Jeffrey Sachs: Is the World Limited?

It’s been a bit longer than I intended to get this post up, but due to how much it has been filling my thoughts, I wanted to share it.

Our delegation attended an interreligious conference concerning the international state of climate change at Antonio Ruiz Montoya University. This conference opened with economist Jeffrey Sachs receiving an honorary professorship before offering a keynote on his own experiences working for climate change.

Having read some of his work, and heard him both lauded and dismissed by instructors over the years, I was very excited to hear what he had to say.

The majority was not groundbreaking. He spoke about the negative effects of climate change and how corporations and excessive consumption are to blame for that. He cited (at a Jesuit university) Pope Francis’ statement that greed will destroy the world and private property laws are only admissible within a certain moral framework, one that does not support allowing billions to starve while others revel in their excess. Sachs continued that the solution must from not just from every stakeholder from corporations, to everyday citizens, to religious groups. Also, he praised recent steps taken by the U.S. and China, and religious organizations to curb carbon emissions.

What caught my interest was his staunch support that the world is in fact limited. He spent time on a story, familiar to my ears, about how his college professors argued down the theories of Thomas Malthus and others that the world is limited. He admitted to believing these professors, as a young undergraduate at Harvard.

At Macalester I heard a similar story. This was balanced with the understanding that oil would run out and climate change was real. Still the majority of the time the ultimate lesson aligned with what history taught us about Malthus: “The World is Limited” is a technologically neutral argument, while technology itself is unlimited.

One of my major goals for this year is to reconcile these points of view. Jeffrey Sachs seemed to indicate that he has since come to believe that the world is in fact limited and personally, I think he is wrong and/or pandering when he says that. I do not mean that I think arguments around limited resources are false, but I think that argument focuses on the negative rather than progressive solutions.

Before I get into the admittedly stupid task of challenging Jeffrey Sachs, I need to clarify how I define “technology.” In my economic training, “technology” is the way inputs such as labor, capital and land are put together in order to produce output goods. In econometrics, “technology” accounts for the additional output that cannot be explained by the combination of labor and capital alone.

Sure, assembly line machinery and internal combustion engines count as that kind of “technology,” but so can the weather, if it leads to a particularly good crop, or the political climate. “Technology” goes well beyond machines that use gas.

In that sense, I think “The World is Limited” is still technology neutral.

Let’s look at the world when Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. While he argued that population grew exponentially while agricultural output grew linearly, the world was undergoing the big shift into the Industrial Revolution and a technological upheaval that allowed agricultural growth to outpace population growth for the first time ever. Malthus thought he was correct for several decades, before the 19th century rolled around and technology wrecked his argument.

Now look at the modern world. Yes, oil will eventually run out at the pace we use it. Worse, our production processes pollute the environment with carbon gases, deplete the ozone, and destroy biodiversity. Does that mean that the world is limited? I don’t think so.

Within our current production system and technological combination of inputs, the world is certainly limited. Yet, couldn’t we also be on the cusp of the changes that inspired the Industrial Revolution and showed that Malthus was wrong? Couldn’t we be on the cusp of technological advances with an eye for more sustainable, but equally robust productivity? Couldn’t we find new ways to recombine inputs, tap into new resources (the sun, wind, geothermal), and reuse waste products (i.e. biodigestors)?

There may need to be some limitations on this, such as what new technologies are a good idea. There’s lots of arguments out there for and against genetically-modified organisms. We could likely create crops that use the least amount of water and fertilizer possible, of course some are ethically opposed to such a notion. To me the issue with GMOs lies in the unfair advantage this provides to companies like Monsanto who own patents and can sue for unlawful use of their seeds. To me, that is outside the moral limits of progress. And moral limits will need to be taken into account with all new technological advances that can pull us out of the tailspin we’re currently in.

Sure, this is more challenging, but saying that “the world is limited” does not open us up to this kind of thinking. It just tells us to restrict ourselves within poorly defined limitations and hope for the best. Living more simply may be a part of that change and recombination of inputs, but it certainly cannot be the only one.

Now, I bet Jeffrey Sachs would agree. He might argue that I’m a dreamer and a limitations-based argument is more feasible, but at the end of the day, I bet he thinks something similar is possible. Of course, this would be a far more complex speech to give, especially when it needs to cross a language gap. Plus, he did it without notes, so I can’t discredit his genius, but I can touch on a recasting of the solution.

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