NEW YORK ― A half-century ago, John F. Kennedy observed that, “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Those words speak to us today with special urgency.
Our generation can indeed end the ancient scourge of extreme poverty. Yet it can also destroy the earth’s life-support system through human-induced environmental devastation.
By necessity, then, we have entered The Age of Sustainable Development. So I am enormously excited to be launching a free, global, online university course by the same name in January 2014. (Those interested in joining the course can register here.) I hope that people all over the world will join the course ― and then join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development.
Sustainable development is both a way of understanding the world and a way to help save it. As a method of understanding the world, sustainable-development practitioners study the interactions of the economy, the environment, politics, and culture and how they influence prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Students of sustainable development must therefore learn about a wide range of subjects, including economic development, education, health care, climate change, energy systems, biodiversity, and urbanization, among others.
As a method of helping to save the world, sustainable development encourages a holistic approach to human well-being, one that includes economic progress, strong social bonds, and environmental sustainability. The challenges are becoming more urgent as the large and rapidly growing world economy causes massive environmental destruction, and as new technologies demand new skills. Young people without the appropriate training and skills are likely to find few opportunities for decent jobs and incomes.
I predict that sustainable development will become the organizing principle for our politics, economics, and even ethics in the years ahead. Indeed, the world’s governments have agreed to place it at the very center of the world’s post-2015 development agenda. They will soon adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will help guide the world to a safer and fairer 21st-century trajectory. Just as the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, have proved highly effective in the fight against poverty and disease, the SDGs (which will succeed the MDGs in two years) promise to address the global challenges that we face in areas including energy, food, water, climate, and jobs.
I also believe that global, free, online teaching about sustainable development can help to propel global solutions. Online global courses are part of the world’s ongoing information revolution ― a revolution that is now fundamentally reshaping higher education, most importantly by creating new avenues of access for more people around the world.
I know this from personal experience. For most of my years as a professor, the basic educational technologies did not change much. I stood in front of a class and gave a 57-minute lecture. Yes, the blackboard gave way to an overhead projector, and then to PowerPoint, but otherwise the basic classroom “technology” changed little.
Yet, with the new information technologies, higher education (and of course education at other levels) is suddenly changing. Courses can now incorporate a lot more information ― data, videos, and even live chats with experts halfway around the world. More and more people worldwide can access free, high-quality educational materials that previously were available only to a lucky few. This is especially important today, because the challenges of sustainable development will require knowledgeable and educated citizens everywhere.
According to recent data, online university courses have already reached students in more than 190 countries, enabling them to watch lectures, take quizzes, and interact with fellow students and professors. Online education is transforming the classroom experience as well. Now, rather than watch me lecture for 57 minutes, my students at Columbia University can watch the online lectures ahead of time, permitting a much richer, in-depth discussion in the classroom.
In the years ahead, I believe that all of us will have to become leaders in sustainable development in our homes, communities, and countries. Millions of young people will soon have to help solve problems of climate change, water, energy, transportation, and education. Thousands of cities and 200 countries around the world will need to rally all stakeholders ― government, communities, experts, business, and non-governmental organizations ― to play their roles, and open online education will be key to disseminating the information they need.
For these reasons, I am also pleased that my course will be part of a more general education program of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative under the auspices of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that I am honored to direct. The SDSN mobilizes scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable-development problem solving at local, national, and global scales.
One of the SDSN’s key objectives is to reach students all over the world by developing and disseminating online materials for sustainable-development curricula. More than a dozen institutions have already committed to incorporating The Age of Sustainable Development into their own classes, tailored for their own local circumstances and issues.
The SDSN will encourage the world’s universities to participate in the new era of global online teaching. The goal will be to equip today’s young people to use wisely the power that will soon pass into their own hands to help address the world’s great challenges.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals. ― Ed.