BY SAM FLAKS
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future,” on the morning of Thursday, September 11, 2008. The passionate but precise economist called for the recognition of the intermeshed dilemmas posed by an overcrowded planet and an increasingly interconnected globe. Sachs’ appearance was organized by Professor Jon Hanson, Carol Igoe, Jon Taylor ’10, and an inter-year committee of students from Section VI.
Sachs, who is one of the leading international economists of his generation, is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and President and Co-Founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit organization attempting to end global poverty. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, ”The End of Poverty” and ”Common Wealth”. Given that ”Time” listed Sachs as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2004 and 2005, it was unsurprising that a standing-room only crowd packed Austin North to hear him at 8:15 A.M.
In his address, Sachs emphasized that the world faces many grave problems. He bewailed that the general public, politicians, and the media are ignorant of the desperate straits of marginalized communities living in the world’s poorest places. Sachs confessed that he himself would have never understood the straits of deathly parched countries like Somalia without seeing them with his own eyes. The direct connection between the hurricanes and tsunamis that have killed hundred of thousands in recent years and the economic and environmental policies of Western democracies is being generally ignored. However, Sachs has made it his mission to educate others about these connections and to fight for change.
Sachs call for engagement was also starkly political. Though he criticized both John McCain and Barack Obama for not engaging the long-term geopolitical problems facing America, Sachs reserved his harshest criticism for the Republican. Sachs predicted that if McCain is elected, the probability of global crisis will rise a few percentage points. He described McCain’s worldview as epitomizing the mindset that defines America and Islam in self-fulfilling and self-defeating “us and them” terms. In response to a question from the audience, Sachs observed that extremely impoverished places can not be politically stable. America would be safer if it devoted more resources to providing renewable energy rather than military spending, he said.
Sachs urged his audience of law students to use the technical skills that they were gaining in the service of ethical goals and to combat environmental and economic disparities that are spurring ethnic conflict across the globe. Specifically, he called for lawyers to support the legal foundations of international treaties that will be necessary to deal with worldwide environmental problems. More broadly, Sachs shared his belief that that the world’s social problems could only be solved if people become more scientifically literate. He pointed out that many crucial threats facing the planet are recognized by the scientific community many years before the general public. Sachs recommended that everyone read Science to keep abreast with new developments that may have important bearing on social problems.
Student reaction to Sachs’s address was generally positive, though many students left with heavy hearts. One student confessed that the Sachs had made him feel bad about his incipient career as a corporate lawyer. Indeed, another student who had come to Harvard to with the intention of helping solve international poverty admitted to this reporter that he avoided the speech because he was too guilt stricken to attend. Nonetheless, the electric humming at the close of the event indicated that many students had been inspired by Sachs’ words and example.