The Age of Sustainable Development: Sustainable Development as an Analytical and Normative Concept

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Achieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation. In this excerpt from the book “The Age of Sustainable Development”, Jeffrey D. Sachs introduces the concept of sustainable development and its normative outlook on the world.

Sustainable development is a central concept for our age. It is both a way of understanding the world and a method for solving global problems. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will guide the world’s economic diplomacy in the coming generation. This book offers you an introduction to this fascinating and vital field of thought and action.

Our starting point is our crowded planet. There are now 7.2 billion people on the planet, roughly 9 times the 800 million people estimated to have lived in 1750, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The world population continues to rise rapidly, by around 75 million people per year. Soon enough there will be 8 billion by the 2020s, and perhaps 9 billion by the early 2040s (Sustainable Development Solutions Network [SDSN] 2013a, 2, 5).

These billions of people are looking for their foothold in the world economy. The poor are struggling to find the food, safe water, health care, and shelter they need for mere survival. Those just above the poverty line are looking for improved prosperity and a brighter future for their children.

Those in the high-income world are hoping that technological advances will offer them and their families even higher levels of wellbeing. It seems that the superrich also jostle for their place in the world’s rankings of richest people.

In short, 7.2 billion people are looking for economic improvement. They are doing so in a world economy that is increasingly interconnected through trade, finance, technologies, production flows, migration, and social networks. The scale of the world economy, now estimated to produce $90 trillion of output per year (a sum called the gross world product, or GWP), is unprecedented (SDSN 2013a, 2). By crude statistics, the GWP measures at least 200 times larger than back in 1750. In truth, such a comparison is difficult to make, since much of the world economy today consists of goods and services that did not even exist 250 years ago.

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