Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part V
Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2008
This is Part V 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, Part III here, and Part IV here.
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Now what are some of the things that we’ll need to solve these problems? I, of course, don’t have any full list, but let me mention a few things that I think are important to add to the mix.
First, we absolutely have to find ways to reinforce the role of science in society. And that’s because of the fact that the nature of our problems, the interconnected challenges of the physical environment and human economic activity and survival require a deep understanding of underlying physical mechanisms. We need to get science deeply embedded in our public policy processes in ways that it’s not right now. Congress is scientifically ignorant. The White House, I won’t even go there, but a travesty and a danger for the world. George Bush, in my mind is the worst president in American history. Because I don’t have the visceral feeling for James Buchanan, by the way. He may be the rival, but other than that, and a large part of it is how Bush scoped up precisely the anti-science that we need right now for survival.
My favorite international institution in this regard is the Inter-governmental Panel on climate change. The IPPC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year, and the reason I like it so much is that it is a constructed model of how to create a public understanding about scientific consensus on a complex topic. That’s not easy to do. There’s lots of reasons why the general public has almost no sense of what real science is about. Of course, general public hears almost no science. It’s not trained to understand these issues, does not get Science magazine once a week to read – though should. I recommend it to all of you. Because even the first half is quite wonderful for non-scientists. Just to give you a general update about the world of science. And it’s very important for you to have that. Because that’s what our world needs to understand right now.
But, more than that, there are obviously deliberately obfuscatory forces the corporate world and the religious world and others that take shots at all of this. And so the public’s utterly confused even when the scientific community has a rich knowledge and understanding of very complex challenges. So the IPPC is a process that was designed to bring in a serious methodical – some would say plodding, but still it works – methodical way for scientific knowledge and consensus to the broad public. And it’s having it’s effect on slowly, grudgingly dragging the world into a recognition about climate change risk. Because it has a certain authority to the way it has been carefully constructed to be open, transparent, honest, pure review base to deliver that sense of consensus. We need that on many, many fronts. We don’t have that kind of process right now. Congressional oversight doesn’t work. The administration and the mechanisms of our departments are independent of science. And so we need to invent new ways to bridge the divide.
Second, we face massive financing problems for global pubic goods and for addressing the needs of the poor. They’re not massive relative to our wealth or our income. I’ve estimated that they require between 2-3% of the world’s annual income to address the inter-connective problems of extreme poverty, climate change, energy systems, water, food supply, bio-diversity conservation. It’s not a lot of money to actually consolidate the future and end extreme poverty and head off the risks on anthropogenic climate change and other massive challenges to our future well-being. Small. But it’s vastly larger than what we actually put into any of these things right now.
Our budget on energy research, just to give you an idea, has been running at about 3 billion dollars a year. We went to war in Iraq because of oil, and have spent about a trillion dollars so far. It’s just not smart, this imbalance between what we’re investing in real solutions and what we’re ready to invest in bombing and killing people for illusory solutions. But that’s the kind of trade-off that we’re making. We’re spending almost 2 billion dollars a day on the military in this country, and for whatever reason both candidates are basically saying “yeah, we’ve got to do that, probably even more.” Which I think is a huge mistake. That means that the three billion we spent total on sustainable energy systems each year comes to 1½ days of Pentagon spending. That can’t be the right allocation for our security. It just can’t be right.
So I think we need new ways to finance these public goods. Some, of course, does have to go through our political process each year or Congressional appropriations, but we also need global financing to address global challenges like climate change. And one of the things I want to work on much in the future is an allocation of some fraction of a global carbon tax or selling carbon permits to mobilizing global financing for public goods.
So we right now are emitting about globally about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. I’m sorry, it’s about 36 billion tons of which 30 billion is from energy and about 6 billion is from deforestation, and the number is rising because of the growing world economy of course. But if we devoted $10 per ton to addressing these problems, and the that would be maybe one cent per kilowatt hour implication for electricity, then when you do the arithmetic you see that would be global financing of another 300 billion dollars a years. Which actually would be enough to address some pretty basic questions of energy transformation as well as poverty reduction. So creating a mechanism of global financing I think is an important part of solving the global public goods problems.
Third is public education. Well, it started here in Massachusetts, and I kind of believe you’re going to have to step up to this much more, and we’re all going to have to step up to this. But we actually will not solve these problems with an American public that is as poorly informed as it is right now. I don’t have an answer to that.
We’re competing against a very confused, difficult, overloaded environment of sound bites. But the truth is we’re not having a discussion worthy of our survival in this country. The newspapers won’t be the ones to do it. We’re going to have to figure out other ways to do it. I don’t have an answer to that. I just want to raise the problem that’s it’s got to be part of our solution, and it’s got to be public education, not only here but internationally obviously, where the issues are at least as urgent.
One of the things we’re doing at Columbia, which I like in the last year and this year is that we’ve created a global classroom where we have 15 campuses on-line, once a week for an hours so that we have an international discussion that includes New York, Keota, Ecuador , Sussex, England, Paris, Mycale, Ethiopia, Abadan, Nigeria, Delhi, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, universities in all those places, and I do believe that somehow we should be able to use technology more effectively t]o spread knowledge, information, understanding, and I wouldn’t mind if you did that between now and November 4 also. Because we’re just sitting here like sitting ducks, or paralyzed moose, or whatever it is. And we shouldn’t, we really shouldn’t be sitting here just paralyzed. So that’s a third area.
