As promised, here’s a brief look at the past eight weeks of my “The Age of Sustainable Development” course.
Rather than a detailed breakdown of what I’ve learned, I’m going to share what has had the most impact on me so far. But first of all, here’s a brief reminder of the course itself and why I’m doing it.
I’ve been translating for just over five years now and have reached a stage where I can mostly pick and choose the work that comes my way. The keyword here being ‘mostly’. I would love to work more in subject areas that interest me personally, and to do this I’ve decided to invest time learning more about these fields so I can legitimately call them my specialisms.
The first area is food and drink, so back in 2014 I studied for, and passed, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits.
The second area is international development. Hence my subscription to the 14-week “The Age of Sustainable Development” course delivered by Dr Jeffrey Sachs on the Coursera MOOC platform.
I’ve just completed week eight of this course. And I can tell you that as well as learning a vast amount about sustainable development, I’ve experienced a range of emotions ranging from sorrow, fear and anger to hope.
Sorrow, because watching these lectures I’ve realised that the world is a truly terrifying place for many of its 7.2 billion inhabitants. It wasn’t that I was ignorant of this; I keep up with current affairs and have travelled to some very poor countries in my time. But it’s never front of mind, and these lectures have made clear the sheer scale of the problems faced by people less fortunate than myself, especially the 1.2 billion people who currently live in extreme poverty, primarily in South Asia and Tropical Africa.
The lectures have also presented the challenges that we all face, which is where fear rears its head. Without doubt the most significant challenge faced by everyone on this planet is climate change. Dr Sachs explained that our current economic growth model must change if we are to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change. Especially given future growth forecasts. What does he mean by this? Well, the industrial revolution began in the UK and its technology moved on to most parts of the planet that adopted the technology and had access to fossil fuels. We have seen other waves of technological change since then, but economic growth is still largely driven by oil, coal and gas.
To see which countries benefited the most from the past three centuries of economic growth, we can use the World Bank’s categorization system. This divides states into three categories based on their Gross National Income per capita: high, middle and low-income countries. The aim of sustainable development is to see all countries achieve high-income status. And based on current growth forecasts, we will see a three times increase in global economic output by the middle of the 21st century. Which means a rise in Gross World Output from $82 trillion in 2010 to $272 trillion. This level of ouput will put an enormous strain on the earth’s resources, and if fossil fuels continue to be used to drive growth, the planet will be irreparably harmed as a result.
The third emotion I mentioned was anger, and this surfaced when Jeffrey Sachs discussed inequality. An example of this inequality is the Americas, a continent that has suffered from and still suffers from huge inequality. Dr Sachs explained the historical causes of this: the conquering colonial powers subjugating and dispossessing the indigenous populations, who, along with the slave population, became marginalised groups.
And this marginalisation continues today, with these groups suffering social discrimination, poverty and social/cultural exclusion. Dr Sachs explained that the only way to address this inequality is if a country’s politicians implement policies that give each member of society the same opportunity to reach their potential. Unfortunately, and this is what angers me the most, many governments in high-income countries tend to perpetuate inequality, not address it. Unequal access to education is the most glaring example of this. Preschool education has been shown to be the most cost effective investment in a child’s life. Not just in terms of their job prospects, but their sociability, nutrition and health. Similarly, those who complete tertiary education will, on average, earn more than those who don’t. But in countries such as the USA and UK, children whose parents can afford to pay for this education are more likely to enter prechool, or complete tertiary education at all. And those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to leave with debt. And what happens to those who don’t get these opportunities? Well, two thirds of prison inmates in the USA are illiterate. And 1 million of this 2.3 million prison population are African Americans. Join the dots for a picture of historical discrimination with modern day consequences.
And so the legacy of colonialism, and the poverty, discrimination and exclusion it brought, continues to prevent people from reaching their potential. And will continue to do so until governments provide equal access to services that can help to reduce this inequality, such as equal access to preschool and tertiary education. Educational opportunities that are known to help reduce inequalities in a society, but that the USA and UK, two of the world’s most unequal societies, are failing to provide. In the table below click on Norway, a high-income country with universal free access to preschool (ages 1-5) and tertiary education. Then select the UK and USA, countries with neither. By the way the GINI coefficient measures income inequality coefficient and runs from 0 (where everyone earns the same) to 1, where one person earns all the money. The closer to 1, the more unequal income is distributed among that country’s population.
And yet despite the harrowing tales of suffering, injustice and environmental catastrophe, I’m not typing this blog post under a cloud of doom, because the first eight weeks of this course have also offered plenty of hope.
Hope from the fact that sustainable development’s goals are now more achievable than ever. The action required to deliver a prosperous, socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and well governed society, has begun and is delivering real change. The successful Millennium Development Goals, the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Climate Conference are just three examples of this.
And hope because human intelligence and our capacity to innovate is already helping to deliver sustainable growth and change lives. Renewable energies are becoming more sophisticated and fueling economic growth in countries that cannot access fossil fuels. And mobile telephony and broadband internet are bringing landlocked, remote countries into the global economy. And improving access to low-cost education, with this free, online course a perfect example of this technology in action.
This brief review of the first eight weeks of The Age of Sustainable Development merely scratches the surface of what I’ve learned so far. I’m sure the final six weeks will be just as interesting and I’ll return after week 14 with my final thoughts.