With great fanfare Columbia University recently announced that starting this fall it will offer an undergraduate major in the new interdisciplinary field of “sustainable development.” That makes Columbia the first Ivy League school to offer such a major, which sounds as though it ought to be a practical mix of hard science, “green” technology, and tough-minded economics joining forces to combat Third World poverty without polluting or deforesting the Third World in the process. In fact, however, undergraduate sustainability majors on many campuses tend to be light on science but heavy on ideology. The reigning ideologies can range from doomsday scenarios of out-of-control global warming and plummeting agricultural yields to, as is likely to be the case at Columbia, the controversial and expensive foreign aid-based economic theories of Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, the sponsor of the university’s new sustainable-development major.
College majors in sustainability are all the rage these days—as well they might be, since the federal government (thanks to Congress’s passage of the Higher Education Sustainability Act in 2008) now makes grants available to institutions of higher learning “to integrate sustainability curricula in all programs of instruction, particularly in business, architecture, technology, manufacturing, engineering, and science programs.” Brand-new majors in sustainability have popped up on more than two dozen college campuses during the last few years. The schools now offering the major include small private liberal arts colleges and the public Arizona State University, which operates a School of Sustainability, and Appalachian State University in North Carolina, which offers four different sustainable-development majors plus a minor. In the fall of 2009 Johns Hopkins University began offering both a major and a minor in “global environmental change and sustainability” whose course offerings are somewhat similar to those proposed for Columbia.
Money is also pouring into sustainable-development programs at the graduate level. The MacArthur Foundation just announced that it has made grants totaling $5.6 million to ten universities worldwide to establish new two-year master’s-degree programs in “development practice” at 10 universities in eight different countries. The grants are part of a $16 million investment by MacArthur for “the creation of new Master’s programs in sustainable development practice,” as MacArthur’s press release states. MacArthur hopes to see the recipient universities—now totaling 20—churn out as many as 400 graduates by 2013.
One of the plusses of Columbia’s new sustainability major is that it actually requires its participants to take a two-term sequence of demanding, if introductory-level, hard science courses (the options include physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and environmental biology). Such a requirement would seem to be a no-brainer. The whole point of sustainability studies, according to its advocates, is to combine cutting-edge scientific research on environmental problems with a range of learning from the social sciences, including economics, politics, and the anthropology of the developing world, all with the aim of “making sure the planet will continue to produce wealth via economic development,” as Steven A. Cohen, second in command to Sachs at the Earth Institute, told me in a telephone interview. As former Vice President Al Gore famously declared in a Senate hearing on global warming in 2007, “the science is settled,” a statement that would seem to indicate that scientific competence, not to mention competence in economics, ought to lie at the heart of sustainability studies.
Nonetheless, many undergraduate sustainability programs are surprisingly un-rigorous. The Hopkins program, which appears to the be most demanding of them, requires a semester apiece of chemistry, calculus, and microeconomics, with further required courses in statistics and social sciences. At Arizona State, by way of contrast, it is possible to obtain a bachelor of arts degree in sustainability without taking a single science course and no mathematics beyond the single-semester “pre-calculus” (high-school math) course that all Arizona State students must pass in order to graduate. Instead students at Arizona State fill up their class schedules with policy-oriented courses bearing such fashionably green titles as “Society and Sustainability” and “Sustainable Urban Development.” The bachelor of science degree in sustainability at Arizona State is marginally more demanding, in that students must pass a semester of college-level calculus. Courses in hard sciences, economics, engineering, and statistics are strictly optional for both Arizona State degrees. It is hard not to conclude that sustainability studies isn’t so much a serious intellectual endeavor as a campus fad for middle-class young people who want to feel good about helping the planet without straining their minds or grade-point averages trying to learn botany, organic chemistry, or hydraulic engineering. A sustainability degree seems to be the Sigg water bottle of academia: high in green status and symbolism and not requiring much in the way of effort or sacrifice to attain.
