7,021,836,029. As of July 2012, that is the number of people that live on our planet, according to the CIA World Factbook. Seven-billion-twenty-one-million-eight-hundred-thirty-six-thousand-twenty-nine. That's almost an incomprehensively large number. To put it into perspective, if the entire world population was to hold hands, we would comfortably circle our planet more than 210 times, spanning a total of 40,075,000 meters.
As you can imagine, such a vast population puts considerable strains on the earth's resources. For instance, if the entire world population was to live their lives the way the average American lives his or her life we would need five planets to sustain the more than seven billion inhabitants of the earth. In other words, we are living a lifestyle that is bound to fail. In the words of Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon: "We have known for at least a generation that the world needs a course correction... we need to recognize that with seven billion people, all interconnected in a high-tech, energy-intensive global economy, our collective capacity to destroy the planet's life-support systems is unprecedented."
The United Nations recently organized the Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, in which nearly 50,000 people from all sectors of society joined forces to create a roadmap to "The Future We Want." While many consider the summit a failure for not producing tangible results -- Bradley Brooks of the Associated Press writes that "In the end, this conference was a conference to decide to have more conferences" -- others believe it has some positive outcomes. Several experts, including the aforementioned Professor Sachs, have argued that the most important outcomes of Rio+20 are increased awareness along with the strengthened desire to prioritize sustainable development and to elevate it to a central concern in global thinking and action.
Overall, Professor Sachs' contribution to the general discussion regarding the environment presents a rather bleak view of our current situation. Speaking at Rio+20, Sachs stated that the growing economy has to assume much of the responsibility for the deteriorating state of the planet. The world economy amounts to over $70 trillion, and with the incredible growth of countries such as China and India, resource use is exploding, food prices are soaring and water quality is decreasing. Oceans are being acidified largely due to industrial emissions and processes, impacting every single person on the planet. Society today is far from earning the title "successful."
A leading authority on sustainable development issues, Sachs believes that using the old economic paradigm of measuring society's success solely based on GDP growth is leading us into disaster. Even with a soaring GDP, what is the true impact of this narrow definition of success on the planet and its people? Shouldn't the overall welfare of the people be an indicator of the state of the success of society? Speaking to the Guardian, Sachs stated that "If we continue to follow [that indicator] we will follow a path right off a cliff." Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could, in his opinion, provide the framework for a better way of measuring how society is faring. "The point of the move to better metrics is the realization that not only does gross domestic product not measure properly what makes us well-off and satisfied, it is now leading us in a very dangerous direction." To Sachs, Rio+20 was at least a partial success as it contributed to increased awareness of the current situation and the importance of sustainability.
While the human impact on the earth has been known for decades, Sachs argues that few actions of major consequence have been taken to avoid the impending disaster. The only region with even a modest plan to tackle environmental issues, according to Sachs, is Europe -- and let's face it, Europe only accounts for a small portion of the planet. Efforts made in splendid isolation -- by single companies, countries, or industries -- are admirable, but a small drop in the now acidic ocean. The entire world has to stand behind the decision to make some serious changes and commit the resources necessary. Though expectations were set very high for Rio+20, increased awareness is a first step on the way of getting to a better future.
Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs is in fact one of the world's most famous contemporary economists. He is as interesting as he is provoking, as intellectual as he is passionate. While he clashes with both K-Street and Wall Street, Prof. Sachs still only describes himself as a clinical economist; however, occasionally letting some political undertones shine through. Having first achieved recognition for his role in the transformation of Eastern European states from planned- to market economies, he has since broadened his expertise to better understand and address today's issues, which are often a web of interconnected causes and effects. As he said himself in the previously mentioned interview with The Guardian; "I was an economist and was asked to go and solve a problem, trying to end hyperinflation in Bolivia, and I quickly realized that any real problem is so far beyond your own discipline." He tackles some of these issues in his latest book, "The Price of Civilization," published in 2011.
Joining us for the second time at The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in New York Annual Green Summit, "From Farm to Fork", Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs is sure to spark debate and bring a "reality check" to the topics mentioned above. To learn more check out www.saccny.org, follow @saccnewyork and the hashtag #Farm2Fork on Twitter, or explore our Facebook page www.facebook.com/saccny