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OPINION | Jeffrey D. Sachs

Prosperity in sustainability


Part of a weekly series on the economic choices facing the United States and its relations with the rest of the world. For previous entries, click here.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY inspired Americans to great undertakings by setting bold goals: to go the moon, to overcome racial discrimination, to make peace with the Soviet Union. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” JFK told a joint session of Congress 55 years ago, and his words still stir us today. Similarly, he called on Americans to sign a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, declaring that “our attitude [toward peace] is as essential as theirs.”


Our generation’s needs are different, but the spirit of setting great goals and devoting the resources to achieve them can move America and the world once again.

Our generation’s greatest challenge is sustainable development, meaning a nation that is prosperous, fair, and environmentally sustainable. Our nation’s goals should be the Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030. The US government signed those goals with the other 192 United Nations member states on Sept. 25, 2015, but our government, as well as the presidential candidates, has so far neglected them. The United States should enthusiastically embrace the SDGs as if our future depends on them. It does.

Sustainable development is more than a checklist of policies. It is a coherent idea that holds firmly that economic growth can and should be fair, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable. It calls for a society very different from the one we have today, where the elites run the show and the rest are compelled to scramble to make do the best they can.


The Sustainable Development Goals were negotiated by the world’s governments over a three-year period, starting in 2012, and were adopted unanimously in 2015. That already tells us something, given that the world’s nations usually agree on very little. They agreed on the SDGs out of the conviction that all parts of the world share the same grim reality of massive environmental threats and that most are also reeling from rising inequalities and political instability brought on by rapid technological changes, globalization, pervasive tax evasion, widespread corruption, and unethical activities in many multinational corporations. These countries also adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, out of the same sense of shared fate if the world fails to act to stop global warming.

Yet more than fear spurred both the SDGs and the Paris agreements. These global agreements were also underpinned by hope, specifically by the sense that the current technological revolution offers a way forward that can end extreme poverty, promote economic development, and protect the environment at the same time.

The Sustainable Development Goals follow a second precept of JFK: that goal-setting, and the practical work toward those goals, can be an inspiration and motivation to the public. As he was pursuing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, Kennedy laid out a sequence of steps that included the treaty and other supportive measures. Kennedy explained the logic of his approach this way: “By defining our goal [for peace] more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”


Kennedy also never shied away from the hard truths about his initiatives. Of the moon project he noted that: “none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Of the nuclear treaty he noted that: “This treaty is not the millennium. It will not resolve all conflicts . . . but it is an important first step — a step towards peace — a step towards reason — a step away from war.”

For many years, the United States has not set clear and compelling goals for fixing the economy, ending climate change, or addressing inequality. Of course, President Obama has launched various initiatives, but these have been incremental and, typically, without clear end points in mind. Many of us feel deflated by this dispiriting presidential campaign and the widespread belief that America’s greatest days are behind it. America needs and can achieve great goals in the years ahead.

WHAT THEN DO the 17 Sustainable Development Goals mean for the United States? They are a unique opportunity to embrace the deep change our nation desperately needs. They are an opportunity to point to the mountain summit and decide how we are going to get there. As Kennedy said of the moon shot, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”


Early in 2017, with a new president and Congress, our nation should collectively adopt American Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. I illustrate 17 specific bold goals that we might embrace in the accompanying chart, and summarize several of them:

■   The United States has the highest poverty rate of any advanced economy, standing at 17 percent, according to the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development definition of the poverty line (household income at less than half of the median income). By contrast, Denmark has the lowest, at 6 percent. America should pledge measures to reduce the poverty rate to 8.5 percent or below by 2030, cutting the poverty rate by at least half.

■   The United States has the highest obesity rate of any advanced economy, standing at 36 percent, compared with the lowest rate, in Japan, of just 3 percent. America should pledge public health actions to aim to reduce the obesity rate to below 10 percent by 2030.

■   The United States lags the life expectancy of the world’s leading nations by at least 4 years, 79.3 in the United States compared with 83.7 in Japan. The United States should pledge that life expectancy will reach at least 85 years by 2030 (compared with a projected 86 years in Japan).

