The Situationist

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 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 summaries of  remarkable presentation, see “Jeff Sachs Speaks for the Voiceless at Harvard Law School” or “Jeffrey Sachs urges students to represent the voiceless.” The Situationist is posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  You can link to Part I here.   The second part is below.

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I see three fundamental problems then that need addressing and they’re all interconnected.  The first is that in this interconnected world our tendency to pose questions as us versus them.  And as inherently conflict ridden as our first way of viewing the problem is becoming more and more dangerous.  But it’s a kind of dynamic that has a self-fulfilling prophecy about it.  I think McCain and Palin will raise by several percentage points certainly the probability that we’ll blow ourselves up in the next few years.  That’s not a small matter in my mind.  I think the way of looking at the world that John McCain has for whatever reason of history, background, honor or ignorance, is extraordinarily dangerous.  And the most dangerous statement of all that I know that has come out in recent years is his statement that the existential threat of our time is Islamic extremism.  If you define the existential threat of our time that way, and you pursue that in policy, the chances that we blow ourselves up rise immeasurably.

If we define our problems as us versus them they will become us versus them.  And we have a lot of reason to believe that we’re going to head off in that direction.  Our ignorance, our lack of understanding of the rest of the world, our lack of empathy, our inability to understand anything from another perspective, our fear, the kind of fear that obviously is threatening Obama’s campaign.  The Muslim.  The other.

This is a pervasive feature of the whole world, not just our society.  But it doesn’t matter how sophisticated and rich and all the rest, the capacity to go off in that direction is very, very high.  And in my view, John McCain exemplifies that.  And that’s a big issue.  I’m not intrinsically a partisan person.  I have actually relatively little interest in partisanship per se.  Not after a job in Washington I can tell you that for sure.  But I am worried, very much by what’s happening right now in the way we pose the global challenges.

Second, I believe that we’re seeing, and I see it every month in my work, wherever I am gravely threatening our well-being through resource depletion and destruction, environmental degradation and increasing marginalization of large parts of the world that are facing global environmental threats that have nothing to do from what came locally but end up destroying or threatening those societies.

Haiti is under water now partly because it’s a crowded, deforested environment, but to take a note from Kerry Emanuel at MIT, the great atmospheric dynamicist at MIT.  The frequency of high-intensity hurricanes in the Caribbean is on the rise because of anthropogenic global warming.   And that is not Haiti’s fault. In the places I’m working in East Africa, draught is becoming more and more frequent.

People are dying massively from this.  We don’t read the names.  We don’t read the stories.  When we do, we usually find some way to blame them for these mishaps because we define problems in ways that extricate ourselves and because, unfortunately, the journalists don’t really understand these things any better than anybody else.

But we end up with tremendous threats to large populations as a result of these global changes.  We’ve had massive typhoons that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent years.  More extreme tropical events in South Asia, in East Asia, in the Caribbean.  Massive draughts that carry away vast numbers of children from hunger and immuno-suppression that comes with inadequate food supply.  And I see in many parts of the word such as when I was in Malaysia in Malaysia, Borneo last month.  Truck after truck after truck after truck of big diptocarps, the great trees just being leveled, carried out, the environment de-neutered, and indigenous groups basically thrown off the land to make way for the loggers and then for the palm oil plantations that will follow after the logging.

And this is happening all over the world as well, because weak people and disposessed groups never can claim their rights and never can hold on to informal or traditional or group claims compared to the weight of commercial interest the way we define things in this world.  And so I happen to be in a community of indigenous or [?] populations in Sarawak, and despite the rights that they supposedly have under the Constitution, they are nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be enforced.  And actually we saw the longhouses just literally bulldozed to get people to leave the area so that the logging can continue.

And third, this leads to tremendous violence and instability, which Senator John McCain calls Islamic extremism.  Or we tend to ascribe to the unruliness of some other populations.  In a large swath of the world, really stretching from the dry lands of Senegal through Mali, through Niger, through Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, that whole swath of several thousand miles is a dry lands region.  In general it’s becoming dryer because of the warming of the Indian Ocean, and the consequence drying of this vast belt.  It’s leading to more hunger.  It’s leading to loss of livestock, and livelihoods.  At the same time, the population in this region is exploding.  Because the fertility rates remain very, very high.  There is very little contraception to be found.  We don’t talk about these things, neither do these countries especially with a few examples, the U.S. cuts the budget for family planning, denounces the U.N. Population Fund and all the rest.  And so we have like two blades of the scissors – falling water availability and rising populations.  And this leads to explosions like Darfur.  Or in the most extreme cases in what’s one of the driest places on the whole planet Somalia, where the entire government infrastructure collapses to the point where there is no national government anymore and hasn’t been for the last 15 years.

It would be very surprising if that didn’t provoke instability, violence, basses of terrorism and the like.  And low and behold, of course, it does.  And the U.S. response typically is to set up the African command of the U.S. military.  That’s our newest innovation.  I see American soldiers all over the place when I travel.  We call this Islamic extremism.  We view Darfur not as one of the worst crisis of water and food on the planet but only in the context of our ideological battles with Khartoum.  So we don’t understand the underpinnings of migration from the north of Darfur when the drying occurred of Nomadic populations who then came in and tried to, with the backing of the regime ethnically cleansed, the more sedentary sub-humid, but not as arid parts of southern Darfur.  But at the core this, this is water – it’s food, it’s livelihoods, with the backdrop of burgeoning populations and worsening environmental conditions.

But we label all of this as the enemy.  And every couple of months we send bombers in.  This is the approach that a country with a very high capital issue would take.  We don’t have very many troops as you know.  So we bomb.  More and more when we bomb, we kill women and children, destroy villages, can’t quite understand why people aren’t thrilled with this.  We tell lies so relentlessly, it’s absolutely impossible now to comprehend how dramatically we lie everyday.  Ah.  Anyone under a U.S. bomb is an insurgent.  That’s almost the definition in the newspapers.  And we have a cowardly press that is afraid of losing advertising revenues.  We’ve essentially lost the voice of an independent N.Y. Times, which in my view has become not quite a rag, but almost useless for understanding what’s going on.  Because they’re so conservative that they won’t question these things.  And this is where we are headed right now and that’s why I’m nervous.

So what would it take to solve these problems?

* * *

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

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4 Responses to “Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part II”

  1. Great post. Have linked to it. You guys really dig up some interesting talks. I’m an avid follower, keep up the great work.

  2. […] Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part II […]

  3. […] this lecture on September 11, 2008 at Harvard Law School. You can link to Part I here, Part II here, and Part III […]

  4. […] this lecture on September 11, 2008 at Harvard Law School. You can link to Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV […]

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