Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
What’s Next for the World?
Featuring John McArthur
The list of urgent things to fix—climate change, inequality, poverty—is long. In a world where every problem seems top-priority, what does it actually look like when we get together to solve complex, thorny issues? Today, we’re talking with John McArthur, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, about how nations and governments push forward on “all the big stuff.” He reminds us that we have made surprising progress on some things on the list, and that on others, the story is still being written.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What Could Go Right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of the Progress Network. And I am joined by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of the Progress Network. And we are having a series of stimulating, or at least we hope stimulating conversations, with a series of stimulating, or at least we hope stimulating people for our podcast series, What Could Go Right? And the nature of this is to simply ask that question, not that there is a prejudged answer and not that things will in fact go right, but that we spend so much time in our daily lives, in our media consumption in our conversations. And maybe in the depths of our souls, thinking about all the things that could go wrong, that we sometimes forget to ask what could go right? One of the questions that animates people everywhere around the world and is top of the mind, in addition to the delightful pandemic that we have all been living through is what’s going to happen to the climate.
What is going to happen to global warming? How is that going to shape our future? My 15 year old son came in the other day having just read The Uninhabitable Earth—the title that gives away its thesis from the get-go and said, so tell me exactly why the world is not going to end in the next 15 years. And while that might be slightly hyperbolic, I would say that most people view climate change as not just an impending disaster, but the existential threat to humanity today. That may in fact be the case, but if it’s not the case and we are left on this planet with however many billion people are going to be on this planet by the end of the 21st century, we’re all going to have to figure out how to live with, in addition to mitigating climate change. And in that spirit, we’re going to have a conversation with John McArthur, who has been at the forefront of these questions, not just of the sustainability of a warming planet, but how do human beings constructively, both adapt to that fact, regrettable though it may be do something about slowing down the arc and creating a world that we actually want and can live in, not just a world that we’re going to suffer through. So Emma, why don’t you tell us a little bit about John McArthur?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): John McArthur is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, where he works on new approaches for catalyzing action for sustainable development. He translates significant global challenges into practical conversations and actions and thinks about what this all means for our future. Welcome John. We’re so happy to have you here with us on What Could Go Right.
ZK: So my first question, and I’m sure Emma has been burning with the same deep, deep curiosity is why 17 rooms and then tell us about it. Like why not 16? Why not 18? It’s a quirky number. And John’s about to tell us what 17 rooms is, but it’s this initiative for global sustainability goals and how to achieve them and a template for if you’re actually interested in a planetary improvement, which I’m sure a few people aren’t and many aren’t, here is a template and a way to do it and to organize. But I like why 17?
John McArthur (JM): Well do you know how many sustainable development goals there are?
ZK: 17. Yes. And you have to tell us that.
JM: I’m with you, I’m with you, but just to go with the question on the question, because the big thing here is the world set, 193 countries came together back in 2015, but it took them a few years actually to come up with it. And they set 17 goals to make people and planet better by 2030. And after this long negotiation—imagine getting 193 countries to agree on anything today—they came up with these 17 goals, which include things ranging from eliminating extreme poverty by 2030, the poorest of the poor, which might seem fantastical, but it’s actually in may be pretty doable at this stage, to tackling climate change, which is roughly speaking a runaway train at this stage, we got to both hit the brakes and turn the train around, but also tackling inequality within and across all countries, thinking about things like health, education how to protect the oceans, peace, and strong institutions.
And each of these 17 goals is of course a huge global issue unto itself. And so the reason for 17 rooms is that in my experience talking with people around the world and also having gone to a lot of policy conferences is that there’s something missing. And the thing that’s missing is a way is a few things away for people to get together more informally to brainstorm creatively. A second is a lot of people think of the goals as these far off things you got to go to the United Nations to talk about, but the reality is progress comes down to people getting together in rooms to have a conversation, to think about what next, and then that’s the third piece, which is to think not about the long term, which some people might’ve think 2030 is just too far off, especially in a crisis timeline today, but also how to think beyond the immediate urgency of “I’m too busy, I can’t do anything else right now” to literally think about next year and to say, what could we do to cooperate, to bend a curve next year, if you throw a bunch of people in a room and say what next?
And so that idea led to what we now call 17 rooms. One of the things I found very powerful is if you replace the word goals, which seem far off and ambition driven, with rooms, which seems very proximate about people getting together, you can get a lot done. And so with the Rockefeller Foundation is a major partner in this. We’ve been experimenting over the past few years to say, what are all the ways in which we can codify this and kind of bottle a secret sauce? So it’s not just for these global conversations, but actually for local conversations too. And every community center in the world could be 17 rooms. Or last year everything went virtual. So it became 17 zooms. You think about next steps. And also how do we problem solve in parallel across all these issues and in concert among all these issues. And so that’s the genesis story of 17 rooms.