■   The United States has student debt of $1.2 trillion because of a flawed system of financing of higher education. Many other countries, with comparable university enrollment rates, have no student debt. America should pledge to cut student debt to below $200 billion by 2030 while raising college completion rates from 33 percent to at least 50 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds.


■   As the most unequal of all of the high-income OECD countries, the United States should pledge to undertake a range of policies, including taxes and transfers, health care, education, and corporate reforms, to narrow income inequalities decisively. In line with SDG 10, the United States would aim for a decline in the Gini coefficient on disposable income from the current rate of 0.41 to 0.30 or below as of 2030.

■   The United States is one the highest emitters of dangerous greenhouse gases, with annual CO2 emissions per American at 16 tons, roughly three times the world average. By shifting rapidly to low-carbon energy, the United States should pledge to cut 2030 per capita emissions to below 8 tons, based on a long-term pathway for reaching net zero emissions in the second half of the century, as called for in the Paris climate agreement.

■   The United States has the highest rate of prison population of any advanced economy, with 716 inmates per 100,000 people, compared with a range of just 65 to 75 per 100,000 in the Scandinavian countries. America has cruelly locked up a generation of young African-Americans, turning petty crimes (and sometimes no crimes at all) into wrecked lives for a generation. The United States should urgently reform its penal code to cut the prison population decisively and help young minority men gain skills and jobs for productive lives. America should aim to reduce the prison population to no more than 100 per 100,000 by 2030 while continuing to reduce the rate of violent crime.

■   Among the high-income countries, the US government offers the lowest share of development assistance to the world’s poor nations, just 0.17 percent of GDP compared with the global target of 0.70 percent of GDP. Our foreign policy is over-militarized, thereby undermining our long-term national security. The United States should raise its development aid to the global target by 2030, by shifting around 10 percent of current military-related outlays. The increased aid should be targeted at education, health, and infrastructure in today’s poor and unstable countries.

THE POINT IS is that the United States urgently needs to achieve such targets to remain among the world’s better performers. None of the goals outlined are utopian or out of reach. Indeed, in every case, there would still be countries outperforming the United States on the particular dimensions of sustainable development.

This kind of bold goal-setting is familiar from America’s own past, which once inspired the world. Yet in American politics today, we feel out of shape, a kind of policy “ill health” not unlike our widespread physical ill health. The United States lacks the kind of strategic agencies and planning ministries that in other high-income countries help to set national goals and chart pathways to success. In Sweden, for example, the coordinating responsibilities for the SDGs have been placed within the Ministry of Public Administration, which works with the Riksdag (parliament) and local governments to implement the nationwide SDG strategy.

To achieve the SDG targets for 2030, we need, most of all, long-term thinking and strategic plans of action that show how key stakeholders — including governments at all levels, civil society, academia, and business — can contribute to the goals. By “defining our goal more clearly,” in JFK’s terms, we can mobilize the long-term public support to put them into operation. But we must recognize that, with more than two decades of little public planning, we are rusty, to say the least. Here then are three tips for the new administration:

First, the United States has more world-class expertise in its universities, businesses, think tanks, and foundations than just about any other country in the world. Call on them to contribute. Roadmaps to 2030 and beyond cannot be set by the White House, Congress, or lobbyists, and not in some artificial “first 100 days” of the next administration. Long-term strategies should be the result of a nationwide deliberation that engages top thinkers and doers throughout the country.

Second, the president has at the administration’s disposal the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, just down the block from the White House. These three world-leading institutions should be tasked with mobilizing the nation’s best minds to find practical pathways to the 2030 goals. They, together with the great foundations in this country — Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and others — can in turn tap the innovators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and social activists to mobilize for the 2030 SDGs.

Third, to an extent unmatched anywhere else in the world, the United States has a depth of knowledge, competence, and eagerness to contribute among its roughly 4,000 colleges and universities. Every congressman’s district has one or more high-quality science departments to explain to the congressman that climate change is real, serious, and solvable. Every district has a university faculty that can help to identify local solutions to promote the 2030 goals.

In short, for a country with the wealth of knowledge, technology, and skills of the United States, we don’t need to settle for a rank of 22nd out of 34 OECD countries in sustainable development. By setting ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, and by engaging thought leaders across the country, the United States could once again set the standard for policy boldness and innovation, and inspire other nations, even today’s adversaries, to work together for a better world.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”