Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Prof Sachs, how is your battle for sustainable development proceeding?

It is long and difficult because sustainable development is a different direction for the world economy. The ideas of sustainable development have been around for decades, but the trajectory of the world is not in the right direction. The world economy and geopolitics have their own dynamics. We are going in the direction of greater social crisis and environmental damage. In the most severe cases, in part of Africa and the Middle East, there is social collapse. To redesign a global system is a real challenge but the year 2015 can be an important year in that sense.

Secretary-General Meets UN Special Adviser on MDGs


There are a number of coincidental diplomatic processes in 2015 that can give a new direction. In fact, the negotiating calendar is full, making 2015 potentially a year of true historic significance, if these negotiations are successfully completed. The global climate negotiations are due to take place during the coming year for completion in Paris in December 2015. In September 2015, the world leaders will gather at the UN for the largest-ever summit on global development, a three-day event during September 21-23, 2015. In July 2015 there will be yet another summit, on the global financial system. That presents an opportunity to reorient global finance to direct the world’s savings toward vital purposes: low-carbon energy, health care and disease control for the poor, sustainable cities, climate resilience, and more. Such a reorientation of finance would not only make the world safer, but it would create a new impulse of global growth that is investment-led rather than consumption-led.

All in all, these three high-level summits, on climate, the SDGs, and finance, offer a real opportunity to point the world economy on a new trajectory.


The question of the warming finds lots of enemies?

We have a world energy system based on fossil fuels that has developed over the course of two centuries. Fossil fuels have brought us the modern world, but now we know that fossil fuels will also wreck the planet if we continue to use them at the current rate. Yet the fossil fuel companies are resisting change. This is especially true in the major fossil-fuel producing economies such as the US, Canada, and Australia. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel giants are politically dominant institutions that have bought off the US politicians. Either we move to a low-carbon economy despite the opposition of Big Oil or we will face a ruined planet.

Not easy?

Nothing is easy. And the environmental challenge is unprecedented. It is at global and dire scale for the first time in human history. We are not ready for it politically, psychologically, culturally, or technologically. And time is running out.

What about Ebola?

Ebola is not yet under control. The heavily impacted countries in West Africa – Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – are among the poorest places in the world. The region was in turmoil of war for many years, and therefore did not have functioning health system when the outbreak occurred. The international agencies were mostly asleep at the switch. And the rich countries don’t care much if at all about the poor countries, so they provided far too little help in recent years to enable these countries to build even a basic health system. I know this because I tried to raise money for Liberian health care a year ago. The major donor agencies told me that there was no realistic prospect for finding even a few million dollars for Liberia. Now the bill to control Ebola will be billions of dollars, not millions to have prevented the epidemic in the first place.


Can we stop Ebola?

Ebola can be stopped. The key is to implement a basic epidemic-control system. When an individual shows Ebola systems, that individual should be tested very quickly. If infected, the individual should be taken by ambulance to an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). They should be given care to help keep them alive. All of this is possible, but it requires resources, training, equipment, and personnel, and all of that costs far more money than these economies can raise on their own. Ending the epidemic requires global solidarity and financial support from the international agencies and donor countries. Whether we are smart enough, fast enough, wise enough, and well enough organized to carry out these tasks, remains to be seen.


And what about the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine?

Of course the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are complex and have deep roots in history. We are at the 100th anniversary of World War I this year. That war ended the Ottoman Empire, which was replaced by European imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa. The imperialist powers governed cynically and undermined long-term governance in the region. When Europe withdrew from imperial rule after World War II, the US took up the imperial mantle, though of course under a different name and ideology. Still, the US became an agent of subterfuge and regime change in countries including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and many others. Without the US meddling, there would be much more stability in the Middle East than now.

Putin invades Ukraine and ISIS kills thousands of people?

Yes, Putin’s actions in Ukraine are cynical, violent, and in contradiction of international law. Yet so are US actions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other places. Neither the US nor Russia has honored international law. Both have acted cynically. And the West, led by the US, made huge errors vis-à-vis Russia. Back in the early 1990s, the US failed to help Russian democratization and economic reforms. We pay a price for that now. The US was more interested in creating a unipolar, US-led world than in helping its former adversary. That was a big blunder. More recently, the US has aggressively tried to expand NATO right up to Russian borders, inviting both Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. That is simply dangerous, wrong-headed, and provocative.

As for ISIS, where would ISIS be if the US had not funded the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (thereby laying the seeds of al-Qaeda), and then toppled Saddam Hussein in a cynical war, and then tried to topple Bashir al-Assad. The US opened the way for ISIS. That seems absurd but it’s sadly true.

You strongly believe in the absolute priority of education? How can we realize that?

There is a basic economic truth in the 21st century. Without at least a high-school education, there is only a life of poverty. Even a high-school education is not enough in the high-income countries. Yet hundreds of millions of young people in the developing countries are not getting even a high-school education. They are doomed to poverty, and their societies are doomed to instability, unless we get smart, and the world dramatically scales up access to education and job training on a massive scale.

Yet this kind of scale up is utterly possible. With information technology, we can reach students with quality education even in the most remote and poorest villages in the world, even in places without books or qualified teachers. I believe in the massive scale-up of information-technology based learning. My own free online university course, The Age of Sustainable Development, will reach hundreds of thousands of students in the coming few years. I am in touch with students all over the world, including in the poorest regions. This should be a pervasive reality.


You strongly believe in radical changes in favor of the poorest people in the world. But will those promises be achieved?

Ours is the generation that can end extreme poverty, if we try. Let me give you an example. The richest 85 people in the world (85 people out of 7.3 billion, or 0.00000001 of the world’s population) have a net worth of $2 trillion. Suppose that wealth was put to use to fight poverty. At a 5% annual payout, the flow of income amounts to $100 billion per year. For that amount of money, every child could be in school; every community could have basic health care; every household could have access to electricity. We are a very rich world, yet we leave 1 billion people to suffer in extreme poverty. It’s immoral, and as the Ebola epidemic shows, incredibly unwise. I support global funding for health, education, electrification, safe water, and other investments that could end extreme poverty in our generation.

How is the real state of economy today? What about USA, emerging countries, Europe?

The basic problem in the world today is that we try to spur consumption-led growth rather than investment-led growth. The US wants households to go into debt to buy consumer products, unaffordable houses, unaffordable cars, and more, rather than spending on clean energy, safer transport, the protection of waterways, research and development, and education and health of all children. We are wasting our wealth, creating short-term financial bubbles, and endangering the future through lack of foresight and long-term investments. In Europe, there is also a collapse of public investments. Even basic needs, such as new power transmission lines to tap renewable energy such as solar and wind power, is cut back under the name of “budget balance.” This is a false economy. We are losing the future in the name of short-termism.


What is your vision of the world today?

My vision of the world is that we are at a crossroads. We can choose a path of sustainable development – meaning the end of poverty, reduced inequality, and environmental protection – or we can choose a path of rising inequality, pockets of deep poverty, and environmental ruin. This is a choice, not a fate. The year 2015 will be a critical year of choice. Let us choose Sustainable Development.


New York

30 October, 2014

The Earth Institute – Columbia University