Why We Need A “Fundamental Shift” To A Sustainable Economy

Professor Jeff Sachs: "We need to re-think economic development."

Last year I heard a speech by Professor Jeff Sachs which crystalised a lot of things for me. (Sachs is a Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.)

I’m giving a speech myself soon at The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It’s for Design Week and it’s about ‘the importance of creativity for sustainability’. In preparing I’ve found myself coming back to Sachs’s talk at Sydney Uni.

Reason being Sachs puts the whole damn thing in context. He describes how we got to where we are now, how special our time is, and how we are at a watershed moment in human history where we’re going to have to make a fundamental shift to a sustainable economy.

In this post I’ve included a synopsis of the Sach’s speech and links to a podcast of it. I’ve also posted some notes from my proposition that creativity is going to be key in re-thinking and changing how we live.

Sachs on Sustainability

How we got to this point (where “the Earth is creaking under the weight of human economic activity”)
History explains a lot. Jeff Sachs described how for 2000 years the world’s population changed imperceptibly – staying in the hundreds of millions. Then with the Industrial Revolution the total number of humans suddenly shot up into the billions. (The change brought on by the revolutions of mastering energy and food production.) We’re at 6.7 billion now, and there’s no slow down in sight.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution brought with it an explosion of economic activity. The amount of economic production per person has multiplied a hundred times since the mid-1800’s. And like the population increase, economic activity per person is showing no signs of slowing down.

If you put those two key facts together – the number of people on the planet and the economic activity per person, you end up with a shitload of economic activity. All of which of course relies on massive natural resource use, not to mention the waste that comes with it.

We are only now beginning to realise that the planet is creaking under the weight of all this economic activity.

“It ain’t just climate change”
Sachs also confirmed something I had been thinking for some time. That climate change really is just a symptom of a much larger problem.

Yes, there is something bigger than climate change. And that is that all of the Earth’s physical symptoms are in decline. Our oceans, our forests, our water, our air, our fisheries, species on the planet, and the climate. All the things we rely on for our very survival. They are all under unprecedented assault – from this explosion of economic activity. And in fact in many cases these problems are compounding on each other.

All this has happened suddenly
Compared to how long humans have been on the planet, this change has happened merely moments ago. My Great Great Grandfather was born when the Industrial Revolution kicked off – in 1837. He was an Irish Journalist named James Ryan who came out to Australia in 1862 and set up a paper on a gold field in Victoria. In a little town called Walhalla on the edge of the Victorian Alps.

At that time the Earth’s natural resources must have seemed limitless – land, forests, water, air, fish were plentiful. In fact our economies have continued working under that premise – that there’s enough of everything. Which may have been ok up until a few generations ago, but certainly isn’t true now.

“We have to change how we live”
What we need is a fundamental shift in the way we live. Not just tinkering around the edges.

Modern technology has brought us where we are, and given us the lifestyle and advantages we enjoy. The challenge for us is to develop in a way which doesn’t destroy the Earth’s natural systems. This new way of thinking needs to be in every thing – in a big way. That’s where creativity comes in.

“The uniqueness of our time”
We are only really coming to terms with this new realisation now. As Sachs said, this is the challenge of our generation. Clearly we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve got to make a start. That vision of what society could be, I think, is an exciting one. To be at the forefront of a major change in society.

The role of creativity

Creativity – when two different things come together
The change to sustainable development needs to happen in each of the sectors of our economy – in the field where you work. And actually it needs cross-over between the disciplines.

Big ideas can often come out of two very different things or fields coming together. The idea for the printing press came about when Gutenberg observed the way a wine press worked, for example. Up til that time the written word was transcribed individually and bulk things like the bible were done by monks. Who would have though that the cross over paper and wine would revolutionise communications? Sustainability needs these kind of revolutionary ideas. It needs the kind of big ideas that arise when people from different fields come together.

Creativity – big ideas + inspiration
Creative people tend to see the big picture first. They’re inspired by big ideas. And they use big ideas to inspire others. (Which is why I think I liked the Sachs speech.) The sustainable revolution needs big ideas. And we need to inspire people to come on board.

Creativity – inspiration from nature
There have been some creative people who have seen sustainable solutions in nature itself. Janine Benyus’s ‘biomimicry’ idea where we learn to construct man made things from the genius of nature. And Paul Hawken’s ‘Ecology of Commerce’ which puts forward the idea of all business working in a cyclical way like nature – where everything is re-used – as opposed the linear, throw away system we have now.

Creativity – possibility
Also tied in with inspiration is the concept, and the feeling, of ‘possibility’. Imagine a world, an economy, that’s sustainable. How good would that be? If we grew food close to where we lived. If people rode bicycles to work. If our energy came from wind and solar. And people collected the plentiful rainwater that falls in cities. If our buildings were sustainable and our cars were electric.

Get me to Denmark
It’s not only is it possible, it’s already happening. Denmark is one of those places. And interestingly, they celebrate and encourage creativity. In fact they have legislated innovation – that companies must have a strategy for innovation.

When the global financial crisis hit, the Danish Government was one of the main backers of the ‘Green New Deal’. A proposal that the huge financial injections be put into making economies sustainable.

Check out our previous story and podcast on the Green New Deal. It’s a big, inspiring, revolutionary idea.

Useful links

You can see, hear and read on more on Jeff Sachs and his rationale for a sustainable revolution through the links below.

1. Jeff Sachs at Sydney Uni – the talk that got me thinking.
2. Jeff Sachs speaking at Boston University.

Jeff Sachs speaking on NPR about ‘Common Wealth’

1. Jeff Sachs’s Time magazine article on the sustainable development revolution.
2. Review of Sachs’s book ‘Common Wealth’ by the UK’s Independent.

Other links
1. More about Sachs’s book ‘Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet’
2. Sachs at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
3. More about Jeff Sachs.

Lecture slides Common Wealth Jeffrey Sachs

View more documents from Kreshna Aditya.

Sachs’s speech winds up with this quote from John F Kennedy. A rallying call of why it is possible for us to pull together.

“In the final analysis our most common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breath the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Jeff Sachs shot courtesy of the European Parliment on Flickr.

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