EV: There is a question of how you land on 17 sustainable development goals, right? So the question of why 17 rooms, okay, we got it. Why are there 17 sustainable development goals?
JM: Well, let me tell you a story to come up with my best answer on that one, the process, and it was a major, major international process to come up with these 17 goals took a few years, as I mentioned there were a lot of debates on what’s the right number of goals. And these sustainable development goals are actually successors to what were previously the millennium development goals, which are really focused on extreme poverty, the poorest of the poor life and death issues, AIDs, child survival, maternal mortality and things, and coming out of those goals that were originally the millennium goals from 2000, 2015, people said, oh, we got to think about what’s next. And it was actually the most inclusive global agenda setting process the world’s ever seen on how to come up with… Millions and millions of people sent in their views.
And at the end of it, there had been this huge debate. Should it be eight goals again? Should it be 10? Should it be 12? The answer ended up being 17. And the day these goals were formalized and all of the diplomats finally signed off, it was Sunday, August the second, 2015, and it was a hot, steamy afternoon. I happened to be in my apartment in Washington at the time watching the proceedings on the internet. And I called my mom that day, my mom, back in Vancouver, where I grew up and I said, mom, you know, those goals I’ve mentioned. And the first among them was to end extreme poverty. That was kind of the first among equals. I said those goals that the world agreed on today, and the first one is to end extreme poverty by 2030. She said, that’s exciting.
And I said, yeah, it is actually. And then I said, there’s only one problem. She said, what’s that? And I had in the back of my mind, I had to give a few speeches in the following two weeks and I was going to have to explain them. And they said, well, these goals, there are 17 of them. I didn’t know how to explain them. And she said, 17, that’s a great number. I was like, pause. You’re the first person to say that. And so I’m sure I sounded like my insolent teenage self. And I was like, okay, mom, tell me why is 17 a great number, c’mon, can’t wait to hear this one. And she said, world’s complicated. It sounds like they didn’t fake it.
EV: It’s authentically long.
JM: And I go, that’s interesting. And then she actually later came back to me and said that if they’d given me some Letterman style, top 10, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. So the next week I’m at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, it’s like 500 people there who were like not been involved in this process. They’re from business government, you know, academia, all these parts of life were out in the world. And I mentioned, you know, the very simplest form I presented the opening section, extreme poverty is going like this climate change is going like that.
EV: Meaning extreme poverty is going down, climate change is going up, since we can see…
JM: Exactly. Thank you. Yeah. And I just adlib this comment of my mom’s, and the world is complicated. What does everyone come up to me for the next few days saying? They say, I love these goals. It’s like your mom said, I see *my* issue in there. And it actually changed the way I think about it because pretty much every room I go to now, when I give what I call my one-on-one talk like what’s going on in the world, I canvass the room at the beginning and I ask them, what’s the single biggest issue the world needs to solve right now? And it doesn’t take a very big room to get all 17. And so it actually changed the way I think about it because we’re used to thinking in policy terms about what’s the biggest priority.
ZK: First, what are a couple of those 17? Just so people know, extreme poverty…
JM: Poverty, hunger, health, education, gender, quality, water, and sanitation jobs innovation, infrastructure, inequality, cities working climate change…
ZK: A lot of the elementals of, of human existence and human needs.
EV: All the big stuff.
ZK: The reason why I was harping a little on the number, right, is some of the pushback is a lot of people feel there are all these huge issues, right? And Americans are particularly pushback-y on this. You get these global meta institutions of which you’ve been deeply embedded, and I dipped in, and you get all these people to come together for these massive conferences, right? So Paris does its Climate Accords and then year by year, thousands of people get together and yap about goals and ideas and aspirations and things. And they come up with long reports, you know, white papers on emissions, white papers on coastal inundation, white papers on urban sanitation. And then they get together in another conference and then they talk about it and they come up with another white paper to discuss…
JM: A lot of blah, blah, I call it.
ZK: Right. So the pushback is, there’s an incredible global institutional infrastructure of talking about problem solving in great complexity. Does it, any of it actually then translate into meaningful action or is the meaningful action going on or not going on in a completely different realm?
