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Solutions for a Crowded Planet

Star economist Jeffrey Sachs speaks at BU Tuesday

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Economist Jeffrey Sachs says that the world’s richest nations could end extreme poverty by devoting 0.7 percent of their gross national incomes to international aid. He speaks at BU on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Earth Institute at Columbia University

Economist Jeffrey Sachs has toured Western Kenya with Angelina Jolie and is among Bono’s closest anti-poverty advisors, but the Columbia University professor’s academic and global development credentials trump his celebrity connections. Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute and the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia, a special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and president and cofounder of the Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending extreme global poverty. He is also the former director of the UN Millennium Project, which set eight international human-rights goals for poverty, education, hunger, disease, gender equality, and environmental sustainability to be met by member nations by 2015. He was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004 and 2005.

Sachs’ most recent book, Common Wealth, argues that global well-being — and the long-term survival of humankind — is under threat because of overcrowding of the planet and overuse of finite environmental resources. He spoke with BU Today about the problem, and his proposed solutions.

Sachs will speak at Boston University at noon on Tuesday, April 15, at the Photonics Center, Room 206, 8 St. Mary’s St. His talk, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, is part of the College of Arts and Sciences economics department series Conversations with Economists. It is free and open to the public.

BU Today: How have we, as a species, reached this crisis point?
Sachs: Basically because we’re good at production and good at reproduction, and the result is that we are a very crowded planet using a vast amount of global resources. That’s raised our living standards, but it’s put us on an unsustainable trajectory. We have to be real smart right now to sustain ourselves through this patch.

In your book Common Wealth, you identify a series of goals and challenges to build sustainability. What are they?
First, we need to address the challenge of managing our natural resources effectively and sustainably. We need to stabilize the global population — the more people there are, the harder it is to sustain this combination of environment and development that we’re looking for. Third, we have to reach out to the people in extreme poverty, in regions where conflict is rampant. And now we have to learn the basic lesson of how to get along on a global scale, with people of different religions, ethnicities, races, and cultures, and stop this relentless descent into us-versus-them categorization and conflicts. Perhaps the fourth is the hardest, but all of them are big challenges that are urgent now simply by virtue of the fact of how crowded and interconnected we are.

The international perception of the United States is pretty bleak right now. Are people ready to collaborate on an American initiative?
I think there would be a grateful reception for a United States that is approaching these problems again in a peaceful and cooperative way. There’s dismay all over the world — people have been shocked by what’s happened in the past eight years. I have to say, the previous 8 and 15 and 20 years were not any great demonstration of wisdom on this country’s part, but they were better. People all over the world know that there are major problems of food, water, climate, and disease control that are shared everywhere and there’s a need for cooperation. By working together we strengthen our ties and trust in many other areas as well. I see the fact of global cooperation in two ways: one, there’s no way to solve the problem without it, and two, maybe it can divert our tendencies toward conflict by working on the same side for a change.

In your last book, The End of Poverty, you argue that if wealthy nations put 0.7 percent of their gross national income toward international aid, it would eradicate global poverty by 2025. Do you still feel that’s feasible?
It is, from a technical point of view, feasible. The difference between being in extreme poverty and being poor, but on a path of development, is a modest set of needs. The difference between being a peasant farmer, trapped in the anguish of hunger and disease, and being a commercial farmer with microfinancing and a healthy family is not a big step. It’s not a step that can be taken by the poorest of the poor on their own, but it’s not a big step compared to what we squander all the time, whether it’s the spending on the military or the consumption of the rich. We could easily afford to work with poor regions to make this possible, and I think we’d better. The consequences for us, in innumerable ways, are adverse.

You say it’s technically feasible, but what about culturally? Can people commit to this level of change?
I think the election year will tell, for one thing, because Senator McCain is running on a platform of continuity, and the Democrats are running on a platform of change. We’ll see what happens. This is really an issue that is before our country in a pretty dramatic way. In my view it’s a balance of fear versus hope. If fear gets the better of us, we could continue on a completely unproductive approach of military interventions, not even talking to the other side, and so forth. If hope is given a chance, we would find that our options are really much better than they look.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

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