05 July 2014

Interview: The age of sustainable development

Options Magazine, Summer 2014: An interview with Professor Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs, IIASA’s first Distinguished Visiting Fellow and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.



Your work spans a large area of research: from economics, to Earth science, to sustainable development. What is the common thread that ties all this together?

For too long, economists have focused simply on economic growth, and clearly that strategy has put Earth and humanity at great peril. There’s no shortcut anymore. We have to be able to combine a vision that includes all the major dimensions of the complicated global reality that we face. Economics, divided societies, environmental crises, and rapidly changing geopolitics. It’s not simple to integrate all of these different areas. Our traditional intellectual disciplines do not accomplish that.

IIASA has been one of the world’s leading champions of massive human problems, bringing together very diverse areas of natural science, social science, and I would say is central to IIASA’s whole strategy. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of my connection to the Institute.

What do you see as the biggest problems facing our planet?

We have become an enormously crowded and interconnected global society overnight, because of the technological reach of our economies and because of the remarkable growth of the world’s population during the last century. With 7.2 billion people on the planet now, we are putting vast parts of the biosphere and human well‑being at dire risk. We are only slowly waking up to this reality.

All of history, humans have faced local challenges, but we have never faced such a confluence of massive global challenges at the same time. We don’t yet have the institutions, the insight, or the moral outlook to handle this set of challenges, and yet they are bearing down on us very fast.

What do you see as the role for researchers and for institutions like IIASA in solving these global challenges?

I believe that these problems are inherently complex because they are about managing interconnected complex systems. There’s nothing simple about the world economy, nothing simple about global social dynamics, and nothing simple about interconnected Earth systems. And yet we have to master the risks that attend to each of those and the interconnections among them.

It’s quite obvious in that regard that IIASA has a unique role to play. IIASA has been in the forefront of climate modeling, demographic modeling, and agricultural modeling for many years. I’ve been a huge admirer of the Institute’s work, and I look forward to working more closely with IIASA in the future, through our new efforts such as the Alpbach–Laxenburg Group, my appointment as IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow, and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, of which IIASA is also an important player.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of
the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Jeffrey D. Sachs is an
expert on economics, development, and sustainability, and a founding member
of the new global think tank, Alpbach–Laxenburg Group. He is IIASA’s first
Distinguished Visiting Fellow.

Interview by Katherine Leitzell

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Last edited: 22 September 2014

Options Summer 2014


IIASA/OeAW Public Lecture Series, Lecture 4: The Age of Sustainable Development

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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