Fourth is leadership by all key intellectual sectors including the law. I would like to see the law school and the legal community step up to these problems more than they have. We have, for example, international treaty obligations which as I understand it from the Constitution makes those obligations part of our national law. In climate change, for example. But international law is such a weak reed in our system that it barely gets any traction at all. Why is that?
How many of you are going to specialize in international law so that treaties which are going to be vital for international action have a force of law and operational side to them? Or human rights law, where all signatories to the universal declaration on human rights. We’re in the 60th anniversary. Those rights are obviously not observed or operationalized for billions of people on the planet. And that document is viewed not as an instrument of international law which I believe it should be but as something that Eleanor Roosevelt did nicely 60 years ago.
That can’t actually be the way we’re going to solve problems if we don’t take these issues the legal dimensions of these issues with extreme seriousness. Seems to me international law should have the same gravity as domestic law. And the idea that domestic law has real force behind it because of sovereignty and international law does not, I think is actually an exaggerated difference between the two cases, because both of them are sustained by a self-fulfilling belief in their importance. Nothing more. Domestic law can be as useless as international law if you don’t believe in it. And international law can be as consequent as domestic law if you do believe in it. And so I do think there is a major challenge here that is unfulfilled by legal scholarship, but also obviously, not just the law. I don’t mean to be picking on you.
My own profession is absolutely, completely 100% captivated in the stock market as the central issue of economic analysis and is really wasting a lot of time and human resources on that and taking issues of poverty or environmental sustainability as fringe issues that you might take one course and possibly on the side in one’s economics training. And so I think that there’s also been an abnegation of responsibility and failure of prioritization there as well.
As I mentioned, a fifth point we need to bring ethics explicitly back into our discussion, in a very formal, self-conscious educated, reflective way. Not just so you stay ethical and stay out of trouble, but the ethics of a global society which needs to exist but doesn’t exist right now. We’re so interconnected, we can’t go on simply just hating each other or ignoring each other or ready to bomb each other, or making the existence of others the existential challenge of our time. And so we need to face up to the kind of ethics that can support the things that will keep us safe, which I think is what ethics is really about in an important way.
And finally, and as a general matter, I think that there is an important, not quite new definition, but a new boldness from universities that’s going to be needed. And I see Harvard taking tentative steps in that direction, but I would like to see Harvard do a lot more than it’s doing. I think universities actually have a unique role to play in addressing these problems. And that’s not pure university chauvinism from someone who has lived within universities for 36 years. Yes, it may be biased, but it is also a considered view of what its going to take to address the kinds of problems that I’m talking about this morning.
First, only universities have the scientific knowledge within them, across the various disciplines, to be able to have a coherent knowledge base to the complex challenges that we face. And that’s a wonderful thing. Governments don’t for sure. NGO’s don’t. The general public doesn’t. And so if you do believe as I do that understanding the human bio-physical interactions is fundamental for our well-being, universities have necessarily a unique role to play in that. We have that cross-disciplinary capacity that no other institution has. I’d like to think that we are unbiased. Relative at least, to other institutions in society. We’re not out for the buck, that’s for sure. This can’t be the way to go if you’re trying to get rich. And so I think universities have a kind of credibility and a neutrality that does not come if you’re working for the U.S. State department or if you’re working for a business, or most other institutions that are part of this challenge.
Fourth, and Harvard certainly taught me this, institutions are – this institution is – probably almost uniquely here for the long term. And so the ability of universities to think for the long term is also very unusual, and Harvard more than anyone, any other institution on our continent, is certainly reflective of that.
And the fifth point that I think is absolutely fundamental, and it’s the reason why I’m so delighted to be here, is that I believe that universities are uniquely inter-generational in ways that are almost not occurring in any other social institutions, of any kind. Students get younger every year I find, and that’s an absolutely great thing. There is inherently in the life of the university a rejuvenation of topics, points of view, and capacities every single year. So you literally, not just figuratively, and not just as a nice word from you, reflect the hopes of Harvard by your very being here. You are the embodiment of this institution more than its faculty, I might say. Because you’re the ones that are going to carry all of this forward. And this intergenerational uniqueness of the universities I think is extraordinarily important.
I know working as an activist on these issues that there is no way that even people of my generation, if I could put it this way, understand it. Certainly not John McCain’s administration. That’s not personal, that’s the fact of his age and his upbringing, and his knowledge, and it’s not what we need for the 21st century. It just isn’t. But what we do need is a good intergenerational spread of expertise and an exchange of ideas that’s constant and intense.
You people, I mean when I have need for true understanding of the information age that we’re living in, I go to my 13 year old daughter. You guys are a little bit out of it. Already a little bit too old. Since I have children that range from 13 to 26 I know their relative capacities, and our 13 year old’s absolutely the best at all of this. But the knowledge that you bring and the perspectives are absolutely vital to this. What I find evermore thrilling in the university is the chance to share, interact, and work together to solve these problems.
Thank you very much.
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Part VI of this series will include the question and answer session that followed Professor Sach’s lecture. To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.