Sustainable Just Peace:  Jeffery Sachs’s “The Age of Sustainable Development”

A Review Essay and Dialogue from a Peace Education Perspective

Dale T. Snauwaert
The University of Toledo

Jeffery Sachs’s theory of sustainable development, as articulated in his remarkably perceptive, original, and inspirational book, The Age of Sustainable Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), offers a comprehensive analytic and normative framework for an expanded conception of peace, human rights and global justice, and peace education.  His theory also potentially informs a conception of peace education that would emphasize the development of the capacities of normative judgment and analytic thinking under the complex conditions of environmental, economic, social, and political crisis (Sachs, 2015).  Given the complexity of Sachs’s analysis, in this brief essay my remarks are limited to the following ideas: sustainable development as an analytic framework and relevance to peace education; an expanded, deepened and integrated conception of peace; a human rights-based conception of global justice; and peace education, political efficacy and reflective peace-learning. This discussion suggests the concept of a sustainable just peace as the essential core of peace education.

Sustainable Development: Analytic Framework and Relevance to Peace Education

Sustainable Development as an Analytical Perspective (as an analytic field of study) seeks to “… explain and predict the complex and nonlinear interactions of human and natural systems (Sachs: 6-7).” It involves understanding of four interacting complex systems: the global economy, social systems, earth systems, and political governance. Sustainable development is defined by Sachs, in alignment with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as “socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable [economic] growth (p. 3, original emphasis).” The following graphic illustrates Sachs’s concept of sustainable development involving complex interacting systems:


As Sachs discusses, since the advent of the Industrial age there has been an unprecedented growth in economic productivity. For example, Gross World Product Per Capita was roughly the same, around 500 International $ US, until 1800 when it begins to rise above 1,000 to 6,000 in 2000. Economic growth has been stimulated by rapid technological change, beginning with the steam engine powered by vast coal supplies, along with the development of more productive agricultural technologies and food supplies, population growth, improved health conditions, mass educational opportunities, transportation systems, and in recent decades the digital communications and digital tech revolution, among others. This expansion of world economic development proceeded in terms of a “diffusion process” beginning in England in 1750 and spreading throughout Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia. The diffusion of economic productivity, however, was uneven, excluding various parts of the world, especially Africa and most of Asia. A number of factors account for this uneven and exclusionary development pattern, including social conditions, gender inequality, history, geography, culture, demographics, economic structure, energy resources, favorable natural transportation avenues (e.g., coasts, river systems, etc.), educational opportunities government policy, and external interventionist distortions (e.g., colonialism), among others.

The consequence of the uneven diffusion of world economic growth is the existence of widespread world poverty, extreme poverty, and inequality, leading to patterns of significant social exclusion and injustice. More than 3 billion people are in poverty living on less than $2.50 a day (purchasing power parity, PPP). More than 1.3 billion people are in “extreme poverty” living on less than $1.25 a day. 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day. 1 billion children worldwide are living in poverty. 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. 805 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. More than 750 million people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. 2,300 people per day die of preventable diseases; diarrhea and pneumonia take the lives of 2 million children a year. Approximately 1.6 billion people live without electricity. Sustainable development calls for a significant reduction of poverty and extreme poverty as analytically feasible and as an urgent matter of justice. In addition, even in the most productive and wealthiest countries, such as the United States, there exists significant economic inequality interrelated with social exclusion–economic development should and can be socially inclusive (Chapters 2-5).

The realization of socially inclusive economic development, however, strongly interacts with and impacts the Earth’s bio-system, in particular its carrying capacity—understood in terms of planetary boundaries. The growth of economic productivity powered mainly by burning fossil fuels coupled with rapid and expansive population growth and high consumption rates among the wealthiest societies has caused unprecedented harm to the natural environment, including pollution, climate change, biogeochemical flows, biosphere integrity, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss, among harms. In other words, economic development is reaching, and in some cases exceeding, the Earth’s planetary boundaries; the safe operating limits of the biosphere. Sustainable development is socially inclusive economic development that stays within the carrying capacity of the biosphere defined in terms of its safe operating limits, its boundaries (see Chapters 6, 10-13).

Furthermore, socially inclusive environmentally sustainable economic development is contingent upon good governance. Good governance pertains to the enactment of both effective and just public policy as well as the practice of competent, accountable, and transparent government. From this perspective, public policy should be informed by the best science available as well as regulated by reasonable principles of justice. It speaks to both analytic and normative dimensions of sustainable development, but especially to the normative dimension as discussed in what follows below.

Sustainable development as an analytic framework provides us with a means of understanding the complex interactions of interdependent systems. Sustainable development as a framework for analytic inquiry requires and allows us to understand and to “… explain and predict the complex and nonlinear interactions of human and natural systems (Sachs: 6-7).” This inquiry requires a “complexity of thinking” that allows us to understand and uncover the “interactions [that] give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves (p. 7).” Furthermore, Sachs maintains that “differential diagnosis” and analysis is essential for achieving sustainable development; it is a facet of complexity thinking. Differential diagnosis calls for an individualized assessment of each society’s relative condition and position in the world, including the multiply factors that pertain to development: social conditions, history, geography, culture, population, economic structure, energy resources, favorable natural transportation avenues (e.g., coasts, river systems, etc.), educational opportunities government policy, and powerfully external imperialist distortions (colonialism), among others. If we are to achieve socially inclusive sustainable development, it is necessary to understand the “emergent properties” of complex systems and their interactions. From this perspective, holistic, complexity thinking is a necessary capacity to develop among policy makers and citizens alike.

