Celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs is worshipped by Bono and Co, but his first Reith lecture showed up his painfully low horizons for the world’s poor.
The 2007 BBC Reith lectures by Jeffrey Sachs are broadcast on BBC Radio 4, the BBC World Service and on BBC Online here.
Jeffrey Sachs has probably done more to shape contemporary low horizons on global poverty than any other individual. Time magazine has twice named the celebrity economist as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is a special adviser to the United Nations secretary general on the Millennium Development Goals and a former director of the United Nations Millennium Project (1). The goals supported by such campaigns as Make Poverty History, including halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015, were largely formulated by him (2). If Bono – the lead singer of U2, who calls Sachs ‘my professor’ – is the official face of making poverty history, then Sachs is the brain and often the voice behind the campaign.
From this perspective, the 2007 BBC Reith lectures given by Sachs on both BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service offer a valuable insight into his thought for the non-specialist (3). Judging by his record, he might have been expected to talk big and promise little about eliminating global poverty. That was certainly the thrust of his 2005 book on The End of Poverty (4). But the striking thing about his first lecture, entitled ‘Bursting at the Seams’ and broadcast last night, was how clearly his outlook is based on fear. ‘Safe Sachs’ would be an appropriate nickname for the campaigning professor.
After his initial thanks and flattering of the invited audience, Sachs expressed his hope that, ‘Perhaps we can move forward to a bit safer world [sic] than the one we are now inhabiting.’ This is a classic Sachs combination of apparent cautious optimism combined with underlying anxiety. He then went on to outline the themes he intends to develop in the remaining four lectures. It soon became clear that he sees the world as threatened by environmental, political and even moral instability. Sachs sees himself as promoting a new politics that will help the world overcome such risks and avoid disaster.
For Sachs, the key problems facing the world today are rooted in overpopulation: ‘Our generation’s unique challenge is learning to live in an extraordinarily crowded world.’ He argued that the world is ‘bursting at the seams in human terms, in economic terms and in ecological terms’. So for Sachs every human being is, literally and metaphorically, another mouth to feed. The mass of humanity is leaching the planet of its resources and destabilising the world. He grossly underestimates the significance of humans having hands and brains, as well as mouths. Rather than simply consuming resources, humans have the unique ability to produce more than their own subsistence and to transform the environment for the better.
Sachs breaks this supposed problem of overpopulation into three inter-connected challenges. First, there is what he calls the Anthropocene: ‘the idea that for the first time in history the physical systems of the planet…are to an incredible and unrecognised extent under human forcings.’ (5) In other words, for Sachs the fact that humanity now has a significant degree of control over nature, one of the great achievements of progress, is a threat. Rather than having the potential to liberate humanity, he sees scientific and technological advance as destabilising the planet.
His second challenge relates to ‘the age of convergence’. For Sachs this means the diffusion of modern technology now allows for the rapid closing of economic gaps between the rich and the poor. This seems hopeful, but then Sachs goes on to hint at the immense damage it could do to the environment. It means, in his view, pollution, water stress, climate change and the destruction of fisheries. ‘We are overhunting, overfishing and overgathering. If we can catch it, we kill it.’ So Sachs holds out the possibility of economic development only to then imply that there must be severe curbs on what can be achieved.
The third set of problems he calls ‘the challenges of the weakest link’. All parts of this inter-connected world are affected by what happens in all other parts of the world. For him this means we must attend to the weakest parts of the world – especially the one billion poorest people. ‘Our actions don’t begin to address this problem’, he says. It soon became clear that his concern is not to realise human potential but to quell the destabilising impact of extreme poverty. He argues that such poverty can lead to the spread of disease, such as avian flu or AIDS, as well as to Third World revolts.
If Sachs’ vision is so bleak it begs the question of why he is often criticised for his optimism (6). The answer was apparent from the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture. The first three questions all accused him of being too positive about what can be achieved. In an age where extreme cultural pessimism is prevalent, it is possible for Sachs to seem relatively upbeat. In Sachs’ case he was supported by Geri Halliwell, the former Spice Girl and now a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the United Nations Population Fund, who said she found him wonderful.
Sachs has played a key role in transforming the contemporary mood of pessimism into a coherent intellectual system. He has used his considerable intellectual and oratorical gifts to develop an outlook of profoundly low expectations in relation to eradicating global poverty. The celebrity economist is a fitting prophet for our miserable age.
Daniel Ben-Ami reviewed Jeffrey Sachs’ book ‘The End of Poverty’. David Chandler argued that we should Make lecturing Africa history. Brendan O’Neill discussed Live 8 while Mick Hume asked whether it was too easy for everybody to love. Brendan O’Neill charted the rise of celebrity colonialism and Mick Hume explained that it is sometimes important to trash celebrity culture. Or read more at spiked-issue: Africa
(3) The lectures can be heard at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/. The site also includes more background information.
(4) For a review of Sachs’ book see Postponing the End of Poverty, by Daniel Ben-Ami
(5) The term Anthropocene was coined by Paul Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel laureate in chemistry. See the entry on his website.
(6) The most prominent critic of Sachs’ work is probably Professor William Easterly of New York University. David Chandler reviewed his latest book for spiked here.
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