World Business Forum: Economics for a Crowded Planet

by Aman Singh Das | October 06, 2009

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On the back of David Rubenstein’s depressing look at the global economic situation, economist Jeffrey Sachs offered an equally depressing insight into the environmental side of the equation. While he used the first portion of his presentation here at the World Business Forum to excoriate successive government administrations for allowing the conditions that led to the current mess to foment, it was when he switched to a discussion of what was likely in store for the rest of the planet that he was at his most illuminating.

Citing population overload—he reckons the planet can’t sustain much more than 8 billion people and we’re already at 6.8 billion—Sachs stated that he feels that the way we in Western nations live now “ecologically and on a resource basis is unsustainable.” His reasons: at current growth rates, greenhouse gases are likely to wreck the climate within 30-40 years; we’re making fresh water unusable at such a rate that it’s causing famine and drought in some locations around the planet; we’re using so much land for crops and feed grains that we’re using about half of the photosynthesis on the planet, which means we’re “eating…[other species]…off the planet right now.” Oh, and we’re not done: China is still growing.

While he foresees infinitely tougher times ahead, Sachs does still believe that there are solutions, and that the U.S. has a significant role to play—but only if it’s prepared to be more integrated with the rest of the world. In addition to attempting to cap global population to that 8 billion figure, Sachs believes that new energy sources (solar in particular), are part of the solution, as well as a new generation of vehicles and increased productivity in agriculture.

Therein lie the opportunities as Sachs sees them, but there are some serious hurdles along the way, not the least of which he sees as being the need to change the prevailing economic ideology: “Markets can’t solve the problems,” he says. “These are problems that require markets and public policy working hand in hand.” Additionally, he sees the need for big changes at the governmental level—both in how business is conducted in Washington and how the U.S. relates to the rest of the planet. “We need a new approach to the planet,” he says, one where “global cooperation lies at the center” of everything we do. And, we need to get the influence of money out of Washington. In summary, Sachs thinks we need to “put people first rather than the powerful interests.”

Plenty to chew on, whether you agree with him or not.

--Posted by Phil Stott, Vault Staff Writer

Filed Under: CSR

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