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Columbia Spectator Staff

When the science journal Nature published a report card this summer saying that the world had failed to achieve many of the goals set at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs took it personally.

"As an academic, that hurts—especially when the earth hangs in the balance," Sachs said.

Sachs spoke Thursday at the State of the Planet conference, an event hosted by the Earth Institute every two years. Sustainability experts and scientists from around the world joined Sachs in Roone Arledge Auditorium and attempted to answer the question: How can the world forge a global agenda for sustainable development?

"We are in a race to save lives," Sachs said. "We have not yet found ways to move the world to sustainable development."

As the head of the United Nations-backed Millennium Project, it is Sachs' job to push for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals—a set of principles adopted by all U.N. member countries 12 years ago—by 2015. The goals range from eradicating extreme poverty to ensuring environmental sustainability.

"The world can no longer simply observe—if it ever could," he said. "We absolutely have to pick up the pace of engagement."

U.N. deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson spoke about worldwide poverty, noting that by 2015, "more than 600 million people will lack access to improved sources of drinking water." Eliasson said that it is time to develop a new strategy for sustainable development—one that emphasizes the importance of peace.

"There can be no sustainable future if there is no sustainable peace," he said. "No conflict-affected country in the world has achieved even one of the MDGs—that says a lot about what war or conflict does."

But while many of the speakers focused on the shortcomings of current sustainable development strategies, they also called for more widespread involvement in promoting sustainability. James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that the American public needs to take a more proactive role in understanding the value of alternatives to fossil fuels.

"It shouldn't be the government deciding what's the role of efficiency, what's the role of different energies," Hansen said. "Let the market make those decisions." Barnard alumna Bandana Kaur, an environmental activist, said she is curious about "how we can really ally different sectors to work together on this problem."

"There were a lot of environmentalists here, so how do we really reach beyond the environmental community to engage people coming from technology, from banking, from grassroots organization, to have more diverse representation?" she asked.

Tylor Van Leeuwen, a student at the Yale School of Management, said that while panelists addressed poverty from many angles, he would have liked to hear them more clearly articulate how students can help.

"I think it would have been helpful to have people say, ‘Here's what we need students for,'" he said. "In a day-to-day job perspective, how do I keep us from getting to two degrees Celsius temperature rise? I don't think most people know the answer to that."

Sachs closed the conference with a reminder to the audience of how rapidly the world can change, given revolutionary advances in technology.

"The chance to solve problems, when you find the right model and the right pathway, is really upon us," he said.

Qiuyun Tan contributed reporting.
Multimedia staffer Tamara Plummer visited the conference Thursday. See her experience

United Nations sustainable development Jeffrey Sachs Earth Institute