JM: Well, this is… To answer the first part of that, I think this is going back to what everyone cares about. And so I now think of the goals differently than I did at the beginning. At the beginning I was like, oh my gosh, the UN can’t control itself. They’re coming up. They can’t keep the list contained. No, that was my instinct as a friend of the UN, that was definitely my instinct. But then I, I realized it was actually the opposite. The goals aren’t what the UN told the world to care about, the goals are what the world told the UN not to forget about. So when I asked all these rooms, you know, what are the biggest issues? The single most commonly overlooked issue that people don’t mention is oceans. So then I often say, oh, oceans, it’s only 70% of the planet. I guess you don’t have to worry about that for the next 15 years.
And they say, aha. And I pointed out, that’s why we have these goals to remind us of things. Because even if you don’t think that the goals that this is the most important, cause maybe you care about the second most overlooked thing, often it’s gender equality by the way. But everyone also always says, well, of course I care about that. Of course I care about that. But the thing is, if you’re an education specialist or you’re maybe a teacher even, or you care a lot about health or you care about mental health or you care about climate change, the point is that these goals remove the competition, like which one is more important. And they actually say they’re all important. And what they provide is a language to remove the competition, to say, this is just a way to like, get everyone on the same page, literally and figuratively.
So, and that’s where, for example, 17 rooms just going back to that is super interesting to me because there are all sorts of communities who are saying, we want a way to organize our conversations around economic, social, and environmental to think about next steps. And my view is that all that the goals are ultimately is like a lingua franca for connecting. The goals don’t provide any answers. They just provide a way to connect so that communities themselves, have to come up with answers.
And then to the second part of your question, there are some communities that are really good at coming up with answers. There are some communities that actually have a ways to go in coming up with answers and even like professional communities, I mean, not just geographic communities. And so there can be a way to learn from each other. If we think about it in the right way about, gosh, it’s not just about global conferences, quite the opposite. It’s about what do we do in our country and our community and our state and our province. How do these pieces fit? Because in my home community where I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, these issues are front and center. All of them as anywhere else. It’s not just an over there question. It’s an over here question too.
EV: I’m curious how we’re actually doing with the SDGs. I mean, I know you mentioned that we’re doing really well on poverty, which I think might be a surprise for people that, that you said that was a doable thing that we could achieve by 2030. I think that’s a surprise for a lot of people. You mentioned climate as a runaway train. I think that’s not a surprise for people. How are we doing on some of the other ones?
JM: Extreme poverty, just to clarify. So this is people who live on what the technical jargon is less than a $1.90 a day in so-called purchasing power parity terms. So price adjusted, inflation adjusted, all that stuff. And the world is in the best place it’s ever been before COVID on extreme poverty down to getting close to only only air 600 million people, which is less than 10% of the world. So it’s small in proportion terms, but that’s still 600 million people.
And so the point is that it’s actually getting small enough and concentrated enough and manageable enough. Half the problem is concentrated in five countries alone. So in places like Nigeria, like Democratic Republic of Congo, where we can actually start to think about, oh, this is a focused problem, not an everywhere problem. Now COVID has thrown a lot of, you know, spanners in the works obviously. And we know the truth is we don’t know exactly how it’s going because all the economic indicators are so gray in so many places. But my view is the problem is getting small enough that we could literally, if we really, really wanted to start to use things like digital payment systems to do cash transfers, to buy our way out of a problem, so to speak. And there’s a lot of new technology that has allowed… Just like we’re doing direct cash support in the United States for a lot of people right now. And a lot of other countries during the crisis, we can do the same thing for extreme poverty. We can debate whether that’s the right idea, but that’s now possible at an affordable level.
ZK: I’m glad you mentioned COVID. Well, I mean, I’m not glad you mentioned it. I think it’s important that COVID be mentioned given that most of this was developed in a pre pandemic world, although health and health security was certainly part of the lattice of goals. And it does raise the question of, so you, you articulated brilliantly how these are and you had an incredibly pithy expression that I said to myself, I’m going to remember and use, and I’ve now forgotten and won’t, but about you know, this isn’t, this is a way for things not to be left out. It wasn’t the UN saying pay attention to these things. It was way for people to say, don’t forget about these things. But then there’s the question of like, what’s exactly the bandwidth of any society at any given point to pay attention to more than a couple of things, and then the law of unintended consequences.
