Monday, February 9, 2015

Postcards from Peru, Part 6: Hearing Jeffrey Sachs

Back in Lima the next day, we attended the Interfaith Commission Conference on Climate Change, featuring American economist Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs talked about the history of industrialization that arose with the power of fossil fuels beginning 250 years ago with the steam engine,  which changed the world in every way. Intensive industrialization arose. The population exploded. Wealth disparity grew—higher living standards for some, exploitation for most.

Humans have throughout history created local environmental crises, he said (I think immediately of the destruction of the great cedars of Lebanon by ancient empires, and the irrigation of Tigris and Euphrates farming areas that quickly left the soil too salty to plant). But global-scale environmental crises that began with industrialization became obvious to more people beginning in the 1970s, when it was noted that the environment and the economy were colliding with each other.

Sachs was a college student at the time. An economics professor assigned the class to read the now-classic 1972 book The Limits to Growth, and then told the students not to worry, because there would always be more. Sachs began his professional life believing what the professor said, and only later realized it wasn’t true.  

The technological revolution that began 250 years ago, he said, has brought unprecedented opportunities and threats. He quoted from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Kennedy was speaking of nuclear power, but what he said is even more true today.

Much of the world has now been lifted out of extreme poverty. Yet inequality continues in new forms of slavery and human trafficking, lack of social inclusion, and the emergency of climate change. 2014 was hottest year on record, with typhoons in the Philippines, drought in Sao Paulo and the U.S. west, and the worst flooding in 500 years in Indonesia and the Balkans. Many other, slower disasters are also unfolding.

A healthy society, he said, doesn’t just pursue economic growth, but also sustainable
development and inclusion of all in the good that we produce. He cited the Catholic doctrine of the Universal Destination of Goods. According to Pope Francis, the most basic challenge is “the globalization of indifference,” which he calls on Christians to overcome. The momentum of our economic system is powerful and relentless in pursuit of money, Sachs said, but even the most powerful corporations can submit to decency.

He told us that the COP 20 meeting was launching the most important year diplomatically that our generation has seen. Three other major summit meetings will mark 2015. Next July in Addis Ababa will be the third annual Conference on Financing for Development, which will seek reforms in the financial system to bring it into alignment with sustainable development. In September they will meet again to approve sustainable development goals for the next 15 years in order to end extreme poverty and to promote education, health, gender equality, social inclusion, biodiversity, and strong ecosystems resistant to climate change. Then in December, COP 21 in Paris will seek to develop a framework for climate safety. 

It’s a year to throw our strong support toward these movements and the leaders who are promoting them, he said. Naturally there will be strong opposition to these economic changes among the very wealthy and the politicians who are financed by them. Therefore, it's a critical year for those of us who wish to see humanity thrive to raise our voices and use our networks to support those who are working hard toward these goals. Once again he quoted JFK, saying:

"Let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

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