The Situationist

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall at Harvard Law School in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  To read an article summarizing his remarkable presentation, see “Jeff Sachs Speaks for the Voiceless at Harvard Law School.”

The Situationist will be posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  Here’s the first part.

* * *

Good morning everybody.  What a pleasure to be here.  This is actually a room I know well.  I taught classes here for many years with Roberto Unger, who you know is now minister in the government of Brazil and working on problems of sustainable development.  So, good things happen in this classroom, and I expect many of you to go out and be leaders in the future, and it’s especially a privilege to speak to you at the beginning of your law school experience.

My main message to you is whatever they might do in teaching you in the next three years, don’t let anybody beat out of you the enthusiasm for seeing law as a instrument of social change, and as a mechanism for solving human problems.  That I think is the most important role that we need to play in the coming years, and I believe, as I’ll emphasize, that places like Harvard have unique responsibilities that are not being fulfilled right now, and because of that are putting us at unnecessary risk.  Or to put it another way, Wasilla is just beating the stuffing out of Cambridge right now, and we’ve got to get our act together and to speak out and start working and doing what we believe to be possible, which is the reason why we’re here.  And that is the idea of applying intellect and learning and science and knowledge and history to human betterment, and we’re facing a massive reaction in this country.  It says none of that’s possible, that none of you care, that we’re all a bunch of elitists out to denigrate the rest of the country and the rest of the world.  It’s a bunch of crap, if I can use a technical term.  But we better get our voices together, and we better start acting on our beliefs, and we better start communicating better than we are.

And the reason is, this world’s in a lot of trouble — despite and, ironically in part, because of our wealth and technical capacity.  The world is not reliably running on the rails, or running on the fiber optic cables right now.  The world is at an unusually high risk of spinning out of control.  And I think it’s our greatest challenge to try to help insure that that doesn’t happen.  And it will require special kinds of action and knowledge and commitment – a kind of mix of knowledge and the work that you’re going to learn and the skills that your going to develop in the next three years combined with an ethical commitment which won’t come from your classes necessarily; you’re going to have to find it yourselves and in other ways, although I’m sure your teachers can help to impart it if they’re doing their job properly.

But it’s going to have to come also through a lot of reflection, internally about what you want to do and how you want to use the skills that you’re developing.  My job is to worry you today.  If I weren’t worried, I would not be doing what I’m doing.  There are plenty of other things that I’d like to do more if I felt that it was really possible.  But I feel a little bit compelled to do what I’m doing right now which is trying to understand these challenges of poverty or environmental degradation or profound inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict or a geo-politics that’s gone crazily awry or a country like ours which is seemingly absolutely incapable of serious discussion right now – under almost any circumstances.  I’d rather be doing other things.  But I’m doing these things because I think that they actually are important.

Why am I worried?  I’m worried because I think that the world is in a very dangerous, unprecedented and poorly understood situation and the two concepts that for me are extremely important in thinking about this – one I use in the subtitle of my book Commonwealth: Crowding, Economics for a Crowded Planet.

I think we’re in each other’s faces globally as never before.  We haven’t adjusted to the realities of a global inter-connected society of nearly 7 billion people now.  And with those numbers rising by nearly 80 million a year, and I know that that crowding is leading to incredible marginalization of hundreds of millions of people in an extremely dangerous way.  People you don’t see that we would not naturally think about that are pundits and editorial writers and our government officials no nothing about.

And it’s only because of my accidental luck personally to have gotten involved in very marginal communities and places in the world in marginal and an economic sense that I’ve been able to understand this because I never would have from what I learned across the parking lot in Littauer where I studied or when I was teaching because I didn’t know what I was talking about frankly.  For many, many years of teaching because I hadn’t seen these things with my own eyes.  So one part of this is crowding and that’s a term which for me means a number of things which I’ll explain, but it basically means a world that is not coming to grips with it’s interconnectedness, it’s diversity, and the pressure’s on the weakest and the most vulnerable in the planet which include more than one billion people.

The other big risk, very much interconnected with the first is related to a term that I like very much – coined by an atmospheric scientist who was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the chemistry that underlies the threat to ozone depletion.  A scientist named Paul Crutzen who coined the phrase for our age “the anthropocene.”  That’s a geological sounding term which he means to substitute for the technical term of our geologic epoch which is called the Holocene.  That’s the post ice-age era in which civilization has developed and now 6.7 billion of us live.

And what Crutzen said out of his deep awareness and deep understanding of the science of our time, is that humankind, the Anthropos, has taken over the earth’s physical systems in ways that we barely understand, but which are a profound threat for survival even.  And he should know because it was only by accident that while looking a possible implications of supersonic transport technologies in the early 1970s, he and others started to think about how certain chemicals – the chlorofluorocarbons which were felt to be inert, safe, clever ways to get your deodorant under your arms through aerosols, would actually threaten the planet.  So it was an accidental discovery that CFC’s would actually become chemically active as they rose through the stratosphere and the chlorine atoms then would decompose the ozone level.  And it took brilliant, completely accidental sleuthing by a number of scientists to uncover this.

We happened then to have a massive satellite up in the sky that could take a picture of the ozone hole over Antarctica which became one of the most famous pictures of the second half of the 20th century.  And the combination of the science and the ability to measure it and confirm it led to a series of global agreements that for a change, actually, have more or less delivered what they promised showing that it is possible to reach global agreements on these issues.

I find this example pregnant with all sorts of important meaning.  First, the ability of humankind to fundamentally disrupt the biosphere.  That’s pretty good of us.  That’s not so easy to do.  Second, the fact that massive, major things can happen without any awareness and it’s only an accidental scientific discovery.  Whether it was the chain of effect of DDT through the food cycle but Rachel Carson made famous in Silent Spring, or the far more important effects of CFC’s on the ozone level.  But these were things that were not understood.  There was no search for their effect, they were only accidentally discovered.  And, third, the fact of the matter that what we’re doing ecologically, is at such a massive and growing scale, and so multi-dimentional, so multi-faceted, so far beyond our measuring systems, our technical knowledge right now, so unprecedented in extent, and of course, not exactly the burning issues of our “drill baby drill” campaign right now, that we’re not exactly on top of this.

When you put these two facts together – a crowded world experiencing still massive technical change, and massive increases of natural resource use and an environment already under pervasive threat only poorly understood, and politically almost not in anybody’s focus.  And with most of the world including most of this country are not even aware of it.  I say we’ve got a massive problem, and I think it’s going to be intra-connected set of challenges that will be your generations leading challenges.  Not the ones we talk about every day.  But these are going to be the challenges that will become the centerpiece of the global reality whether they ever become the centerpiece of our politics or not.

I see three fundamental problems then that need addressing and they’re all interconnected . . . .

* * *

Part II of this series will pick up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

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6 Responses to “Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I”

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