Even Columbia wasn’t requiring much in the way of academic rigor from its sustainablility program until it set up the new major this spring. For several years Columbia has offered what it calls a “special concentration” (the equivalent of a minor) in sustainable development. The concentration does include a mandatory semester of science, but that requirement can be fulfilled by taking such courses as “Biodiversity,” “A Better Planet by Design,” and other offerings of the “physics for poets” variety to which math-impaired humanities majors at Columbia typically flock. Electives (you choose two from a long list) include courses in quantitative methods, engineering, and urban planning—but also courses in “Gender and Sexuality in Early Latin America,” focusing on “how femininity and masculinity were socially constructed and influenced by factors such as ethnicity and socio-economic groups, and on.how individuals lived their sexuality,” and “Food and the Social Order,” which teaches little about nutrition, agriculture, or the economics of feeding a world population of 6 billion but plenty about food as “an indicator of collective as well as individual aspirations and assumptions.” Columbia’s efforts to stiffen the scientific and quantitative components of its major program in sustainability seem a step in the right direction.
Ideology, Not Science
Yet even in the toughest sustainability programs ideology, not science, seems to be the central concern. Students who, say, don’t believe in global warming or doubt that human activity has been the most significant factor in climate change as many sustainability professionals aver, might have trouble sitting through “Introduction to Sustainability,” a required introductory course for sustainability majors at Johns Hopkins. The teacher is the program’s director, Cindy Parker, a physician and public-health instructor at Columbia whose 2008 book Climate Chaos: Your Health at Risk, What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family, co-authored with her psychologist-husband Steven Shapiro and recommended reading for her course, is a doomsday book chock full of terrifying global-warming scenarios that include rapidly rising sea levels, families driven from their hillside homes by raging heat and thirst, and flooded-out hospitals unable to cope with climate-induced disease epidemics—all poised to come true within only a few decades.
At Arizona State life sciences professor James Elser touts his theory of “peak phosphorus,” the idea (modeled on “peak oil”) that the world should be running out of this key ingredient in chemical fertilizer (and hence agricultural yield) very soon, indeed at just about the time that Parker’s “Climate Chaos” apocalypse becomes a reality. Elser’s “Phosphorus Sustainability Initiative,” introduced at Arizona State this past Earth Day, April 22, aimed to “[d]esign & motivate institutional, commercial, and consumer behavior change for conservation and recycling,” all presumably involving an abandonment of chemical fertilizers.
Sustainable development at Columbia revolves around the forceful personality and utopian ideas of Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs taught for 20 years at Harvard after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard College and earning a Harvard doctorate in economics in just four years, then joined the Columbia faculty in 2002. He is best known for his controversial 2005 book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, in which he proposed that rich nations, led by the United States, give about $250 billion a year—double what the developed world currently spends on foreign aid–to the governments of destitute Third World countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, in order to eradicate poverty within their borders. Rich nations would double that amount again by 2015, achieving the complete elimination of poverty worldwide—along with infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria–by 2025, the book’s deadline year.
Sachs is also the guiding spirit behind the MacArthur Foundation’s multimillion-dollar investment in master’s programs in sustainable development around the world. As director of the Earth Institute he co-chaired the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, which issued a report in 2008 recommending the creation of the master’s programs. The Earth Institute will host an umbrella group to be titled the “Global Master’s in Development Practice Secretariat” (another of the Sachs commissions 2008 recommendations) which will oversee all the master’s programs. The Secretariat will, among other things, standardize, monitor, and help develop the curricula at the various programs and also screen the proposed sustainable development programs at other universities that hope to qualify for grant money. In other words, Sachs is likely to have an influence on academic sustainability programs that will extend far beyond the Columbia campus.
