TD Walter Bean visiting professor Jeffery Sachs shares an urgent but hopeful message

Monday, April 3, 2017

Man with grey hair and dark suit speaking on stageThe good news, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs told the sold-out audience at the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre last week, is that we can end extreme poverty, “and it’s not even a heavy lift.” But the bad news: “We're on the verge of wrecking it all.”

Sachs was visiting the University of Waterloo as the 2017 TD Walter Bean Visiting Professor in the Environment. A best-selling author, Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Network and widely considered one of the leading minds in economic and global development, Sachs’s talk Rising Nationalism versus Global Cooperation for Sustainable Development sold out three weeks before the event. “We knew when we invited Dr. Sachs that he would be well received,” said Faculty of Environment Dean, Jean Andrey in her opening remarks welcoming students, alumni, researchers, donors, honoured guests and members from the University and Kitchener-Waterloo community, “but we are still completely blown away.”

Sachs began his talk with a look back over five centuries and four phases of global development, from the invention of the steam engine and the era of British Imperialism to the emergence of the United States as a global superpower. Throughout his narrative ran the consistent themes of economic growth and dynamism on the one hand, with sustained inequality and environmental degradation on the other.

The problem we face today, in the latest era of globalization — which Sachs reminded us, is our responsibility — is that global production and the human population have increased dramatically but earth’s physical systems have not. With the dual problems of a warming planet and overpopulation, Sachs warned: “Because previous generations did not do their part to head off the threats that we face, we are the last generation that has the chance to do it.”

Despite the urgent warnings, Sachs called the solutions to these problems “totally doable” —and even affordable. They include shifting to a clean energy system, transitioning to smarter agricultural practices and stabilizing the world population through education; all tenants of sustainable development, which Sachs considers “the concept of our time for finding our way out of danger and leading us to a better world.”

The essence of achieving sustainable development is a battle,” he added, “the age-old battle of living decently, living virtuously, living with what is now called as pro-sociality so that we’re looking after each other and taking care of our responsibilities, versus a life of greed. When greed takes over, we’re blinded. And that is really our biggest danger.

While on campus, Dr. Jeffery Sach, along with Dr. Sonia Elrich Sachs, were also discussants on a panel talk addressing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which 250 high school students from five local high schools attended. They met with industry leaders and government officials to identify critical steps for Canadian impact on the SDGs and spoke with Masters of Development (MDP) students and faculty members on the future of the program and the development profession. Sachs is one of the visionaries behind the leading-edge MDP program, having launched the world’s first MDP program at Columbia University and a worldwide network of programs called the Global Association of Master’s in Development Practice.

In addition to marking the University of Waterloo’s 60th Anniversary and Canada’s 150th birthday, Dr. Sach’s visit also celebrates the 25th TD Walter Bean professorship.

Founded in 1992 with the philanthropic support of Walter Bean and TD Canada Trust, the professorship enables the university to bring internationally renowned scholars to campus each year to promote a legacy of community involvement and commitment to youth, education and the environment. TD's Senior Vice President, Western Ontario Region, Anna Iacobelli remarked on the student bursaries, awards and scholarships TD supports. "In the past 25 years," she noted, "TD has made community investments in the University of Waterloo that exceed $3 million, so we’re very happy."

Reminding us of the important role universities must play in this period as “the place that seeks the truth,” Sachs closed his provocative talk with a poignant quote from John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at the American University on June 10th, 1963:

So, let us not be blind to our differences but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.

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