Jeffrey Sachs Encourages Consilience
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Columbia University Earth Institute, helped launch on Monday a new student-led journal of sustainable development, Consilience, by detailing a vision of goal-driven innovations that cross the public-private line. He encouraged the audience in Columbia’s Low Memorial Library to imagine a new “organizational ecology” for addressing global challenges. Traditional models of institutions, he said, have long used mechanistic analytical tools, which he likened to Newtonian mechanics, to understand governments, businesses, and NGOs. Yet Sachs suggested that biology can offer a more helpful framework. The recent subprime mortgage crisis exhibits the non-linear complexity, unpredictability, and openness to outside forces that typically characterize ecosystems, he said. People who want to use institutions to meet the world’s needs should understand the organic–rather than mechanical–dynamics of organizations and groups, he explained.
Drawing on the work of naturalist E. O. Wilson, biologist and geographer Jared Diamond, and chemist Paul Crutzen, Sachs predicted that strategies of innovation and relationships between disparate institutions will determine whether the Earth “sustains us or begins no longer to sustain us.” He warned that global society faces both potential ecological and social catastrophes. The systems of the earth, like carbon and nitrogen cycles, and the systems of human communities, like farms and markets, are merging, he said. Human activities like agriculture have altered biogeochemical cycles so profoundly that Sachs believes they must be understood as a single system. Moreover, he reminded the audience that human decisions increasingly direct the course of a variety of evolutionary processes in the biosphere, such as species extinction and climate change.
Now, Sachs hopes that human societies will use their power wisely by demanding “targeted” innovation as a complement–and as a substitute–to evolution and accidental market-driven inventions. His primary illustration was the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering project, which he praised for its a priori recognition of human and social needs. Rather than relying on spontaneous biological or economic processes, the project supports innovation based on need. Proper responses to global demands, he said, will require the combined resources of scientists and technical experts in governments, businesses, NGOs, and public-private partnerships. Sachs called upon leaders to learn how to draw from the best that all institutions have to offer, rather than remain confined within institutional divisions. Goal-driven, inter-institutional innovations, he said, will determine whether societies can live peacefully on a crowded and conflicted planet.
Image: flickr.com/Angela Radulescu
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