So, right. We don’t know yet whether or not the global efforts to contain the pandemic, most of which were national efforts to contain their own pandemic. There was no really global effort to contain the pandemic, whether or not that’s going to set back the move toward poverty alleviation. We don’t even know in Sub-Saharan Africa, whether the health effects of trying to contain the pandemic will have critically impaired other vaccination efforts that had been underway for years for, for other issues. Right? And I guess the question is what is the bandwidth of any particular society? And if you pay too much attention to one, right, we may decide in five years that the effort to contain the pandemic in parts of the world, ultimately it was more deleterious than, you know, the pandemic would have been. Certainly not in Taiwan and Canada, but maybe in Nigeria. I mean, where do we go with all that? I’m not even saying that that’s the case, I’m saying we don’t actually quite know.
JM: It’s a real debate. Last summer, there was a debate or which I was, you know, in my own little way with colleagues, part of Nature magazine, you know, the major global scientific magazine published an editorial saying we should just scrap these goals basically because we’ve got a crisis to deal with. And, you know, my view is that’s not the right view. And we argued it cause you can’t say, well, let’s forget about climate change just because we got a COVID crisis, you know, the earth is the earth. We got to still protect the earth. And the fact of the pandemic doesn’t change the need to protect the earth and our civilization. So I think there are a lot of questions which are first thing, there’s a difference between what one can cope with in the moment, some hierarchy of needs and what are the responsibilities of a society.
So if I’m having a heart attack, yes, I’m going to go to the cardiologist or I’m going to go to the ER, but I’m not going to say I don’t need to protect my lungs, my liver, my brain, like I need all my organs to work, to be a functioning body. Well, societies are similar. They need all their functioning systems. So there’s one question I always ask, because I think governments get this wrong. A lot of the time they say, we need to pick priorities. We can’t do all these goals. The first question I usually ask is how many members are there in your federal cabinet? Many of them have at least 17 or 18. In my, again, I’ll just use Canada, because I pay a lot of attention to Canada. There’s more than 30. So then my question is can each cabinet member do half a thing while they’re in office?
And then this is an intentionally, you know, not obnoxious, if you will, question, cause point is, they’re already trying to do a bunch of things. The problem is that those things aren’t necessarily seen as all part of the same coordinated effort. And I think if the pandemic has exposed one thing, it’s the interconnections between these issues. So, you know, a microscopic imbalance between humans and nature in one part of the world can very quickly transmit to all parts of the world in ways that tips off other imbalances in society and health and inequality and who bears the brunt and who doesn’t and how our institutions do and don’t cooperate. And you’ve shown, you just mentioned, you know, the fact that the world hasn’t cooperated on the thing that’s in the most self-interest imaginable, it’s always the case study, pandemic is like the thing where you want to cooperate to help yourself.
These issues are interconnected. And I think the goals are helpful in prompting attention towards that. The deeper point though, then is how do we think about what is a priority versus what is something that we need to manage? And there, I would argue for, for policy makers, you know, yes, the way I simply describe it as there are some things that need to turn around, it’s not going, okay, you need to change direction. If I’m a head of state or principal head of government, I campaign on those things. There’s probably three to five things I campaign on. I’m going to make change on that, to turn the tide. There might be some things that are going okay, but not quite well enough. They need a bit of a nudge. That’s where I might put my up-and-comers on my team. And then there are other things where I might say, you know, make sure it keeps working. That might be my first-timers in the cabinet. You know, that might be the, show you can make sure this works and don’t let anything go wrong.
One of the big things we’ve seen, and I think we have much broader awareness of around the world is there’s no country that is yet satisfied, economic prosperity and social inclusion in a comprehensive way. And environmental sustainability, all three at once. That triple challenge is the essence of sustainable development. It’s just those three things. And these 17 goals are ultimately just an articulation of all sorts of different domains that fall under that. But it really comes down to that triple challenge, in my view.
EV: And given that we’re still like a global work in progress is how I’m taking that, that no country has succeeded in those three things. And the unknowability of the pandemic that Zachary was talking about, you know, something that you wrote about was the pandemic as an opportunity for a transition. And, you know, certainly I think people are very used to talking about individually, the pandemic was a big energy shift. A lot of people self-reflected, a lot of people made personal life changes. How does that work, you know, on the collective, do you see that energy shift happening around SDGs? Like, has there been something that has shifted or not?
JM: Oh, what a great question. I think anyone who’s working on these issues has been prompted to self-reflect a lot, hopefully on, you know, what’s going on and what matters. And I would say one big thing, especially in the US but it’s broader, you know, a lot of people were caught in these issues, but might not use the jargon of SDGs and that’s okay. You don’t need to use the jargon. It’s a tool, it’s a device, but it’s not a mandate or an imperative or anything like that. It’s just a way to make it a little easier and remove some of the friction of how the different constituencies I think might connect. I think the notion of transitions is something that we came up with in our, among some colleagues thinking about, gosh, what’s going on. And I described the pandemic, and also the events of 2020, as a cascade of crises, not a single crisis.
