“Our Biggest Challenge and Our Biggest Hope”
Economist Jeffrey Sachs discusses sustainable development goals and the need for a moral commitment to a peaceful, prosperous world.
by Jihii Jolly and Paula Miksic
NEW YORK, April 12—“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
Citing from President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs opened his dynamic talk at the SGI-USA New York Culture Center. “Hold that thought all your life because this is the essence of our challenge,” he said, addressing 400 members and guests as part of the SGI-USA Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series.
Dr. Sachs, who serves as a senior United Nations advisor and director of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, touched on some of the most pressing issues of our time and what can be done about them.
Referring to President Kennedy’s statement made 56 years ago, Dr. Sachs emphasized there are now two ways that human life can be ended—the risk of mass war and environmental catastrophe.
In his lecture, he explained the genesis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals spearheaded by the United Nations and agreed upon by its 193 member states in 2015, as well as the challenges to implementing them, which, in large part, require behavioral changes that come from transforming human nature. “We need to cooperate globally to make this work,” Dr. Sachs noted. “So ladies and gentlemen, this is our job; not to look at it, not to memorize it, but to actually do it, to get this done. It’s not simple. It means changing the world direction.” He stressed that the Sustainable Development Goals need to be made America’s goals, Bangladesh’s goals, Ghana’s goals, China’s goals and the goals of every country in the world based on what is important and appropriate for each of the 193 U.N. member states.
Expressing the purpose of sustainable development goals to make “the world safe, decent and prosperous for everybody,” Dr. Sachs quoted SGI President Ikeda: “Compassion is the very soul of Buddhism. To pray for others, making their problems and anguish our own; to embrace those who are suffering, becoming their greatest ally; to continue giving them our support and encouragement until they become truly happy—[Nichiren] Buddhism lives and breathes in such humanistic actions” (My Dear Friends in America, third edition, pp. 198–99).
“Our problem is moral,” Dr. Sachs said. “Our problem is to decide that we’re going to do this. Our problem is the knowledge of how important it is to accomplish and the moral commitment to do it. And that is really our biggest challenge and our biggest hope.”
Bookending his talk, Dr. Sachs concluded with JFK’s words: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
For someone so actively concerned about peace on a global scale, Dr. Sachs was so impressed and excited by our plans for the 50,000 [youth gathering next year] and that really lit the spark for me that this is a powerful thing that we are doing and we shouldn’t take it for granted at all. We represent a wide variety of sectors of human life, and each of us has such a vision and mission based on the philosophy of the SGI. I [now] view this as a much more concrete step for peace in America and not just a cool thing the SGI is doing.
One thing that really resonated with me was about maintaining a sense of mission when things are challenging. Dr. Sachs shared that if you’re doing good things, it can be frustrating. It’s a battle between doing good to outweigh evil. You may not necessarily have a moment of “I did it!” but [rather to think] this is lifelong work.
I asked Dr. Sachs what was his driving force as a youth? He seems so youthful, even though he has done so much in his life. [Dr. Sachs shared that] he made a point to always pursue questions and ask questions. The way I took it was: He has a seeking spirit. I felt, “Wow! If we keep challenging to have a seeking spirit throughout our lives, we can do so much and stay youthful.”
In my work as a criminal defense social worker, I come up against a lot of obstacles that restrict what I can do for people and oftentimes, [the circumstance] seems so unjust, inhumane and irrational. So my question for Dr. Sachs was, how do you maintain your sense of integrity and sense of mission? [What I took away from what he said was] keep going no matter what, because if you are really passionate about it and struggling with it, you are on the right path.
Tariq I. Hasan
I was encouraged when Dr. Sachs said that the key to figuring out what you want to do in life is just to think of a question that is worth spending your life on. It’s a way of thinking that I had never thought of before. He framed it in a way that was like, “You don’t have to choose your job, but the one question in your life.” However you get to the answer, that is your path in life.
Dr. Sachs mentioned that a lot of people say that they first want to earn money and then do something about society. I was reflecting on a personal level. What I want to do now is find something in the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals that really resonates with my passion, which is education. The sense of urgency with which he presented the SDGs really shook me. I need to be urgent in whatever I do.