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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSISNESS – Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University professor and director of the Earth Institute, is one of our leading public intellectuals. A trained economist (who became a full professor at Harvard University when he was only 29 years old), Sachs boldly ventures into other disciplines. He is as agile citing the latest biological studies on habitat change as he is referring to obscure econometric research on monetary policy.

Unlike many academics, Sachs is committed to getting his ideas out to the public, authoring the best-selling book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time and, most recently, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. And he is not afraid to put his theories into action. In the 1980s Sachs helped the Bolivian government fight hyperinflation; in the 1990s he helped Poland and Russia transition from communism to capitalism; and in the 2000s he worked with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to implement the Millennium Development Goals.

Because of his wide-ranging theoretical and practical work, not only is Sachs one of the few people who understand the scope of the world’s economic, social, and environmental challenges, he is also able to come up with practical solutions to solve them. Critics may question Sachs’s ideas and solutions, but they can’t question his commitment.

In this interview with Stanford Social Innovation Review Managing Editor Eric Nee, Sachs explains why sustainable development is humanity’s most pressing challenge, why lifting billions of people out of poverty is the first order of business, and why the development of new technologies offers the best hope for simultaneously increasing economic growth while reducing our impact on the planet.

Eric Nee: You have spent decades studying and trying to fix some of the world’s thorniest problems, such as economic development and poverty. How would you characterize the state of affairs?

Jeffrey Sachs: The world has become extraordinarily crowded with about 6.8 billion people. At the same time, production has become so efficient, and demand for basic resources is rising at such an extraordinary rate, that we are pressing very hard against the earth’s ecosystems. As a result, we have a remarkable amount of geopolitical change, from unprecedented economic success stories like China, to calamitous economic andhumanitarian crises like the one in the Horn of Africa.

When you add it all together, I see a crowded, interconnected, and environmentally stressed world, facing the added stress of huge political change and very deep crises in certain regions. The challenge is finding a path that brings rising levels of prosperity for all that does not simultaneously undermine the physical life-support systems of the planet—in other words, sustainable development. We’ve not figured out how to do that yet.

You have been working on economic development for more than 25 years. When did you begin to understand the ecological aspects of the issue?

For a long time I thought of the challenge of globalization mostly in economic terms—how can each part of the world find an effective role in what is quickly becoming a single integrated global economy. The more I immersed myself in those issues, the more I found out that the physical world kept intruding in ways that I had not been trained to expect and that I hadn’t worked on before. For example, the epidemic diseases that engulfed Africa, especially in the last 25 years with the spread of AIDS, but also the resurgence of malaria and other killers.

As I began to look more closely at those issues, and especially as I got more involved in the rural challenges in south Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the fragility of the resource base became a more and more dramatic signal that something was wrong. I was seeing it with my own eyes. Entire regions were trapped in famine by repeated droughts, where the short rains had essentially disappeared entirely and the land was so degraded that large areas were bereft of reliable crops.

None of this is novel to an ecologist or to those who have been in the forefront of environmental challenges. I discovered it by wending through this maze of challenges, starting from macroeconomics, moving on to development, coming to realize the impact of disease, food production, and hunger, and more recently dealing with challenges like energy, climate change, and water.  (Read full interview)

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Social Innovation: Ask an Expert
  2. Stanford Roundtable: Recession Ending, Innovation Needed
  3. From Latvia to Silicon Valley: Bridging the Innovation Gap

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