So in the US alone, but it was global in the eyes where I would say disproportionately watching the US but as of the world in 2020, we had the pandemic, we had a breakdown in public institutions. I would argue at the federal level, and also at the state federal level between states and between orders of government. We had a crisis of race and race relations and racial reckoning. We had a crisis of gender inequality. I would argue the most gender unequal crisis in modern history, in terms of the burdens being born by society. We had a crisis of inequality in terms of who is bearing the burden and which aspects of society are both carrying the risk and bearing the economic burden, whether that’s your frontline grocery store workers or the service industries that can’t afford to miss work and have more risk of exposure every day.
And then we certainly had a crisis of state-sponsored violence, I would argue, and risk of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, which has only exacerbated. And all of these are interconnected as part of the same recent history. And so I think one has to again, say there’s no, the pandemic certainly was a flame on the gasoline, but I don’t think it was the only issue. And part of the way I think about these goals is they’re helpful, not on their own as a device for getting out of this, because you won’t need much more than that, but they are device for things. Where are we trying to go? What’s a neutral reference point for what we’re trying to get to on the horizon. So kind of a north star function and that you know, is important that we’re not having a debate every day on where we’re trying to go.
Are we trying to, you know, create jobs or not? Yes. How are we gonna measure that? Well, like this, we are going to have a debate about how to get there and we should, that’s what public debate is for. But as we think through then these notion of, as you say, reflection, well, gosh, these crises didn’t come from nowhere. And so let’s not think that we just want to go back to 2019 because apparently 2019 wasn’t such a robust place for the world to begin with on any of these fronts that became cri- more acute crises. And so let’s not think about reset, like just press a button and go back. Let’s think about what these incipient or emergent trends are that have a sense of real momentum, but need a doubling down at of effort in order to make the true change. And so that’s what we started to label as great transitions.
And these are some meta transitions that we need to have in mind in each of our own spheres of life, in terms of justice, nature, you know, technology and young people who are providing a lot of the moral insight for society, but not always the moral respect from their elders in terms of what to do about it. So that we are, we boiled it down is kind of a test thesis of these four great transitions that we think can help get us through the curve if you will, to a better place, but they’re not going to happen on their own. And they actually require an effort.
ZK: You know, in this question of what could go right on a lot of these goals, there’s probably pretty compelling evidence that many things have improved manifestly over the past couple of decades, certainly poverty, certainly education levels, certainly sanitation nutritional levels, caloric deficits. A lot of this has improved, not without some collateral consequences, caloric deficits on the one hand, monoculture, and what’s that going to do for agriculture on the other, but, you know, net-net, I think the one that people tend to be less convinced about, and that’s, I’m sure putting it mildly, is climate and climate change and the level of apocalyptic rhetoric. And I’m probably shading things in my own prejudiced way by calling it apocalyptic rhetoric. Because if you actually believe that everything is whatever the Paris goals were for climate change in 2030 are not going to happen. And therefore we’re going to blow through whatever warming targets we had. How do you interact with people? I know Emma at times is, is the designated millennial here and talks about her cohort, either tuning out or basically fatalistically throwing up their hands going, oh, well, I guess we’re done. And maybe we can enjoy things in the interim, but maybe not. So, I mean, what do you, how do you interact with that around a degree of despair and conviction that that particular ship has sailed?
JM: First thing I’d say everyone always asserts what’s going on in the world based on something they’ve seen recently. So, ah, the kids don’t care, they’re checking out and then it turns out the kids massively care and they’re totally checking in. And there’s a lot of data and it differs by place and part of the world. But I, you know, the climate Fridays around the world are not because teenagers are checking out and there is a strong movement of young people in the, I think the sensibility has changed around what success looks like. And I see, you know, poll after poll showing that young people have a very different perspective on what needs to get done. Even if they have varying perspectives on how likely it is to get done by the current generation in power. I generally maintain the hypothesis that young people are a source of moral clarity because they see things better than older generations often in terms of right and wrong.
But not, that’s not a blanket statement, but it’s kind of a, if in doubt, go with the perspective of young people. I think there’s a lot happening around there are many, many amazing breakthroughs that are happening that we have to respect at the start. There’s a lot of bad news in the world. No one knows that more than the group of us on the line here, but there’s also these extraordinary breakthroughs like mRNA vaccines, or even the fact that global scientific cooperation actually still seems to be happening quite strongly, even when politicians are having trouble cooperating. We’re seeing a lot of technologies like in Togo, there was a famous already kind of famous in policy communities, breakthrough in using digital technologies and mapping telecom infrastructures to use new algorithms, to figure out who the poorest of the poor were and who would need emergency support amid COVID.
