Paths to Sustainability



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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Charles Dickens’ immortal characterization of the French Revolution applies equally to our own time. It was the best of times: global poverty is at an all-time low, and life expectancy is at an all-time high. It was the worst of times: humanity is creating an environmental disaster by its own hands. So, which is it? Both. And what does the future portend? That depends on us. Our fate is squarely in our own hands on this one.

Here’s another description, this one by the great biologist E. O. Wilson:

“We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

The problem, in this view, is that our wondrous technologies, the ones that are ending poverty and extending life, are also running far faster than our emotional development and institutional capacities to control them.

And here is a third, by Pope Francis, in his remarkable encyclical Laudato si’:

“Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan. Yet, the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide. A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.”

We have, indeed, a political consensus on the key challenge, and it takes the name “sustainable development.” On September 25, 2015, all 193 member states of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and with it, the Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shown in figure 1. By sustainable development, the UN member states mean an economy that is simultaneously prosperous, equitable, and environmentally sustainable.

Figure 1: The Sustainable Development Goals


I have recently described these three goals as “smart, fair, and sustainable.” Smart, today, means the deployment of advanced information technologies that save us from backbreaking labor and enable us to share knowledge and crucial information with all parts of the world on a nearly instantaneous basis. Smart economies can escape from poverty and leapfrog in health, education, and quality of life. Fair means that the benefits of modern technology are widely shared, that, in the words of the UN, “no one is left behind.” Extreme poverty is an anachronism in a world economy that produces $125 trillion annually, with an average output per person of $16,600 (IMF estimates for 2017). And sustainable means living within “planetary boundaries,” that is, keeping the world economy within safe operating limits regarding the uses of vital resources, including water, land, and biodiversity. The main planetary boundaries are famously depicted in figure 2, emphasizing the dangers to the climate, ozone level, freshwater, biodiversity, and other parts of the Earth’s systems.

Figure 2: Planetary boundariesplanetary-boundaries

To achieve sustainable development we need a new global systems thinking, one that combines a deep knowledge of four separate subsystems: the techno-economic system that has produced vast wealth with the “godlike” technologies; the political system that is essential for providing the public goods that underpin the economy and for sharing the benefits of modern technology; the social system, that determines whether social groups—often divided by language, race, culture, and religion—cooperate or fight. And the Earth systems, including the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles that humanity has disturbed and degraded at our peril.

We currently lack such systems thinking. Many people are unaware of the underlying techno-economic systems that enable us to manage an economy of 7.5 billion people at such a high level of average performance. Very few people understand the underlying technologies of the Internet, mobile telephony, aviation, disease prevention and control, food production and distribution, power generation and distribution, finance and payments, and much more, which make the system function. And experts in one domain are very rarely expert in others.

Despite the fact that we are all political animals (to paraphrase Aristotle) and live within political systems, we lack a good understanding of how politics can and should produce sustainable development in our time. As Wilson correctly notes, our institutions are medieval. America’s constitution, a remarkable intellectual achievement, is from 1789. It works, but it also creaks today, unable to deliver wellbeing on a reliable basis for the American people.

And though we are all physically part of the biosphere itself, and are naturally drawn toward it (according to Wilson’s theory of biophilia), much of humanity is hardly aware that we are destroying it. We are at grave threat of trespassing all the planetary boundaries, with consequences that could be dire. One major characteristic of Earth systems is their nonlinearity. We could easily find ourselves in the midst of rapid and uncontrollable physical change. Another major characteristic is irreversibility (or hysteresis), the property that a physical system can swing from one state to another on a long-term basis. We could soon find ourselves, for example, with a several-meter rise of the sea level as the result of the disintegration of parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets due to human-induced global warming. And if that occurs, there is almost surely no return to lower sea levels for millennia afterward.

Perhaps the system we are least in control of these days is the social system. It is a depressing fact that as the world economy has become global, our Stone Age instincts to view the world as “Us versus Them” seems also to be on the rise. For several decades following the atrocities of Hitler it seemed that nationalism was kept at bay, at least to some extent. But now vulgar nationalism is resurging, marked by the primitive utterances of right-wing nationalist politicians that are emerging in many countries, most notably and dangerously in the United States.

Wilson has helped us to understand these primitive and dangerous intergroup emotions. According to him, and Darwin before him, human traits were probably forged in the context of “two-level” natural selection. At one level, individuals (and their genes) competed within localized communities. At another level, groups of individuals (bands of hunter-gatherers) competed with each other. The result: strong norms of in-group cooperation (e.g. for a successful hunt) as well as strong norms of intergroup rivalry and distrust forged in repeated wars and competition for land.

