In which Bwog Lecture Hop Editor Pierce Stanley ventures into the cavernous confines of Low Library to corroborate the commotion sparked by last night’s launch of Columbia’s newest journal of Sustainable Development, Consilience.

As the beat of African drums flittered through the four corners of Low Library last night, a diverse score of Columbia students, professors, affiliates, and members of the general public mingled heartily beneath the hallowed dome in anticipation of what would prove to be the next installment of the Jeffrey Sachs extravaganza.  One could even say that a general sense of consilience filled Low last night, as a diverse group of people came together to celebrate that very principle, the unifying of knowledge and information across many disciplines to create a coherent framework for the better understanding of the study of Sustainable Development.  With the mood as lighthearted as the drumbeats and a tangible sense of optimism pervading the lecture hall, the launch of the highly billed Journal of Sustainable Development, Consilience, did not disappoint.  Nor did the keynote address given by one lectern-suave and gratuitously adored poverty-swashbuckler come up short.

Dubbed by publication adviser and director of Columbia’s PhD program in Sustainable Development, Dr. Joshua Graff Zivin, as the most vigorous “grassroots, guerilla campaign I have ever seen in my life,” Consilience is a global online publication, primarily run by undergraduates which is dedicated to promoting the interdisciplinary dialogue on Sustainable Development by providing a public platform for discussion.  The publication brings together the work of public health experts, economists, engineers, and activists (among many others) to offer suggestions for a more sustainable planet.  Zivin noted that Consilience is a “coherent set of papers whose sum is greater than the parts.”  Indeed, the publication is primarily composed of undergraduate papers dealing with topics as diverse as the African Millennium Villages, the future of bio-medical engineering, and the role of drought in contributing to civil wars.  Professor Sachs spoke of the project as a real step forward in the “jumping together of human knowledge,” incorporating the science and humanities into a dialogue that can solve some of the problems that the world will face in the years ahead.

After praising the editors of Consilience with an underhanded plug for his soon-to-be-released book Common Wealth (the editors got signed copies of the new book in a Sachsian sign of gratitude), Sachs isolated the three challenges that he believes will challenge that world most in the coming one hundred years.  The economist noted that an interdisciplinary approach, like that offered by the pages of Consilience is the best way to begin raising public awareness about new ways to further the study of Sustainable Development in order to best “coexist in peace with others, live in harmony with nature, and ensure that the material needs of the impoverished are met.”

The first assumption that Sachs forwarded was the idea that world problems are not packaged in a singular way, citing E.O. Wilson’s research, Sachs argued that world leadership, in the public and private sectors has been far too slow in understanding that the world operates in a bizarre combination of social interactions, genetic realities, and profound technological capabilities that can be tackled only through a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. Sachs followed his defense of interdisciplinary action up with his concern for widespread negligence of the human impact on the environment.  Arguing, “climate change is already upon us,” Sachs suggested that something as “simple as dry soil can lead to civil wars.”  Therefore the economist suggest that we attempt to further understand the links between environmental factors and neuro-biology in order to achieve the best solution to the problems created by human impact on the environment.  Finally, Sachs suggested that biology itself provides a successful analytical framework by which to approach the social sciences, in fact having a bigger influence on the course of thought and the direction of decisions made in fields as varied as economics, sociology, political science, and philosophy than one initially assumes.  Sachs suggests that biology offers key insights about how communities organize themselves, function day-to-day, and will operate in the future.  This knowledge coupled with targeted innovation, including achieving the fourteen grand engineering challenges put forth recently by the National Academy of Engineering, Sachs suggested would give us hope for a better future, a future he hopes is defined less by the severity of the human burden on the planet. 

In all, Consilience and Professor Sachs offer a profound vision for the course of Sustainable Development studies.  Getting this first issue of the journal off the ground provides hope for those interested in the intersection of knowledge and information across disciplines as well as a creating real forum by which to exchange information and problem solving tools.  This launch is a step in the right direction as we all come up to the plate to face the profound challenges of an increasingly technological and globalized society.