This is extraordinary as a breakthrough in terms of leveraging technology to help people most in need. We have other areas of the world where they’re massive steps forward. And I don’t know the formal numbers, but I’ve heard it’s in the tens of millions of businesses that got registered quickly because they needed to get the emergency support through the pandemics. So all of a sudden they become part of the formal economy rather than the informal economy. So there are these surprises of massive gains that we can never overlook. I say that because a technology is a super powerful driver and it does have breakthroughs. And we’re actually in the middle of editing a book on all sorts of different perspective, breakthroughs that might matter for the food industry for, for pandemic control for, you know, all sorts of technology systems. But I guess my ultimate personal source of optimism has two ingredients.
The first is, as a point of logic, if you presume something could have a solution, you’re much more likely to find a solution. If you presume it doesn’t, then you’re going to let lead yourself to, you know, it can’t happen. But the second point is, and maybe this is a source of energy. I’ve seen enough things in my own short time in this world where breakthroughs happen when you never thought it could happen, or you wondered if it ever could. And it happens in such a big way that it changes view of possible. And you know, there’s a famous Mandela line that everything’s impossible until it’s done, and Wallace Stevens, after the final no, there comes a yes.
And I, the one that really came early in my career, which changed my life outlook forever, probably was a antiretroviral treatment. And AIDs was this massive ravaging pandemic around the world in the early two thousands. Uh at the time we thought there were maybe 25 million people infected, a few million dying every year, and there was no effort to do anything globally. And it was 1996 that the magic of antiretroviral medicine was first announced to the world. And in the early two thousands, like 2001, the professional consensus of the major institutions that should have had responsibility for this was well, it’s too hard to try. Therefore don’t bother. And there’s a lot of racism behind some of that too, because most of the cases were in Africa. And then lo and behold people started to say, well, we should create a global fund to fight AIDs, to be malaria. We should set delivery targets. And people thought at the beginning that maybe only a few million people needed treatment. At the first instance, they thought 6 million people need a treatment. Today more than 25 million people are on treatment.
Cause we’ve learned a lot about how to deliver treatment and it’s gotten cheaper and it’s gotten better and these institutions are stronger. And this has gone from like frontline. It’s not a solved problem yet, but it’s gone from frontline to hard to solve within a generation to kind of matter of course, to solve it. And so whenever I think about something like climate change or energy or pollution or oceans protection, I think about what are the big technologies and what are the big systems and what are the big players who need to align in order to get a similar breakthrough. And often that can happen within five to 10 years in a way that most people don’t think possible.
EV: I tend to be of that mindset personally. I mean, that’s part of the reason of how I ended up at the Progress Network, but I think that message is definitely heartening for my cohort, speaking again, you know, as the designated millennial. And it’s interesting that you say, or your optimism is borne out of life experience because speaking for millennials, but feel uncomfortable about that fact, because I’ve had so many of these conversations with friends, I was in school during the 2008 financial crisis, I got out of school, things seem to be trending in an upward direction… Oh, we’re hit with a once in a century pandemic, you know? So that’s been like, if you’re talking about my adult life, that’s been basically the big defining features of my adult life. It’s interesting to think, okay, give us another 35 years, and we’re all going to become optimism converts. I’m not sure, but yeah, I was curious like why even in a network of thinkers who are sort of positive thinkers, there are a lot of people who are allergic to the word optimism. They really don’t want to be identified as optimistic. And yeah, I’m wondering why you don’t feel that way, especially because you’re an economist and a lot of people in that field, they don’t want to be airy-fairy right. They want to talk about numbers and figures and facts. That’s my impression not being in that world myself, but that’s my impression.
JM: I’m probably a fringe member of the profession to start. But I think there is a truth that in social science people are trained to criticize, and in natural science, people are trained to prove and to move the problem forward. And that, that is a deep cultural divide. You see it in a lot of things like a positivist versus a skeptical intellectual disposition and there’s reasons for that. I think, I think of myself ultimately as a pragmatist, I say my academic friends think I’m an activist, my activist friends think I’m an academic and somewhere between the two is true. So there’s a notion of what does it look like to solve a problem? And I used to get asked when I was at the UN working on the millennium development goals what is, you know, am I an optimist or pessimist? And my stock answer at the time, was, will these goals could achieved?