During the 1980s and early 1990s Sachs had gained fame for his advocacy of what came to be called “shock therapy” for faltering socialist economies: a swift and massive overhaul that included overnight privatization of state-owned industries coupled with the quick institution of stock markets, shareholder-owned companies, and other features of U.S.-style capitalism. Sachs’ shock prescriptions worked well to quell runaway inflation in Bolivia during the mid-1980s and to bring free markets and a measure of prosperity to post-communist Poland. Shock therapy foundered disastrously, however, in corruption-plagued post-Soviet Russia, where Sachs was an adviser to the Yeltsin government, and Russia suffered from falling living standards and even population decline in its abrupt transition to what was supposed to be Western-style capitalism.
After the Russian fiasco Sachs continued to market his concept of massive structural overhauls in impoverished nations, but his financing emphasis has shifted from capital generated in private markets to direct aid from Western governments, aid whose deployment would be coordinated by the U.N., the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other supra-national agencies working with the governments of the affected countries. The only “shock” factor involved would be the speed at which the huge infusions of Western aid would turn around destitute economies: “Success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears,” Sachs wrote. The ambitious idea behind Sach’s development theories—explaining why he thinks that it will take only 20 years to erase the effects of decades of dire poverty—is to do everything simultaneously, from replenishing soil fertility via nitrogen-fixing legumes, to setting up ambitious AIDS therapy program, to achieving universal literacy, to promoting gender equality, to reducing child mortality.
In 2001 a Sachs-headed World Health Organization Commission on Macroeconomics and Health issued a report calling on the world’s rich nations to contribute $25 billion a year to poor countries, mostly in Africa ($8 billion would come from the U.S., quadruple the amount America currently spends on foreign health aid). The “investment,” as the report called the massive annual gift, would not only save eight billion lives but would generate $360 billion in economic growth in the affected countries. In an op-ed article for the New York Times in 2003, Sachs proposed raising the required extra billions via voluntary contributions from America’s super-rich. This January Sachs, writing in the Washington Post, called for yet another grand-scale spending program, this time for earthquake-devastated Haiti. His proposal went like this: Have the U.S. and other rich nations sink $15 billion over the next five years into a Haiti Recovery Fund that would build roads, give seeds and fertilizer to farmers, jump-start housing construction, pay public employees’ salaries, and so forth. This time Sachs called for a more coercive approach to raising the money: “[S]pecial taxes on Wall Street bonuses.”
Considering that Western governments have already spent $2.3 trillion (measured in today’s dollars) in development aid to Third World governments over the past 50 years, only to see most of that money frittered away by bureaucrats when not stolen outright by the kleptocrats at the top, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, it is difficult to see why developed nations ought to throw another $7.5 trillion at the Third World with the same likely results. Sachs dismisses such criticism as prompted by racial prejudice. “Even when such sentiments are not racist in intent, they survive in our societies as conventional wisdom because of existing widespread racism,” he wrote in The End of Poverty. He added: “Many African governments are trying to do their best.”
Does Aid Even Work?
Even putting aside the issue of aid funds that never reach the poor for whom they are intended, other economists have criticized Sachs’s belief that all the problems of the Third World could be solved quickly and simultaneously if only the West would donate enough money. In a review of The End of Poverty for the Washington Post, William Easterly, an economics professor at New York University and author of The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, noted that fifty years of large-scale top-down planning, dubbed “utopian social engineering,” by Easterly, have “left the most aid-intensive regions, like Africa, wallowing in continued stagnation.” On the other hand, Easterly noted, piecemeal reform efforts with modest goals, such as vaccination campaigns, clean water and sanitation projects, and increased access to primary and secondary education have produced tangible results in terms of infant health and literacy in sub-Saharan countries. (Some of those successful projects, by the way, are sponsored by religious and other private charities that do not rely on government funding.)
