Sachs: Prosperity in sustainability


“THE end [or goal] of politics is the best of ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

As 2016 comes to a close with the world order still in a state of flux, I am reminded of the relevance of this age-old quotation from Aristotle. Indeed, 2016 was so far a period of the politically unimaginable; of challenges to the status quo which portends uncertainty for the global economic order. The huge challenge remains whether our politicians and citizens will be more “disposed to perform noble actions.”

Like it or not, the world has entered the age of sustainable development with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN) on Sept 25, 2015 and the Paris UN Climate Agreement on December 12, 2015. Briefly, the SDGs are: no poverty; zero hunger; good health; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace and justice; and partnerships for SDGs. These goals are to be met by 2030.


Harvard-educated Prof Jeffrey Sachs was in town in December to address the global conference on “Moving Decisively Forward on Sustainable Development Now” and to join in the launch of the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University. Jeff, an old friend, spoke on the great challenges facing global diplomacy as being to avoid war and to effectively manage global cooperation. He reminded us of how global diplomacy failed catastrophically twice in the 20th century, with two devastating world wars.

He wisely also reminded us of the often ignored need to view current geopolitics and global diplomacy through the interactions of national politics, economics, environment, technology and social groups. From this perspective, geopolitics as it evolves has become necessarily complex, multi-causal, historically contingent, dynamic and most importantly, non-linear. I was particularly struck by Jeff’s reference to Adam Smith’s 1776 “Wealth of Nations, Book IV.”

“The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another’s wants, to increase one another’s enjoyments, and to encourage one another’s industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial.

To the natives, however, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned. When these discoveries were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries.”

Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another.

But nothing seems more likely to establish this equality of force than that mutual communication of knowledge and of all sorts of improvements which an extensive commerce from all countries to all countries naturally, or rather necessarily, carries along with it.”

Amazingly, this passage remains fresh and relevant for us all, even today.


For Sachs, SDGs can only be attained through four great transformations, towards low-carbon energy transition; encouragement of sustainable cities; adoption of sustainable agriculture and land use; and attainment of quality health and education for all. Towards these ends, we in Asean are only too aware of the inter-play among the following realities; multi-ethnic societies, bio-diverse economies, urban sprawl, ecologically vulnerable make-up, resource dependent economies, and lagging in innovation. They all work to constraint our ability to meet SDGs.

What’s really needed at this time is an analytical mind-set, embracing: long-term planning; goal orientation; risk management under uncertainty; multi-dimensional systems thinking; directed technological changes; consensus building; multi-stakeholder participation; and dependence on expertise and exposure to accountability. There will also be the concomitant need to build institutions for sustainable development (SD), including having a strong UN mandate, corporate accountability, regional co-operation in Asean, political accountability, promotion of knowledge in universities and research centres of excellence, and mission driven innovation programs.

Necessarily, these must be supported by adopting smart SD systems: fair, smart green infrastructure; urban inclusion; transparent and participative governance; metrics and accountability; and stakeholder corporate governance. At its very heart are basic values needed to achieve SD including: global co-operation for the common public good; equality and human dignity; stewardship of the planet; quest for global well-being; corporate responsibility and accountability; and political commitment and responsibility especially against corruption.

What then, are we to do

Realistically, nature does not care about us. Nor do we really care about nature when our actions do not adversely affect it. But we do affect nature via the climate – we have been over-heating the planet: hitting peak temperatures, hitting peak concentrations of CO2, and continuing to do so. The November’16 round of UN COP22 climate talks in Marrakech (Morocco) concluded that for now, more vigorous photosynthesis is slowing down climate change, but not enough to reverse it. Kicking the fossil-fuel habit remains the only viable option, which together with collaboration through innovation and use of new technologies remain central for implementing the Paris Accord. So, the setting up of the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (JSC) – with a substantial gift from the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to support the global effort to meet the 17 SDGs is most timely. It promotes green development and social progress through research and education. Its vision is to ensure that SD practices are embedded in everyday ordinary life. JSC’s work programme places priority on SD in South-East Asia, including:

> Education – Master’s in SD Practice; SDGs Academy; and SD Global Library;

> Applied Research – on Ecosystems, Biodiversity, and Smart Urban Systems;

> Advisory and Training – for Business and Government; and

> Cutting Edge Demonstration Projects with Potential to Scale Up.

JSC serves as the Asean hub to lead the Global SDSN family. Jeff’s personal commitment to JSC is admirable reflecting Pope Francis’s Laudato Si advice: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

  • Former banker, Harvard educated economist and British Chartered Scientist, Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is the author of “The Global Economy in Turbulent Times” (Wiley, 2015). Feedback is most welcome; email:

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