Poverty is Caused by a Failure of Ethics, Not Economy, Sachs Says

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jeffrey sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, an internationally renowned economist and a senior United Nations adviser, spoke to students and faculty at Boston College on Friday, arguing that the continued existence of human poverty in any form is due to a failure of ethics—not economics.

His lecture, titled “The Economics and the Ethics of the Anthropocene,” was an installment of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series—the “anthropocene” being the era in which “humanity is either going to wreck the planet, or preserve the planet.”

Sachs is a University Professor at Columbia University—the university’s highest academic rank—and the director of its Center for Sustainable Development. A senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, The New York Times has referred to him as “the most important economist in the world,” and Time twice named Sachs to its list of the 100 most influential world leaders.

During his lecture, Sachs characterized the anthropocene as an epoch in which humanity is able to both end all human life and end all human suffering. He divided the anthropocene into three periods and described the economic paradigm—and ethical consequences—of each.

Adam Smith, the progenitor of modern economics, argued in 1776 that, while globalization would generally benefit everyone in the long run, powerful countries with force at their disposal would cause short-term harm to developing countries. He was right, Sachs said. Global commerce, coupled with asymmetrical military power, allowed many nations to exploit their neighbors—near and far—economically.

However, Smith believed that economic imperialism invariably planted the seeds of its own obsolescence, predicting that the new global economy would change the world’s balance of power as technology spread from developed to developing nations.


“We’re so rich that it’s only [due to] our complete disdain for the poor that we don’t solve the remaining problems of global poverty.”

—Jeffrey Sachs, economist and a senior United Nations adviser


Eventually, a new “equality of force,” among the few colonizers and the many colonized, would be realized—fatally loosening the imperial yoke. Only when peoples across the globe achieved a “mutual respect” would the fruits of world trade be equally shared, Smith argued.

From the vantage point of the post-colonial era, Sachs characterized the prescient Smith’s vision of the future as a remarkably accurate account of the past.

“Capitalism is a system that is absolutely susceptible to grave injustice,” Sachs said. “It was born with injustice—it has grown up with injustice—it has continued with injustice.”

Sachs called the first period of the anthropocene—the three centuries between 1500 and 1800—an “age of discovery, global commerce, and empire” in which the modern economic system first began to take root. However, this burgeoning, pre-industrial world economy was technology- and energy-starved, and severely limited in its ability to grow, Sachs said.

“It was an economy that could develop world-scale trading systems backed by mass slavery—and cruel, massive social destruction—but it was not an industrial age.” Sachs said. “Then came James Watt.”

Watt invented the steam engine in 1776, a year Sachs jokingly said was notable for the invention of the steam engine, the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and the founding of the United States—in that order.

Sachs said that the second period of the anthropocene—stretching from around 1800 to roughly 1950—saw the Industrial Revolution cause an economic transformation as fundamental as the Neolithic invention of agriculture.

“In the organic era, before coal, the amount of energy that could be mobilized was an extremely small amount of energy compared to what a modern economy needs,” Sachs said. “The economy before fossil fuels was an inherently self-limiting economy.”

Economic growth is an entirely modern phenomenon. Before the early 19th century, productivity generally remained nearly static, changing only gradually over hundreds of years. The advent of powerful energy sources allowed, for the first time, consistent increases in productivity which constitutes economic growth.

“Of course, the whole history of the world since then has been unequal—uneven—growth,” Sachs said. “[This global economy] was not a market economy; it was a market-and-military-power economy, as was true from 1500 onward.”

Sachs called the third phase of the anthropocene—dating from around 1950 to the present—a period of “decolonization, convergence, and the American century.”

After the conclusion of the Second World War, the U.S. assumed the role of the world’s dominant economic and military power, only rivalled—briefly—by the Soviet Union. Sachs took care to distinguish between the character of the U.S. “hegemony” of the 20th century and the European imperial control of previous centuries.

“The U.S. hegemony has been nasty, self-serving, and often very violent—it’s not an accident that we’re always at war—but it’s also true that we gave more space [to developing countries] than [European] colonial powers did—as long as they didn’t get out of line—to develop,” Sachs said.

Sachs said that after 1950, most of the developing world, for the first time, had the chance to industrialize—particularly since mass education was no longer being discouraged by the colonial powers of Europe and technology was finally flowing out of the West.

Smith’s prediction was coming to pass. A more equal enjoyment of the economic bounty of global trade, if not an equality of military power, was being realized.

In 1990, 37.1 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2015 that figure had fallen to 9.6 percent, Sachs said, but only as a side effect of larger economic trends.

“Poverty is such an absurd anachronism that, if we cared a whit, we would be saving millions of lives per year, we would easily be able to ensure universal access to health coverage, clean water, sanitation, education, and we’d never notice the economic costs,” Sachs said.

Sachs is the Special Adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted in 2014.

According to United Nations calculations, less than 2 percent of gross world product would suffice to end both carbon-based climate change, which, along with thermonuclear warfare, poses the greatest threat to humanity, and to end all human poverty in every form.

“We’re so rich that it’s only [due to] our complete disdain for the poor that we don’t solve the remaining problems of global poverty,” Sachs said.

Sachs argued that in the face of globally “intractable” selfishness—and the unwillingness of wealthy countries to eradicate easily-preventable human suffering—the moral doctrine guiding all actions should be that private property rights are “important, but never inviolate,” and that individual rights must be subordinated to the “moral purpose” of the economy.

“The essence of the ethics of the anthropocene is, fundamentally, a choice—the choice of pro-sociality, of supporting humanity, versus the choice of uncontrolled greed,” Sachs said.  

Featured Image by Kristen Saleski / Heights Staff

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