Even more damning criticism came from Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born, Oxford-trained economist whose 2009 book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa was a direct assault on Sachs’s aid-based master plans. Moyo wrote in the Huffington Post last May, “We…know that there is no country — anywhere in the world — that has meaningfully reduced poverty and spurred significant and sustainable levels of economic growth by relying on aid. If anything, history has shown us that by encouraging corruption, creating dependency, fueling inflation, creating debt burdens and disenfranchising Africans (to name a few), an aid-based strategy hurts more that it helps.” She pointed to what she perceived as implicit condescension in Sachs’s position that private investment and self-reliance was fine for Poland and other European countries but that Africa should be obliged to make do with government handouts.
Now, at Columbia, Sachs has added “sustainable development” to his unified-field theory of alleviating Third World poverty. His is a more sophisticated version of the “green jobs” arguments put forth by President Obama’s since-resigned adviser Van Jones, who postulated that the U.S. government could generate economic prosperity by subsidizing the hiring of unemployed members of ethnic minorities to retrofit buildings so as to make them environment-friendly. The problem is that sustainability, like sustainability studies in college, is largely a preoccupation of the prosperous upper middle classes in the developed world, the people who can afford the extra spending that a conversion to green technology would inevitably require. The alternative-fuel industry, whether wind power or solar power or ethanol, can’t survive without hefty government subsidies.
Sachs acknowledged as much in an op-ed article he wrote for the U.K Guardian right after President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. He noted that just to accomplish a single green goal, transition to electrically powered cars, the government would “have to support research and development, the high cost of early models, public awareness and acceptance, and the supporting infrastructure”—which would include solar and wind power for generation, carbon dioxide capture and storage, and hydrogen filling stations to be constructed throughout America. (The op-ed also revealed a disturbing autocratic streak in Sachs’s theorizing when he dismissed concerns that Obama’s green-tech administration would tell Americans what kind of car to drive: “Yes that is exactly what they intend to do… and rightly so. Free-market ideology is an anachronism in an era of climate change, water stress, food scarcity and energy insecurity.”) How the residents of impoverished African countries–who would undoubtedly be happy to host non-sustainable development of the pollution-generating kind that has fueled China’s economic boom—would pay for such a grandiose transformation of transportation that even most Americans don’t want to pay for in their own country is unclear.
Sachs’s ideas, and indeed the entire concept of sustainable development, are playing themselves out in the Millennium Village Project, co-sponsored by Columbia’s Earth Institute, the U.N., and Sachs’s non-profit organization, Millennium Promise (whose CEO, John McArthur, co-chaired the commission that issued the 2008 report calling for the crafting of those master’s degrees in “development practice”). The more than 80 Millennium Villages in 10 African countries are supported, at least in part, by a $50 million grant from financier George Soros. They are supposed to showcase the efficacy of using aid money–with some help from the governments of the countries involved–to achieve eight U.N.-mandated goals simultaneously (targeting education, health, agricultural output, gender equality, and so forth).
The idea was to make each village economically self-sufficient and to lift its residents out of extreme poverty within five years. Project administrators set up health clinics and schools (luring students with free daily meals), and gave free fertilizer and seeds to farmers scratching out livings in subsistence economies. The administrators also tiptoe around sustainability issues, handing out free insecticide-treated bed nets to residents in order to combat malaria instead of spraying to kill the mosquitos with the more effective but politically incorrect DDT. The villages have certainly attracted the attention of celebrities—Madonna, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Bono, a Sachs enthusiast, have visited them–but the economic results have not been exactly as planned.
Jeff Marlow, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology who visited the Millennium Village of Koraro in northern Ethiopia, reported for the New York Times that although parasitic disease was down and crop yields substantially up, extreme poverty was still the rule in Koraro after five years and $50 million in aid injections. Indeed, so far was Koraro from meeting the goals that the deadline has been extended to 10 years and perhaps longer (presumably at the same levels of aid). What has increased in Koraro is dependency on the foreigners. When project administrators tried last year to wean local farmers from the free fertilizer by halving the gratis portion (the rest was to be acquired by loan just as Western farmers borrow to finance their costs), the farmers of Koraro responded by cutting their fertilizer use—and, likely, their crop yields—in half.
