This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.
If you are passionate about international development, you’ve probably heard/read the name Jeffrey Sachs more times than you can count. Whether you disagree completely with his proposals or you absolutely adore his ideas and intend to follow his footsteps (see these Foreign Policy articles for overviews of Sachs’ view and his opponents’ views), reading him and judging is probably a given if you want to get into global development.
So, as a form of rite of passage from a development-curious person towards an opinionated development intern, we’ve (that is, Holly and Michelle) decided to take Sach’s new online course “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Coursera.
Part of what attracted me (Michelle) to the course was coherence. Sachs proposes a multidimensional approach for development and yet, he seemed unreachable for a regular student outside of the New York area. Joining the Coursera team shows commitment to the idea of trying to make education more accessible to people around the world, as one of the challenges within the societal dimension.
The course itself has a simple design. The lectures, split into manageable chunks of between ten to fifteen minutes, were interspersed with questions ensuring that any listener would remain focused. Each session is then followed by a quiz, that focuses on what should have been learnt from the lessons, along with building participants’ awareness of information tools such as gapminder.com or data.worldbank.org/indicator. The quiz is designed to encourage the use of both qualitative and quantitative skills, asking you to interpret graphic data and calculate possibilities. Finally, the course website has a forum feature, which allows you to create and respond to threads, opening the possibility of discussion on a particular topic of interest from the lesson with other users/students.
The first session was enjoyable. As enjoyable as looking at shocking statistics about the current state of affairs is, of course. It is true that some of the facts that were introduced were not new to us; however, they served to set the context we will be working on, in and outside the course. An example of the more well known facts with which he opens up the subject were:
- 7.2 billion people currently inhabit the world, out of which more than 1 billion live in extreme poverty.
- In a world with greater economic production, the population has risen alongside that – it more than tripled in the 20th century. We are expected to reach 8 billion people by 2024 or 2025.
- Half of this expanding world population lives in cities, designed to support a certain(…ly far smaller) amount of people. By 2030 the percentage will rise to 70%. An important part of human development will thus depend on sustainable urbanization, smart cities, smart architecture, smarter technological systems, etc.
- Misguided technological advancement can physically (i.e. environmentally) hurt the earth. Not only are the CO2 emissions affecting the ozone layer, but they affect the chemistry of the ocean, making its water more acidic. The way we put nitrogen based fertilizers into the soil, in such large amounts, changes the normal nitrogen cycle.
This definitely gives you something to think about…
But while all of the technical information was very informative there were two main ideas which showed why the course will be a great time investment. The first one being that Sustainable Development is not only analytical but also a normative for an ethical approach. What is a good society? From this basic question Sachs presents his idea about the triple-bottom-line approach, economy, society, and environment. And, of course, the list of words that compose the ‘development jargon‘ these days: socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, good governance – the list goes on.
The second idea stems from all of the topics presented: at the essence of Sustainable Development is problem solving. A starting point towards defining sensible goals for a crowded, interconnected planet. This problem solving focus is strongly emphasised by Sachs.
If we keep these two ideas in mind while watching the video-lessons, we might actually be able to understand the concept of Sustainable Development objectively. Building on what is said (in, admittedly, Sachs’ well-known perspective) but without limiting ourselves to it.