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Jeffrey Sachs Sounds the Alarm at Techonomy NYC

"We’ve reached a level of derangement of our politics and we can’t solve problems any more." (Photo: Rebecca Greenfield)

Day two of Techonomy NYC got off to a bracing start Wednesday with Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs offering a dire assessment of the state of the world.

“I promise to create a lot of anxiety,” he said.

And he did.

“I want all of you to understand how serious our problems are — not because they are unsolvable but because we don’t try,” he said. “We have the technology. We have the affluence. And we’re blowing it.”

Sachs, one of the architects of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 — a comprehensive set of targets and methods for improving life on earth, said the goals should serve to help align business and society around what is important.

“We’ve created an astounding amount of know-how,” he said. “We could really solve a lot of the world’s problems. My worry is that we aren’t solving problems. We need to reorient ourselves around what’s important in order to achieve SDGs by 2030.”

But he cautioned that many of the SDGs will not be solved by market solutions. “The market is not good for poor people, not good for nature, not good for other species. To think so is a major derangement. There are things that will not come from businesses solving problems on a market basis.”

Sachs directs the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University’s The Earth Institute. He has written many influential books including 2005’s The End of Poverty and the recent The Age of Sustainable Development.

He does not mince his words: “We’ve made a world that is wealthy and teched up and we’re destroying the planet. We’re nasty to each other. We’ve elected an idiot to be president. We’ve reached a level of derangement of our politics and we can’t solve problems any more. We’re really in trouble.”

Asked how society should respond, Sachs pulled no punches: “First we have to call out the scoundrels. There’s two kinds of scoundrels.  The politicians and the business sector, which is to a large extent amoral or immoral because they don’t care except for the bottom line.”

Sachs left the audience with a quote from John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, which he said is the most succinct characterization of the paradox of our time: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

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