What can we achieve if we understand and properly manage these four interacting systems, the techno-economic, political, social, and environmental? We can achieve sustainable development. Indeed, ours can be the generation that ends poverty, achieves social justice in the allocation of basic needs, and finally brings global warming and the loss of biodiversity under control. The best of times. And if we fail to understand these systems and control them? The worst of times.


So, in this sense, the SDGs are first and foremost a global homework assignment: learn about the global technological, political, social, and environmental systems, and propose ways to manage them to achieve seventeen goals by 2030. I tell my students that their homework assignment indeed is “to end poverty, produce social justice, and stop climate change by 2030.” When they panic, I remind them that the assignment is open-book; that they can (and must) work in groups; and that the homework is due in fourteen years rather than next weekend or the next election. The homework is tough but fair. And everybody can pass.

Here are some hints on the answers.

We must help the world to perceive the challenge of sustainable development and overcome the normal profit motives

  1. First, the techno-economic systems are now so powerful, and becoming even more so (with artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, atomic-scale manufacturing, and more) that the seventeen SDGs are truly in reach. The issue is mobilizing the resources and expertise to achieve them: and not just in a few leading countries, but all over the world. My colleagues and I have made repeated calculations concerning how much it would cost to achieve sustainable development, in terms of increased investments in fighting poverty, ensuring universal access to healthcare and education, shifting from high-carbon to low-carbon energy to head off global warming, and protecting threatened marine and terrestrial habitats. The best guess that we have come to is that the shift of global resources needed is on the order of 2–3 percent of global output per year, or roughly $3 trillion. That may sound like a hefty sum, and it is, but it is a hefty sum within a huge and rich global economy. It is a sum easily within reach through taxes, markets, foreign assistance, and other methods of mobilizing and transferring financial resources.
  2. Second, success in achieving the SDGs requires the mobilization of expert knowledge within a multi-stakeholder setting. There is no better way to understand how to control HIV/AIDS then to ask HIV/AIDS experts. There is no better way to understand how to decarbonize the energy system than to ask engineers expert in energy systems. That may seem obvious, but how rarely our society acts that way. We are bombarded by the foolish opinions of pundits, politicians, and blowhards when real evidence is easily within reach at universities, think tanks, and academies of science and engineering. Yet the experts must interact not only with each other but with all key stakeholders, including civil society, businesses, and government. We need the knowledge of experts mobilized in ways that are fair and trusted by society at large.
  3. Third, success requires sustained and planned efforts over many years or decades. Ensuring that every child can achieve a secondary education (SDG 4) will require at least five years of sustained investments in many low-income countries. The same is true of universal health coverage (SDG 3). The conversion of today’s energy systems to low-carbon systems will require thirty to fifty years in view of the long lives of our infrastructure and the long lead times needed for large-scale investments in energy systems. I am constantly reminded, and inspired, by the US moonshot of the 1960s. In under nine years the US went from its first man in space to its first astronaut walking on the moon and returning safely to Earth. America put its best engineering minds to work to accomplish that miracle, and put significant financial resources into the effort for an entire decade.

I regard two issues to be our very greatest obstacles to overcome, and they are neither technical nor financial. The first is our limited attention span as individuals and as a society. Humans by nature have limited attention spans, and in our media-drenched age, advertisers, politicians, and celebrities all fight to capture that limited attention. So, a major first-order challenge is to help the world to perceive the challenge of sustainable development. The SDGs were adopted by governments, in part, with that very challenge in mind. But we need more than individual attention; we need social attention, meaning that our political, social, business, and academic institutions give adequate focus to the SDGs as well.

The second is moral. To achieve sustainable development, we must overcome the normal profit motives. We must say to oil and gas companies: stop your drilling. We must say to the rich: pay your taxes and share your wealth. We must say to ranchers and farmers: you must not cut down the rainforest to expand the cattle ranch or plantation. We must say to the world’s leading businesses: your shareholders come second to Earth itself. We must say to the politicians: your hold on power pales in importance to sustainable development itself.

We can do it. The lessons in this important volume by ACCIONA shows us the way.



An important American economist specializing in sustainable development, he is an adviser on sustainable development to international organizations and governments, and until 2016 was the director of the Earth Institute at the University of Columbia. A professor of economics at Harvard from 1980 to 2005, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Project and advised Ban Ki-Moon during the drawing up of the Millennium Development Goals. His name appeared on Time magazine’s list of the world’s hundred most influential people. The New York Times called him “the world’s most important economist,” and Le Nouvel Observateur cited him as “one of the fifty most important leaders of globalization.” His outstanding publications include The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008), The Price of Civilization (2011), To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (2013), and The Age of Sustainable Development (2015). He also contributes to major newspapers and journals, including The New York Times, London’s Financial Times and The Economist.

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