help bring about sustainable development, “And you can talk me into any of them. They’re options we’ve never considered because we’ve underpriced the resources.”

He acknowledged, “The answers are very much unclear at this point.” But he insisted that “pathways to sustainability” can be found, such as greatly enhanced use of solar energy, including solar thermal power, that could allow, for instance the Sahel region of Africa, now largely desolate, to provide electricity for Europe.

Arguing that free markets alone have never sufficed to develop major new technologies — which, he said, have come about instead from a mix of institutional support, including government funding — Sachs called for a federal institute of sustainable development on the model of the National Institutes of Health, whose $30 billion annual funding has made it a real player in the world of medical research and development.

“America’s technological lead demands that we focus on this,” Sachs said. “I am not a nationalist in economics, but I wouldn’t mind a contest as to who can do better on green cars. If we want to compete, we’d better get smart again.”

He called for a “reframing” of the issue of Islamist terrorism so that it is seen not as having to do with Islam but as reflecting the “demographic and hydrological stress” of the dry lands of Africa and the Middle East. He repeatedly warned against leaving national security in the hands of the military: “All they can do is foment a generation of coups” in Africa, Sachs claimed, as their predecessors did a generation ago in Latin America, without providing any solutions to the underlying issues.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Takemi Program in International Health, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Harvard International Relations Council.