Columbia’s own in-house celebrity, Jeffrey Sachs, appeared Monday evening in front of a packed Miller Theater to take on the world’s problems—including the lack of sustainability in our current consumption habits and the need for new technologies to conquer an increasing crisis in natural resources.
Sachs—famous economist, author of The End of Poverty, director of the Earth Institute, and The Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia—not to mention special advisor to United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and U2 frontman Bono, took a night off to give a lecture promoting his new book, Common Wealth.
University President Lee Bollinger introduced Sachs with high praise. “I’ve never met anyone who has more of a sense of the public interest—not the individual interest, not the self agenda, but the public, common interest,” he said.
Sachs introduced the audience to current world problems through his own experience studying economics, which began as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1970s. He compared today’s economic situation to the first instance, in the 1970s, of “stagflation”—a term for when the economy is in a recession yet inflation still occurs due to increasing prices of commodities such as oil.
“It feels a little bit like back to the future—it’s almost where I came into economics 36 years ago, where we are today,” he said.
Over the course of an hour and a half, Sachs spit out fact after fact, number after number as he strolled across the stage, arguing each of his points without a script.
The difference between today’s economic problems and those of the 1970s, Sachs said, is the world’s population, which has grown from 4 billion in the ’70s to 6.7 billion now, and is increasing at a rate of 75 million per year.
Thirty years ago, he said, the United States reacted to a recession by increasing production in both China and India—a response that might not be as effective today.
“It [the combating of the recession in the ’70s] wasn’t simply the unmitigated triumph over Malthusian gloom that we sometimes believe it to be ... 35 years later, both places are depleting dramatically their groundwater,” he said, bringing up the scarcity of resources that dominated the rest of his speech.
While Sachs drenched audience members in economic gloom for the first few minutes of his talk, he did not leave them without the hope of solutions. At the end of his speech, he proposed 10 things he would suggest the next president do if he were to write a memo to him or her after their inauguration on Jan. 21, 2009.
Sachs emphasized the need to increase investment in sustainable technologies, withdraw troops from Iraq immediately, “invite leaders of dry land polities to a conference on the crisis of the dry lands,” create a new cabinet-level department for sustainable development, and “try to reopen the eyes of our government in a technical sense by rebuilding some measure of competence on these issues.”
Sachs made no attempt to hide his political convictions and his criticisms of the current U.S. administration.
“We will spend more on the military this year than the entire world has given to Africa in history,” he said.
He concluded his speech by quoting part of John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at American University in 1963: “Our problems are man-made, and therefore can be solved by man.”