Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
Jeffrey Sachs first came into prominence in the early 1990s as an adviser to Eastern European governments in their efforts to make the transition from a Communist, state controlled economy to a market economy and democracy. Today he is the director of the]Earth Institute at Columbia University and an adviser to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Sacks told a meeting at a side event at Rio+20 that big business has destroyed the US democratic system and created an addiction to consumption. He went on to say that, while multinationals continue to line their own pockets, they leave in their wake is billions of people who are not only unhappy, but are suffering increasing levels of anxiety. According to Sacks very few companies were taking the demands of sustainable development seriously. Many companies were simply engaging in ‘green wash.’ This means that they were proceeding in a business-as-usual manner, while pretending to be concerned about the environment. He was particularly scathing in his remarks about the fossil-fuel lobby and the Koch brothers. He described their behaviour as “disgusting.” (The Koch family has been involved in developing new methods to refine heavy oil into gasoline). Since the 1980s the Koch foundation has given more than $100 million to right wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the. In recent times the Koch foundation has supported Americans for Prosperity and]Tea Party movement. All of the above organisations are in denial about climate change and many other contemporary social and environmental problems.
Sacks is convinced that the old economic paradigm, which is focused exclusively on Gross Domestic Product growth, is leading humanity and the earth to disaster. According to him we urgently need to find a completely new way of measuring the success of a society. At an interview in Rio he told Jo Confino of The Guardian that the “point of the move to better metrics is the realisation that not only does gross national product not measure properly …. if we continue to follow that indicator we will follow a path right over the cliff.”
He points out that, while the US has tripled its per capita GDP during the past 50 years, the ordinary US citizen is less happy than their counterparts 50 years ago. While money is important in creating a context for happiness particularly for those who are poor and do not have access to the basic necessities of life, values such as trust, solidarity, integrity and cooperation are central to achieving wellbeing both for the individual and the society at large. When these are lacking people suffer stress and unhappiness, no matter how much money they have.
Sachs claims that multinational corporations have become much too powerful in the modern world. As consequence they write the rules and also pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes legal, such as in financing political campaigns. This is happening right now in the U.S. presidential election. According to the Huffington Post the Republican candidate Mitt Romney is getting huge financial support from companies and billionaires. Sachs told Guardian correspondent that: “”Billions of dollars are spent and this is horrendous because if business writes the rules … it can [engage] in highly destructive practices which the politicians turn their eyes away from because of the political power companies hold.”
Sachs is hoping that social media will begin to pressurise politicians at the local, national and global level to adopt Social Development Goals (SDGs). Though Sachs is trained as a conventional economist he realises that the factors involved in shaping these indicators will have to go way beyond the realm of economics and include such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, ethics and ecology.
SDGs could be transformative both for humanity and the earth because they can capture the imaginative of creative people and the public at large. He warns that they will need to be so simple that even a child can understand them. This outcome is not inevitable as is evidenced by the fact that the business model promoted by Facebook is increased levels of personalised advertising in order to promote more consumption.
1 Jo Confino, “Rio+20: Jeffrey Sachs on how business destroyed democracy and virtuous life,” The Guardian, June 22nd 2012.
2 Fenn, Peter (February 2, 2011), “Tea Party Funding Koch Brothers Emerge From Anonymity”, U.S. News & World Report, retrieved 2011-06-13
3 Jo Confino, The Guardian, op. cit.
4 Steve Peoples, 05/21/12 03:50 PM, Huntington Post.