Our common mission: a prosperous and sustainable world

The Covid-19 pandemic cries out for public policies based on science, data, and sustainability. Yet actual science-based policy-making has proven to be extremely difficult and uneven. Countries that were supposedly well-prepared for pandemic emergencies proved to be incapable of dealing with them. In this interview we discuss with Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, some of the lessons of the pandemic to date, and some ideas of how we can rebuild the bridges from science to politics and sustainability.

Much of the talk in connection with the pandemic concerns the severe global economic crisis. You have repeatedly talked about the importance of not only having economic growth objectives as a growth drive. What objectives should therefore be set in the face of the crisis that is sweeping the world?

Goal Number 1, certainly, is to suppress the virus.  The Asia-Pacific countries, by and large, have done so, but Western Europe, the Americas, most of Africa, and India still have raging epidemics.  This is leading to mass deaths, disease, and economic contraction.  The situation is especially bad in the more unequal societies: the rich save themselves, while the poor suffer.  The worst is the highly unequal countries with populist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro.  Those two leaders are not only incompetent but cruel.  Once we achieve Goal Number 1, we move on to the next goal: building back better to achieve a prosperous, inclusive, and sustainable world.   

To work towards a more sustainable future, there must be a strong involvement of stakeholders, both at the level of citizens and at the level of businesses and finance. In your opinion, what are the challenges still open for what concerns a real and concrete engagement of economic and financial actors?

We need clear goals – the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement – and clear incentives to meet them.  Our businesses need to be oriented towards sustainable development, as in the case of the B-corporations.  Our scientists and engineers need to help chart pathways to success.  The populist and anti-scientific politicians like Trump need to be defeated.  They are dangerous for our health and utterly detrimental for our long-term wellbeing. 

As far as citizens are concerned, to what extent do you think we should work to promote in a more concrete way a new model of development that still few people are willing to embrace today?

We need education for everybody in sustainable development, which helps people everywhere to understand what is really at stake.  While some politicians preach hate and division, we need to teach problem solving.  What is amazing today is how hard it is for our governments to solve problems.  They are more interested in political fights than in real solutions to real problems. 

What role will digital play in this paradigm shift?

We are in the new digital age. There are huge potential benefits to e-governance (such as e-voting), e-payments, e-commerce, e-medicine, e-schooling (such as online courses in sustainable development), 3D printing, and so forth.  But there are obvious risks: the digital divide between those who are connected and those who are not; fake news; loss of privacy; monopoly power; growing inequality of income and wealth; cyberwarfare; etc.  Our purpose should be to harness the best of the digital age while guarding against the worst.  It’s the usual struggle: technology makes us more powerful; ethics is needed to use the power for the good.    

How do you evaluate the role of scientific research in this context? Above all, how would you suggest bridging the current gap between academia and industry and how could this (if in your opinion be favorable) an acceleration towards the Sustainable Development Goals?

Consider four social actors: the scientists and engineers, the politicians, the business community, and civil society.  Currently, businesses use science for profit; governments use science for military purposes; and civil society worries correctly about the misuse of advanced digital technology.  I would rather than all four key social actors orient around our common mission – sustainable development – and then work together to achieve specific objectives, such as a zero-emission economy by 2050, universal access to quality education by 2030, or a safe and highly effective vaccine against Covid-19 as soon as possible.