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International Internet Magazine. Baltic States news & analytics Thursday, 22.04.2021, 21:03

Sustainability’s wademecum: from theory to practice

BC, Copenhagen, 09.10.2019.Print version
Editor’s note: the magazine decides to publish this book review (regardless of its rather old nature), due to two main reasons: first, the book’s author is a world-renowned US professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor and special advisor to a former UN Secretary-General on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG); second, the reviewer is a German professor and famous European environmentalist.

The author’s book starts with the general assumption that sustainable development is both a way of looking at the world, with the focus on the interlinkages of economic, social, and environmental aspects and a way of describing shared aspirations for a decent life, combining economic development, social inclusion, and environmental integrity. That is, sustainable development is both an analytical theory and a normative framework; a way of understanding the world, and a method for solving global problems*).


*) Jeffrey D. Sachs. The Age of Sustainable Development. - Columbia University Press, New York. 2015. xvii + 543 pages. ISBN: 978-0-231-17315-5. 


The UN Secretary General in the foreword to the book optimistically underlined that “sustainable development is the central challenge of our times” and that “it is critical that we understand how sustainable development can be achieved in practice, on the ground, in all parts of the world”. Suggesting sustainable development goals (SDGs) as global strategy, the UN chef sees the difficulties with the convergence to sustainability as a major strategic issue in all countries.


Jeffrey D. Sachs wants to accomplish this noble task in his book: over and over again, he tries to persuade the reader what sustainable development is or should be about, and how it can be put into practice, in various sectors and in the regions of the world.


In the first chapter, the author underlines the so-called “objective assumption” of increasing global population - “our crowded planet”; there are now about 7.5 billion people on planet Earth, roughly 9 times the 800 million lived in 1750. At the same time, the global GDP reached about US$ 12,000 per person: it means that the annual world output has been at least 100 times larger than at the start of the first industrial revolution. That 250-fold increase in total world output (or even a thousand-fold increase in certain economic activities) results in multiple kinds of damage and destruction, especially so as the worldwide established technology in very many cases has been highly resource-intensive and heavily polluting, making nature the great loser in global development.

Sachs’ conclusion on the global threats is dramatic: “the gigantic world economy is creating a gigantic environmental crisis, one that threatens the lives and wellbeing of billions of people and the survival of millions of other species on the planet, if not our own” (p. 2).


Besides, the environmental threats are rising on several fronts at the same time: climate change, shortage of fresh water, chemical pollution of oceans and threatening habitat of other species, etc. And the Sachs’ answer to these threats is not “de-growth”, but “sustainable development”.


The normative side of sustainable development should envision four basic objectives of a good society: economic prosperity, social inclusion and coherence, environmental sustainability and good governance by major “social actors”, including governments and businesses.


This basic concept is Sachs’ working definition of the normative objectives of sustainable development. The word ‘sustainable’ could be used together with “environmental integrity” (or resilience), however, good governance is debatable too.


To demonstrate the real challenges, Mr. Sachs looks at inequality in the world (ch. 2). Not only are there huge differences in incomes between the industrial countries and the least-developed countries, there is also great urban-rural inequality, and income inequality within countries.


In chapters 3 to 5, he examines the processes of convergence versus divergence in order to better understand why some countries are developed while others stayed poor, and how to get on to a trajectory of convergence to end extreme poverty.


In order to eradicate extreme, Sachs calls for “clinical economics” – in the sense of making a diagnosis that is accurate and effective for the conditions, history, geography, culture and economic structure of the country in question.


Chapter 6 is an exploration of the concept of “planetary boundaries”: the author concedes that “we live in a world already bursting at the seams, with humanity pushing against planetary boundaries” (p. 199), and asks whether further economic growth can be reconciled with environmental integrity.


He is an optimist though his answer is conditional: “In order to reconcile the growth that we would like to see with the ecological realities of planet Earth, we are going to need the world economy to develop in a fundamentally different way in the future” (p. 199). As practical examples, he addresses the energy and food issues.


There are already powerful low-carbon energies available at sharply declining prices, and more of them will come, he states. Just as we need to find a new energy pathway based on energy efficiency and low-carbon energy supplies, we also need to find new farm systems adapted to local ecological conditions and causing less ecological damage. The end result from these and other examples would be to “decouple” growth from resource use and environmental impacts.


However, seen globally, “resource decoupling” and “impact decoupling” are just not happening yet, additionally there are still the population dynamics and even small changes of fertility rates would have big effects on outcomes; according to the UN data, the medium-fertility variant reaches 10.8 billion people by the year 2100. (p. 208).


Chapters 7 to 11 are on such complex topics as social inclusion, education for all, health for all, food security, and resilient cities. They make interesting reading, are well documented by statistical details, and in a special way focus on the role the UN is playing. Declarations, covenants, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and present Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs are looked at, showing the richness of global thinking and action, as well as the successes and the deficiencies in various fields.


Presently, more than 50 percent of the human population lives in cities, and urbanization is growing fast. What makes a city sustainable, green, and resilient has not only become an important research issue but is also of great importance to all those who leave the countryside for cities.


Smart infrastructure is a major issue, and so are water supply and waste management. Sachs presents examples that show how important urban resilience has become as a political issue.


In the following chapters Sachs becomes an environmentalist: i.e. in chapter 12, he refers to the basic science and the consequences of human-induced climate change, to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and the adaptation to climate change, and to the politics of “decarbonisation”.


Saving biodiversity and protecting ecosystem services are in focus in chapter 13: biodiversity in general is under stress, and so are forests and oceans in particular. Sachs uses the threatening word “sixth great extinction” to indicate what may be at stake. No wonder then that he turns to the international dynamics that have been started - from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to the various implementation protocols to that treaty.


In his remarks on SDGs (chapter 14) he mentioned that “the world is far off course for achieving sustainable development” (p. 481) - that’s the disturbing kick-off of Sachs, the analyst. Sachs, the political economist however presents a stimulating impulse: “the call for SDGs is a historic decision, a powerful way to move to a new global agenda …The SDGs will be universally applicable: the United States, just like Mali, needs to learn to live sustainably” (p.484/5).


Is sustainable development feasible? This is the title of the last sub-chapter in Chapter 14. Can we elaborate SDGs and carry them out in time? This is the last question.


Sachs quotes three great global thinkers who have expressed serious doubts: Jane Jacobs, the urbanist who called her last book “Dark Age Ahead”; the astronomer Lord Martin Rees and his book “Our Final Century”; the inventor of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock and his recent book “The Revenge of Gaia”.


But Jeffrey Sachs himself is an American, and he thus concludes in a typical way: “Sustainable development is the greatest, most complicated challenge humanity has ever faced” (p. 506); and continues: “We must not give up hope … I believe that despite the cynicism, the darkness, the confusion, and the miserable politics on many of these issues, we can make a breakthrough … The most important message I would (like to) send is that ideas count” (p. 507).


Jeffrey D. Sachs’ book is a comprehensive, incisive, well-illustrated and highly valuable book – a true must-read. It is full of great ideas and practical suggestions. However, with 560 pages it may be too voluminous to become the most read book on sustainable development. A condensed edition should therefore be produced in order to reach more people, if not each and every one, as the UN Secretary General so vividly requested.


 Prof. Udo E. Simonis, Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB)



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