Columbia Prof. Jeff Sachs—development economist, government advisor and poverty abolitionist—is delivering the 2007 Reith Lectures. The weekly series comes from various global locations via the BBC during April and May. The BBC streams audio and (thanks!) posts transcripts almost immediately. MP3s of each lecture can be downloaded for 7 days only from the site. In the lectures, collectively titled “Bursting at the Seams,” Sachs argues that the world's biggest challenges—global warming, terrorism, poverty, disease and bad governance—require broader and deeper global cooperation. “The search for sustainable development … is perhaps the most urgent of these challenges. I hope to show some practical ways that the world can come to grips with extreme poverty, environmental stress and far-reaching shifts in global power,” he says in the BBC press release.
Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia and Special Adviser to the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs is also very controversial, often attacked from multiple sides of the political and economic spectrum. As it turns out, economic shock therapy may not have been the best prescription for post-Soviet Russia, for example. But he is also driven to kick-start social evolution with low-hanging fruit. For example he points out that “one day's Pentagon spending could cover every sleeping site in Africa for five years with anti-malaria bed nets.”
Besides examples of both the complexity and simplicity of today’s challenges, the first lecture was largely a plea for taking a new approach to solving global problems.
We are entering I believe a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I'm going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago. I'm going to try to explain how this can be done, how without a global government we can still get global co-operation, how initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals can be an organising principle for the world -- though there is no single implementing authority -- and how it is possible to coalesce around shared goals. I am going to explain how scientists can play a fundamental role in this, such as they do in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The world is hungry for serious knowledge, for the information from what are sometimes called epistemic communities - that is communities of expertise - that can help to bring the best information to bear on the most crucial problems that affect the survival and the livelihoods and the well-being of people around the world. I'm going to talk about how our governments can be re-organised and need to be re-organised because we are living with nineteenth and twentieth century government structures for twenty-first century problems. Our governments simply do not understand the nature of these problems. Ministries generally are like stove pipes, narrowly defined. That's often true in academia as well. But the problems I will discuss cross disciplines and areas of knowledge, and inherently require cross-disciplinary and novel thinking, whether they are problems of poverty, disease, climate change, energy systems, war and peace, or Darfur. These problems cannot be left to the normal ways of operation, but that is what we are doing. That is why we see our governments flailing about blindly. These are not just "intelligence" failures, in the sense of our spy agencies, though surely those exist and are serious. We are experiencing the deep incapacities of our government to understand these challenges. We need some fundamental re-organisation…
The Reith lectures feature interesting speakers on interesting topics delivered in front of other interesting people who make very interesting comments. Inaugurated in 1948 by the first BBC director-general Sir John (later Lord) Reith, they have featured the likes of Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee, Robert Oppenheimer and J.K. Galbraith.
Lecture 1: Bursting at the Seams The 21st century will be marked by severe natural resource limits, the rise of new economic powers and the threats of failed states. These are tectonic changes with the potential to unleash global-scale upheavals. Global cooperation of an unprecedented depth and scale will be needed but we are not yet prepared for such cooperation.
Lecture 2: Survival in the Anthropocene The biggest challenges that we face - climate change, alleviation of hunger, water stress, energy - are translated in the shadow of ignorance into "us versus them" problems, with only the weakest links to underlying scientific principles and technological options.
Lecture 3: The Great Convergence Power and America have seemed synonymous for the last fifty years. No longer. Power in the 21st Century is shifting to the East: to India and above all to China. Facing up to the end of centuries of North Atlantic dominance - first Europe then the U.S. - will pose huge challenges.
Lecture 4: Economic Solidarity for a Crowded Planet This lecture considers the challenges of extreme poverty and the extreme worry of the rest of the world which fears for its own prosperity. It spells out the limits of the free market to solve these problems and proposes a plan of action which presents choices to those listening.
Lecture 5: Global Politics in a Complex Age The key political novelty of our age is mass political awareness and mobilization. Mass mobilization has brought the Age of Empire to an end, and accounts for the failures in Iraq. No society any longer tolerates being ruled by another. Social mobilization can be a dramatic force for positive change.