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Connecting to Hope

Speaking at TC's Academic Festival, Jeffrey Sachs calls technology, which created the population growth and climate change that now threaten the planet, our best hope for salvation
“We’ve just experienced a beautiful springtime in New York City in February, March and April. It was often a pleasure but it suggests a planet absolutely out of kilter at human hands – the result of 7 billion people, each of us with an average yearly economic throughput of $10,000. That’s all come upon us so quickly that we don’t understand it.”

With those words, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and perhaps the world’s best known and most influential economist, launched into a keynote address at Academic Festival 2012 in which he analyzed the unprecedented challenges facing humanity and the potential of information technology to help ensure a sustainable future.

Sachs came to prominence during the 1980s by designing solutions to debt crises in Latin American nations and subsequently developed radical market reforms in Poland, Russia and other formerly communist countries. He since has spearheaded creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, TB and Malaria, and helped develop the UN’s Millennium Goals to reduce poverty.

To Sachs, the ability to ensure good lives for all human beings has always depended on a “triple bottom line” of continued economic progress, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. But the pace of change is outstripping human ability to counter the combination of vast, accelerated population growth and climate change. Sachs cited the example of Mali where, this past January, he promised a regional governor help in identifying new wells that would enable drought-stricken nomadic tribes to feed their livestock. Six weeks later, before Sachs could act on his promise, the government was overthrown, ending the Earth Institute presence in Mali.

Sachs argued that technology, which shaped the modern, industrialized world and also created problems such as greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and nitrogen poisoning of rivers from fertilizers, is in fact our best hope to forestall such disasters. In the Earth Institute’s “Millennium Villages,” in some of the world poorest and most remote regions, cell phone use has exploded during the past eight years. The Institute has seized that opportunity by training community health workers, who are reachable by phone, and equipping them with diagnostic kits and life-saving medicines for malaria.

Meanwhile, governments have brought cheap computers and wireless broadband into classrooms that lacked books, enabling “kids to connect to the world,” and farmers to “engage in precision agriculture, get advice, and seek markets for their goods.” At Columbia, Sachs has created a Global Classroom that offers real-time online lectures by faculty at 28 universities in time zones from New York City to Beijing, which can be viewed by anyone with Internet access from anywhere in the world.

To be sure, like the technologies that have preceded it, information technology poses threats of its own. Sachs said today’s wired society must be mindful of what he called the “five Ds” – distraction by gadgetry; a digital divide created by unequal means; depersonalization; diversion of tastes; and divulgence of privacy. Still, he believes that technology-driven linkages spell “the end of the top-down era of solutions.

“Governments are paralyzed – they’re not equipped to handle the complexity of the challenges – so we need local solutions supported by global knowledge,” he said. “Technology is creating a Wikipedia of sustainable development.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 24, 2012


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