The Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs

New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 

New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 

Reviewed by Stephen Pitts, S.J. 

Jeffrey Sachs is no stranger to large problems or grand, sweeping claims. His latest work, endorsed by none other than the U.N. Secretary General, seeks to explain the “central concept for our age,” sustainable development. The “age of economic growth” began in 1750; up until then, the entire human race lived at the subsistence level, and inequality did not exist. Thomas Malthus predicted imminent catastrophe: exponential growth in population could not keep up with linear growth in agricultural production. Malthus failed, however, to anticipate the Industrial Revolution, by which technological advances boosted industrial output and increased agricultural production. But they came at a cost that still resonates today: large-scale migration, environmental degradation, and rising inequality.

Sachs’s work reflects recent trends in economics: this year’s Nobel laureate, Angus Deaton, pioneered the use of empirical field research to address questions in development. The first few chapters trace the history of economic development while subsequent chapters summarize the latest research on particular issues: geography, education, health, agriculture, poverty, social inclusion, cities, and climate change. Both The Great Escape (Deaton) and Poor Economics (Banaerjee and Duflo) treat a comparable range of topics, though Sachs alone deals with environmental issues. The work brings together material from an online course; the abundance of color pictures and lack of footnotes give it the feel of lecture notes whose enthusiastic tone aims to inspire the reader to change the world by the end of the semester.

Sachs proposes an “analytic and normative framework” to address sustainable development. On the analytic side, since World War II, a succession of models has aimed to explain the remarkable disparity between growth rates and outcomes in a variety of countries. Initially, the models looked for a key external (exogenous) factor of production that could be added to an economy. Whether from a developed country or an NGO, development aid of this sort meant infrastructure improvements. The limits of this sort of capital infusion soon emerged; factories sat idle without raw materials, schools languished without students, and roads led to nowhere. In response, recent work has acknowledged the necessity of human capital, such as education and women’s rights, and social capital, like functioning legal and financial institutions that people trust. Sachs uses complexity theory to analyze four interconnected systems: global economy, Earth systems, social interactions, and governance.

Sachs’s breadth of experience and command of examples past and present leaps out from every page. Many of the chapters end with specific policy prescriptions; in fact, the book’s final chapter describes a set of Sustainable Development Goals that parallel the Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Development Villages in Africa provide a concrete example of the sort of multipronged intervention that he proposes: ten villages in ten different sub-Saharan African countries in which Sachs and his team implemented programs to address all eight MDG at once over the course of ten years.

The glowing account of the MDV does not mention the tremendous controversy that they have raised among Sachs’s academic peers, who contend that basic errors in his experimental design have invalidated his evidence for the effectiveness of the interventions. As in clinical trials in medicine, the increasing use of randomized controlled trials in development economics necessarily involvesethical questions. On the one hand, can researchers withhold treatment for a disease like malaria from one village but not from an adjacent village in order to establish a control group? On the other hand, can researchers compensate participants, like those in education interventions who would otherwise not send their daughters to school?

The ethical questions that development entails certainly should not dissuade Sachs from pursuing his work. Still, it is surprising that in his 500-page book he devotes merely seven pages to ethics, a cursory survey of six different rationales for the importance of “social inclusion,” into which he subsumes most of Enlightenment political philosophy. The section ends with the laudable remark that “we therefore need to have more discussions, more public awareness, and more debates about these underlying ethical choices, because the goals of sustainable development depend on the ethical positions we adopt.” Unfortunately, the book does not deliver on its claim to offer a “normative framework.” It neither engages colleagues like Deaton who differ on the finer points of aid nor those who question the existence of any obligation of the rich toward the poor at all. Paul VI remarked: “technical expertise is necessary, but it must be accompanied by concrete signs of love.” The technocrat Sachs could learn from his words.

Stephen Pitts, S.J., is beginning his third year of theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University; throughout his Jesuit training he has had a special interest in spirituality and spiritual direction.