I would say I’m either my job is to recommend what needs to get done, whatever your motivation is, or to identify the best recommendations. And then whether it happens or not, that’s a different question. At this stage of life, I have taken the view of optimism more as a trained view. But I have dark days, don’t get me wrong. Like this new pandemic is hard on all of us, but you know, it’s not that every day is awesome, far from it, but it’s this notion of, if you presume a problem can get solved and I have to, you know, give credit to someone I know Zachary knows well too, like Jeffrey Sachs was a mentor of mine. And a lot of trained experience that he handed down in formal knowledge, over a lifetime of problems that he saw that everyone thought couldn’t get solved, and then they got solved. And then I was, you know, a briefcase carrier of sorts at the start think about, you know, how to, how to solve problems. And then over time you start solving problems. And then you develop experience where, you know, it’s a, it’s a bit of a tangent maybe, but a dozen or more years ago, I said, well, why don’t we create a new type of degree program to train people on these cross-disciplinary challenges. And I talked to a bunch of people about it, and everyone said, people I respect hugely said, John, it’s a great idea. The problem is universities are the slowest moving places in the world. They’ll never do it. And then a few years later with a bunch of effort, we had launched these new types of degree programs. We call it master’s in development practice, across five continents, a couple dozen institutions.
And it turned out there were dozens of universities that were just keen to go, if someone could help them kind of put the pieces together. And so this notion of after the final no, there comes a yes, really became a deep thought in the back of my mind of what’s the final note going to be? And then do you put a pincer strategy around it? And these things are not self-fulfilling, that’s the point, there’s stories to be written. So climate change is a story to be written. Do I believe that carbon emissions probably will get solved in the next century and down to zero? Yes. I think the technology will get us there within the next century. The story that’s yet to be written is how fast we get there, and if we get it down quickly enough to avoid catastrophic climate risk. So I can watch the mega trends. And I see that, you know, carbon emissions are going down. Is it per unit of GDP? That seems to be a somewhat inexorable trend on basic systems, but we have to do a lot more and a lot more beyond just hope and pray to solve the actual problem. And that’s where everything from policy leadership to business leadership, to, you know, creative minds and technology entrepreneurs all coming together.
ZK: That’s a great way to sort of put a bow on all this. And I love that articulation of one, you need to envision the possibility that you can solve something because being convinced that you can’t is in and of itself a barrier to being able to think creatively about how you might, which was partly the whole idea of a progress network is probably the whole idea of the unknowability of the future. But that if your conviction is that it is particularly bad, it’s really hard to make it particularly good. And on this like question of climate it’s yet another iteration of I’ve joked, you know, my joke for years when people said, well, you know, what do you think, are you an optimist or you’re pessimist? Or what does that mean? That human history is this neck and neck, either competition or oscillation between the incredible human ability to create and the unbelievable human capacity to destroy.
And the fact that we’re having the debate and the conversation right now it means at least marginally that the capacity to create has, has inched out the ability to destroy. And that is, you know, this incredible question for the 21st century is, are, is that pattern going to be replicated? Because as people say in the financial world all the time, past performance is no guarantee of future results. So I’m totally with you on the, we, you know, we are likely to solve this problem. And then the only question is how much damage is going to happen before we do.
These are knife edges all over the place in terms of which way it can go. And every problem one solves leads to the next problem to get solved. So you’re never done, that’s life, you know, just because you’ve gone to the gym once doesn’t mean you don’t have to go again. You know, you have, you got to keep exercising, you got to keep gardening you know, pull out the weeds and move forward. And that gets to your point on the kind of generational aspects of this, Emma, I actually would extrapolate it even further. And this is very loose hypothesizing, but my first global crisis was the late 1990s in my adult consciousness is the Asia crisis. The anti-globalization crisis international meetings couldn’t even meet. The balance, [inaudible] broke it down in December, 1999. WTO had to fall apart, know it was, things were kind of not working.
And then 10 years later you had the global financial crisis. And then of course, a decade later, we have the current series of crises. I think it’s important. And I can easily tell a story of how each one is linked to the previous one. So in my view, you have to understand what happened in 1997, 98, in order to understand what happened in 2007, 2008, you have to understand, 07, 08, 09 in order to understand 2016, 17, 18, 19, 20. And there were a lot of shocks to the system because people have lost the plot, especially among the elites. I would argue in a lot of the advanced economies. And so the big question I worry about now is what are the problems we’re endorsing implicitly or otherwise to come up in 2028 or 2030? And I do worry a lot about the hundreds and millions of kids who’ve been left out of school.
