Will ancient Greek and Chinese wisdom be able to help humanity overcome a series of crises that have occurred almost simultaneously? Professor Jeffrey Sachs thinks so. The director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, internationally acclaimed economist and friend of Greece engaged in an email interview with Kathimerini ahead of his arrival in Athens, where he helped organize a workshop at the Academy of Athens from July 6 to 8 in which academics specializing in ancient Greek and Chinese wisdom are participating.
The Workshop on Ancient Wisdom for Modern Challenges is being held under the auspices of the Municipality of Athens, supported by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network of the United Nations, the Academy of Athens, the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation and others.
Sachs spoke about global challenges, the origin of the coronavirus, the war in Ukraine, the dangers of environmental instability and the social and political problems the United States is facing.
What is the idea and purpose of the workshop that you are helping to organize in Athens?
Plato and Aristotle invented the idea that the good life (eudaimonia) depends both on personal virtue (arete) and political virtue. Aristotle explained that politics comes in two forms, the good (monarchy, aristocracy, republic) and the bad (tyranny, oligarchy, populism). Our goal is to see how this ancient wisdom, and that of ancient China too, can be applied to modern challenges, and to see how the concepts of eudaimonia, arete and the polis can help to guide the world to better lives in the 21st century. We are, fittingly, hosted by the Academy of Athens, and will of course visit the Lyceum during the workshop!
On May 31, you co-wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe with Neil L. Harrison questioning the standard narrative about the origin and nature of the coronavirus. Do you think it was designed in a laboratory? Do you entertain the possibility that it was released intentionally?
While two hypotheses – natural spillover of the virus, or lab creation of the virus – are possible, I believe the evidence now leans towards the lab creation. It is clear that there was a mountain of hidden genetic manipulation of SARS-like viruses sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and even the announced intention to insert a dangerous furin cleavage site (FCS) into a SARS-like virus. When the SARS-CoV-2 virus first appeared, many top virologists believed that the presence of the FCS made it possible or likely that the virus has originated in the laboratory. Yet NIH worked hard to squelch this view and to give the false appearance that the virus almost surely arose in nature. In short, NIH has acted dishonestly.
It is time for the European Union to champion an investigation not just of China, but of the US too, since it is really US biotechnology that is in question and since NIH has been sponsoring dangerous research not known to Europe’s leaders or the public. There is good reason to believe that such dangerous research continues until today.
There is no evidence that the virus was deliberately released from the laboratory. If it emerged from a laboratory, it almost surely did so accidentally, and perhaps with a lab worker who was asymptomatic, not even aware of being infected.
‘Even the Eastern Mediterranean scrambles for oil and gas reserves that should be left under the sea! We need sunshine, wind power, hydropower, geothermal power – not fossil fuels!’
You also wrote an impressive op-ed in Il Sole regarding Regeneration 2030. You present the argument that we have far exceeded Earth’s planetary boundaries, virtually all “limits to growth.” Are you still optimistic that humanity could avert climate and ecosystems decline before a series of major disruptions derail civilization as we know it?
It is possible to avert disaster, but too late to avoid very heavy costs. Look at global warming. It is already at 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, and global warming is continuing today faster than 0.3°C per decade. We are very likely to exceed the 1.5°C limit set in the Paris Agreement. The forest fires, droughts, and other disasters hitting Greece are likely to worsen. I am writing from Italy today, where a very serious drought has hit much of the country.
Yet even with all of this danger, Europe is reopening coal mines in the wake of the Ukraine war, instead of negotiating an end to the war. Too many politicians are shortsighted. Even the Eastern Mediterranean scrambles for oil and gas reserves that should be left under the sea! We need sunshine, wind power, hydropower, geothermal power – not fossil fuels!
The war in Ukraine seems to be leading to a protracted impasse, sending economic, energy and food crises rippling across the globe. How can it be ended?
The war in Ukraine was provoked by the US neoconservatives, such as US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who has pushed relentlessly for NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. Russia is reacting to the push for US hegemony. Of course, this doesn’t excuse the war, but it explains it. Yet the European Union falls blindly behind the US, once again. It is time for Europe to understand that US aspirations to global hegemony are as dangerous for the world as Britain’s empire was in the 19th century. After America’s wars of choice in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in the past quarter-century, NATO should be circumspect, and stop expanding eastward (violating promises given to Gorbachev already back in 1990).
The US is heading toward midterms as polarized as ever, while liberal values seem in retreat, symbolized by the shock of the Roe v Wade reversal. Meanwhile the “big lie” is still potent – perhaps as a useful pretext for a sizable minority of white Americans to actually express that they don’t accept as “legitimate” the increasing influence of Blacks and Hispanics in America (hence, they have dubbed an election where voting became easier for lower-class citizens as the “big steal”). Can a deeply divided US continue to offer leadership to the free world?
No, for three reasons. First, we live in a multipolar world, even if the US neoconservatives don’t yet realize it or accept it. Second, the US aspiration to hegemony is a threat to itself and to others. Third, US society is coming apart at the seams. In my own neighborhood in NYC, the gun shootings have increased markedly. Every week there is a new mass shooting. The country is deeply divided in many ways: white versus minority; college-educated vs high school educated; urban vs rural; native-born vs foreign-born; high-tech vs low-tech. The America at the cutting-edge of technology and economy is along the two coasts, which are also socially progressive, more educated and racially diverse. The America of the south and interior of the country is in rebellion, suffering from falling incomes of less-educated workers, lagging technologies, failing public services, racism, and dependence on fossil fuels. We have two Americas, which probably need an amicable partial separation with a weaker federal government and the progressive coastal regions left to go their own way.
In the last euro-crisis the sovereign debt spreads spiked across the euro periphery – including in Greece and Italy. We have been seeing the same recently. Do you worry a new debt crisis is around the corner for many countries?
It is possible. The key is to end the war in Ukraine right away, by agreeing right away on the non-enlargement of NATO and the removal of sanctions on Russia in return for Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s military withdrawal. Otherwise, the European crisis will deepen – to live out the US neocon misadventure.
The new economic trend is “onshoring,” partly reversing decades of offshoring. Do you expect the reversal of fundamental elements of globalization due to tensions rising globally and big power competition?
Not quite. Globalization will continue to intensify, but if we are not careful, in a dangerous and divided world. Consider the recent G7 announcement about a new package of financing for infrastructure in developing countries. The idea is good, but as is typical, it was presented by the G7 as an initiative against China rather than as a positive initiative. This again is the US mind-set – divide the world so that the US can run at least part of the world. My advice to Europe is different. Live cooperatively with all regions, including China and, yes, even Russia. But act prudently, not trying to dictate to the rest of the world, but rather to cooperate with it. Europe’s main goals should be peace, success in the European Green Deal, and promotion of Green Deals in all other regions of the world!