The Situationist

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2008

This is Part IV of a loose, unofficial transcript of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs‘s remarkable lecture “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  He delivered this lecture on September 11, 2008 at Harvard Law School. You can link to Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

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What I’ve argued in my most recent two books, The End of Poverty, and Common Wealth, is that the essential problem, maybe just trying to put myself out of a job.  The essential problem that we face is not the resource problem.  It’s not the cost of solutions.  It’s not the lack of alternatives.  It’s not the hopelessness of these deep, dark forces which compel us to go over the cliff because it’s either that or turning out the lights on our civilization.

There is a view, a dark view which says well this has a great party of the last two hundred years.  We’ve reached peak oil.  It’s really the end of that era of the fossil fuel age, and will necessarily, no matter what we do and how we scramble, revert to a situation of vastly lower material conditions because that’s just the budget constraint for the world.  So that is one view on the environmental far extreme.  On the religious far extreme is the view basically shares the same outlook that the world’s coming to an end.  But for other reasons, and I regard that view as also no joke because it informs foreign policy actually – an apocalyptic thinking and also inability to discuss issues of the next 50 years or 100 hundred years because it’s a mystical view that all of these events are out our control.

Now what I mean by resources not being the basic constraint is that when you actually try to decompose the problems that we face, like the CFC problem which a very interesting one, where you had aerosols and refrigerants that were threatening life on the planet, it turned out it was almost costless to substitute new chemicals in the refrigerators and in the aerosol cans.  It was resisted by industry for many years.  Junk science – this is garbage.  No proof.

All the things that corporate public affairs departments and legal departments do, do not go this way.  Let someone else do that.  That is unworthy of your talents.

By that’s the major initial reaction.  And then, we can’t do it.  It’s going to break the bank.  And then it turns out it’s almost costless actually to address a problem that would have profound risk to the whole plant.  My understanding of the challenges that we face is that they’re more of that character than the character of insoluble problems of the world that is overshot the caring capacity of the earth.

The argument that I’ve been trying to make is that if we act consciously, “collectively” — a word that is very unpopular — consciously and collectively in a shared way harness our scientific and technical knowledge to direct at specific problems through government even.  Even a bigger no no in my profession.  To address problems of hunger, disease control, fertility reduction, voluntary fertility reduction, deforestation, draught, vulnerability and the rest.

We have some great possibilities at hand, some technologies that already exist — that simply by applying them, could save millions of lives and be transformative in human well-being.  My favorite example is the anti-malaria bed net.  Five bucks lasts five years – good for 2 children.  Fifty cents a child per year would save just that maybe half a million lives every year.  But if combined with medicine, which are 80 cents a dose, could save a million lives per year and break transmission of malaria in many places.

And we don’t do it because the people that are on the receiving line of that are utterly impoverished, and blind to us as a result of their utter impoverishment.

And when they’re blind to us they’re also blind to the market because they can’t buy these things.  They don’t have the money to buy these things.  And they’re blind to us politically, and they’re blind to the market and the result is that they die and these problems don’t get addressed.

But there are many, many other technologies like that.  And if we think systematically about the challenges for instances, low-carbon energy and what we know about solar power for example, starting with the fact that incoming solar radiation, several thousand times our use of energy.  And so if we harness even modest amounts of solar radiation in the great deserts of the world, the Mohave, the Atacama, or the Sahara, or the Gobi, one could, with transmission lines carry clean electricity, at rather low cost to very large populations in ample quantity, and good to last least another billion years, and probably about five billion years.

After that I have no solutions, by the way.

But, I’m working on the next hundred years.  So we have many solutions.  We know with automobiles the technology is already at hand.  If harnessed to a clean power grid could reduce by to ¼ or 1/5 of the current emissions even with the same miles driven through plug-in hybrids and other technologies that it would end up being cheaper in present value terms than the ones we have now.  It wouldn’t even be a net cost to society.

So my argument has been that the economics of this are pretty good.  The fear factor could really come down.  It’s not really true we have to break our civilization to address these problems.  But we have to look up from our stupidity.  And our fear, our resentments, our short-sightedness, and we also have to understand that what we teach across the parking lot about the wonders of the market is approximately half the story.

And the other half of the story is why markets don’t work in many key cases.  They don’t work when the people on the receiving line are so poor that they don’t have a market demand.  That’s the first place that they don’t work.  They don’t work when the object is the global commons, the air, the water, the climate.  They don’t work when the problem is demographic choice.  We have some serious areas where self-organizing market-based systems will not solve these problems, even if the technologies and the costs look pretty good actually.  And those are the reasons why politics matters in the end.  Because self-organization is absolutely tremendous.

Markets are great when people really can just look after themselves and they can make their choices when that kind of decentralized self-organizing process works.  By all means, let’s do it.  Because it’s the easiest kind of organization to let people have their own freedom of choice and to do what they want.  But a lot good economics is about the conditions in which such self-organization does not lead to the shared wellbeing of this society.  That’s really what a whole field of public economics is about.  But we don’t even let that into our ideological toolkit.

Fortunately, it’s a large part of your toolkit.  Questions of zoning and eminent domain and regulation are really about areas where markets can’t do their job.  But we’ve not harnessed that kind of knowledge to a political understanding, and a willingness to address these issues.  And we have a relentless disdain for the poor, and a relentless ignorance and neglect of our commons, whether within our country or globally.  And those are precisely the areas where the self-organization is not going to work.  And our political system right now is completely broken – not completely broken, and I admit I could feel a lot better on election day than I do right now.  Maybe you could say the political system is in good shape in a certain way that it could bring forward a former president of the Harvard Law Review.  But he better whop the former mayor of Wasilla, or this thing is really, really in bad shape.

If we can’t bring forward confidence and knowledge reliably, and with a public understanding that that’s important for our survival, and we have no such understanding right now.  We’re in a very dangerous situation.  And that’s partly where your voices are really urgently needed right now.  The rampant anti-intellectualism of our time, the grossness of these attacks on elitism, and all of this bastardazition of democratic politics is very dangerous for us.  This is not a game.  I repeat, this is real life and I believe survival actually.

And so the political system doesn’t do it.  Now what are some of the things that we’ll need to solve these problems?

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

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