I do worry a lot about the people who’ve been told, you know, just buck up. I do worry a lot about the countries that have been told, well, we’ll help you when we get time with those vaccines. You know, I think we have to think very differently about what it looks like to actually solve problems from perspectives other than our own. And this in my view is the deepest challenge that we as humanity have to confront is we have to be able to solve problems from more perspectives than our own. If it’s only from our own perspective, it’s probably not an actual solution. And so that is where geopolitics are changing. Our community politics are changing, and that’s why a network like this one is so important because it’s about sharing in a network.
ZK: So I think that this conversation will go on and should go on, but that this particular conversation probably is at an end.
JM: What a pleasure.
ZK: And you’re, you’re great, John, and you’ve done incredible work and your outlook in a world full of much more non level headed perspectives on really difficult issues is incredibly refreshing. And you, you know, you bring together a degree of hard edge realism and starry eyed idealism that is unusual, unique, and precious. So keep doing it.
JM: Well, I keep learning from you guys every day. So thank you. And I think the hardest thing right now, the thing that gets me down, if I will share, just as end, not to be negative, but it’s hard to stay reasonable. Cause the challenge right now is being reasonable gets no attention. And so one of the big challenges, I think a lot of people who work on the trenches have a lot of issues is how do you stay reasonable, but also cut through.
JM: And I think that’s where you and I really, I mean, I salute your own writing and Zachary, as I’ve told you before, I think it’s so important the way you able to cut through on these big issues day-to-day. So it’s a real service.
ZK: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s, you know, that will always be the challenge, right? Can you stand on a soapbox and say with the same urgency and attention-getting, “everybody calm down.” And the short answer is no, but I think the long answer back to your point about will we solve these things is actually yes. And it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a question of like what’s immediately actionable and in media land and what’s humanly compelling, so keep it up.
JM: Great. Likewise, thank you so much.
ZK: So Emma, we ended that with the $64,000 question that we always seem to be asking, namely, how does one stay reasonable in an unreasonable world? How do you have conversations that are measured? And just for a moment, let’s just pause for a moment of appreciation about John’s mellifluous voice in and of itself allows you a certain amount of calm and measuredness. Even if the specifics that he’s saying or not, he’s one of these people who you can listen to, like you could listen to him, count down the doomsday clock and feel…
ZK: Feel kind of okay. But it does raise that question of how do you do that, right? What, how do you confront unreasonableness? How do you confront heightened emotion with genuinely serious topics and genuinely serious potential outcomes and do so in a way that allows for a measured conversation and debate about what do we actually do?
EV: And then the second question to that is if you succeed in doing that, which is hard enough, is anybody going to listen to you? Because in a world that’s really saturated with like, ah, like freak out about this, freak out about that. You show up with your measured tone and maybe your mellifluous voice, like, is that really going to cut through the noise?
ZK: Right? Or people I’m just going to tune it out because it doesn’t have the right pitch. And by pitch, we’re not just talking about the baritone, we’re talking about the emotional sense of urgency. Are people going to dismiss it? Even the, even the framework, right? That he lays out 17 rooms, each one with multiple aspects, each one filled with ideas. You know, that’s an extremely, it’s a matrix approach to a complicated problem, but it’s done so it’s intense deliberation and focus. And I do think there are a lot of people that probably will go, oh, give me a break. But more to the point, there’s a lot of people, us included who will say, wow, that’s a comprehensive, in-depth complicated, multifaceted, multi-national multicultural way of us collectively meeting a serious challenge and that we can.
EV: And that while it might be a lot of urgent problems, the solution is never going to come right now or tomorrow. And we’re always just muddling through a little bit, which is a phrase that one of our other network members, Ted Nordhaus used about climate in particular like we’re muddling through. And yeah, there’s something helpful about that, simply muddling through together.
ZK: On that note, we can conclude this episode as the muddle through episode, which in a normal course of events would be kind of an eh, but for us, it’s kind of a yes. It’s a, it’s an appreciation that these are really complicated thorny, not really pleasant issues, but rushing to urgent conclusions is going to do nothing more than create hysteria and agitation and do nothing to solve these issues.
To find out more information about the Progress Network and What Could Go Right? Visit theprogressnetwork.org. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay up to date with everything happening with the Progress Network. If you like the show, please tell a friend, share an episode, or leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell, and me Emma. Varvaloucas. We are produced by Andrew Steven. Jordan Aaron is our production coordinator. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thanks so much for listening.
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