In a 2007 visit to Dertu, a Millennium Village in northern Kenya, Nina Munk, a writer for Vanity Fair, observed that an ever-increasing number of households were lining up for international food handouts, that the local health coordinator had been beaten up in a clash between rival clans, and that herders were using the free bed nets to protect their goats instead of their children. Owen Barding, an economist living in Addis Ababa who has observed Millennium Village life at close hand, faulted Sachs for refusing to subject the project to rigorous evaluation, such as comparison to a control group. “For example, there has been a 51 percent reduction in malaria cases in Koraro, Ethiopia,” Barding wrote on his blog. “This has been touted as a success by the supporters of the project; and it sounds impressive until you find out that malaria cases have been more than halved across the whole country, not just in Koraro.”
Sachs was unavailable for an interview when I called his office at Columbia, but I did talk to Gregory Clark, an economics professor at the University of California-Davis who had reviewed Sachs’s 2008 book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. Clark mocked Sachs’s alphabet-soup (in international agencies) approach to alleviating poverty (“Water problems? Just get UNCCD to coordinate with GEF, UNDP, and UNEP”). Clark also criticized Sachs for regarding the perpetual economic crisis that is sub-Saharan Africa as merely a series of technological challenges to be with the proper science and sufficient Western money while ignoring the political and cultural factors that underlie endemic Third World poverty.
“Yes, if you bring fertilizer to these villages, you can improve people’s lives,” Clark said. “But the question is: Can you afford to do this on a large scale, and can you get a self-sustaining economy out of it? Look at the experience of Haiti. They call it the Republic of NGOs because 10 percent of its income comes from aid from non-governmental agencies. But that hasn’t produced any visible growth. It hasn’t even produced a viable government that could deal with the earthquake. The government collapsed.
“What these low-income countries need to do is to get out of agriculture,” Clark continued. “In Haiti 66 percent of the population are in agriculture, which means they’re living at the subsistence level. The need to have 2 percent of the population in agriculture If you study growth and development, you’ll see that what low-wage countries can do is to become centers of labor-intensive manufacturing. Look at Mauritius. It’s an island in the middle of nowhere in the Indian Ocean, but it’s a major garment-manufacturing center. The ships come in with big containers full of pre-cut parts of blue jeans, and they stitch them into jeans and put them back in the containers and ship them out. But first you need changes in the culture to bring that about, so that people will see the value of cooperating and working together inside a factory. And we don’t know how to bring about those changes.”
Nor, in the sustainable development programs at Columbia and elsewhere, does there even seem to be much interest in the industries that could economically transform sub-Saharan Africa and other destitute Third World countries. The Earth Institute, for example, sponsors a “Bamboo Bike Project” in Ghana that is supposed to generate—eventually—jobs and “sustainable” non-fossil fuel transportation in Africa, where bamboo grows freely. The problem: Bicycles with frames made of bamboo instead of the usual steel or aluminum are a niche product that appeals to eco-conscious cyclists in the developed world, and they also cost about $2,500 apiece because they’re tricky to put together. Wouldn’t Africans be better served by manufacturing cheap conventional bicycles on a large scale? Or for that matter, their own bed nets instead of getting them free?
But at Columbia, as at other schools that have set up stylish new sustainability majors for their undergraduates, practical concerns don’t seem paramount. Catering to the sensibilities of green-enthused upper-middle-class young people seems to be what’s paramount. I asked Steven Cohen, director of Columbia’s sustainable-development program, what sorts of jobs graduating seniors with majors in sustainable development might qualify for. He responded, “Columbia College is not really considered a vocational school. The emphasis in our sustainability major at Columbia is not on professional preparation but on intellectual development. If you want to prepare for a career, we offer a master’s of science in sustainability management.”
In short, sustainable development is about sustaining a state of mind.