Sachs articulates a powerful multi-dimensional conception of sustainable development, however, from a peace education perspective, there is a missing element of considerable significance; it pertains to the existence of a social, economic, and political system that has significant implications for the analysis, both analytic and normative, of sustainable development and peace: the war system. The war system is embedded throughout the basic social structures of most developed and under-developed societies to such a degree that it has profound impact on economic development and its diffusion, social inclusion and justice, governance, and the Earth’s biosphere. It is also deeply interconnected with patriarchy and gender inequality (B. Reardon, 1996; B. A. Reardon & Snauwaert, 2015b). The war system is the organizing core of many of the world’s societies. It can be argued that socially inclusive environmentally sustainable development cannot be achieved without taking into the consideration the profound impact the institution of war/militarism has on the interconnected systems discussed under the umbrella of the theory of sustainable development. For example, the existence of nuclear weapons systems and their proliferation alone threatens the very existence of life on the planet. We should critically reflect on the social efficacy and moral justifiability of military institutions whose power far exceeds the force needed for basic security.

An Expanded, Deepened, and Integrated Conception of Peace

Inquiry into the concept of peace is central to peace studies and peace education (Matsuo, 2007). The idea of sustainable development has significant implications for our conception of peace. Consideration of the conception of peace addresses what Betty Reardon refers to as the “definitional problem,” the critical task of defining the meaning of “peace” as foundational to the articulation of a philosophy of and approach to peace education (B. Reardon, 1988). Sachs (2015) maintains that “[s]ustainable development is a central concept for our age (p. 10).” In identifying sustainable development as a core issue he opens the scope of peace to include environmental sustainability as a dimension of positive, just peace. The inclusion of environmental sustainability and sustainable development expands and integrates the conception of peace to include ecological well-being in interrelationship with economic development, social inclusion, and justice. The inclusion of sustainability in the conception of peace has of course been already articulated in the peace education literature, however, Sachs’s analysis provides a much more detailed framework and understanding of sustainability such that it also provides a significant deepening of the conception of just peace.

As Sachs (2015) suggests:

From a normative perspective … a good society is not only an economically prosperous society (with high per capita income) but also one that is socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and well governed. That is my working definition of the normative objectives of sustainable development. It is the point of view endorsed by the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] adopted by the UN member states (p. 12).

In other words, “[s]ustainable development is also a normative outlook on the world, meaning that it recommends a set of goals to which the world should aspire (p. 3).” This perspective suggests that sustainable development speaks to justice in the sense that the “basic point of sustainable development in that normative sense is that it urges us to have a holistic vision of what a good society should be (p. 11).”

A Human Rights-Based Conception of Global Justice

Sachs adopts a human rights perspective on justice; he maintains that the “UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] is, in essence, the moral charter of the United Nations … the moral heart and soul of the United Nations … (p. 229).” Being so foundational, “human rights were therefore at the core of the MDG [Millennium Development Goals] agenda and remain at the moral heart of the United Nations and the new era of Sustainable Development Goals (p. 232).” This perspective is also expressed in the recent UN Declaration on the Human Right to Peace, which asserts: “Everyone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized (Article 1).”

A human right “provides (1) the rational basis for a justified demand (2) that the actual enjoyment of a substance be (3) socially guaranteed against standard threats.” (Shue 1980, 13). In other words, rights provide compelling reasons for the demand being met; they constitute the rational basis for the justification of the claim. That is, claiming is a rule-governed activity: “To have a claim … is to have a case meriting consideration … to have reason or grounds that put one in a position to engage in performative and propositional claiming (Feinberg, 2001, 185).” The justified act of demanding and claiming one’s rights is situated within a larger system of normative rules. As Norberto Bobbio suggests: “The existence of a right … always implies the existence of a normative system (Bobbio, [1990] 1996, 57).” Human rights are therefore “moral claims upon the organization of society (Pogge, 2001, 200),” and the organization of society is founded upon a conception of justice that comprises its basic structure (Rawls 1971, Rawls 1993). As Sachs suggests, rights as moral claims on the political organization of society, and therefore as matters of justice, is expressed in Article 28 of the UDHR:

“Article 28 holds that ‘everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.’ In other words, the UDHR is not meant to be merely a statement of wishes but also a call for a political and social order in which the enumerated rights can be progressively realized … the right to a system of government … in which the declared rights and freedoms can be fully realized (p. 230).”

Therefore, the idea of human rights forms the core of a conception of justice, such that there exists a symbiosis between rights and justice; rights are urgent matters of justice. Rights are a matter of right defined by and constitutive of justice. Furthermore, as Betty Reardon suggests, human rights also constitute the ethical core of peace education. She states:

As a political framework for the actualization of human dignity, human rights are the ethical core of peace education; not a complement, or a particular component, and certainly not an alternative or an educationally equivalent substitute for peace education. Human rights are integral to peace education, that is, without human rights peace education lacks a primary component of its core and essential substance. Human rights are the essence and the arbiter of peace, the antithesis of violence, touching on multiple and complex aspects of the human experience, illuminating the necessity of holism to the field. The potential of human rights as the means to cultivate transformational thinking lies in viewing all human rights norms and standards as a whole, an integrated ethical system. (Reardon and Snauwaert, 2015a, p. 47)

Substantively, a conception and realization of a just peace, including sustainable development, should include the full range of human rights as articulated in the UDHR as well as the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among other conventions. It should also include consideration of the justice of environmental sustainability, which should include the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of pollution, the loss of biodiversity, climate change, and the violation of planetary boundaries, among other environmental considerations (Gardiner, Carney, Jamieson, & Shue, 2010; Light & Rolston III, 2003). There are at least two fundamental questions pertaining to environmental justice:

  1. What principles should regulate the fair distribution of the benefits, burdens, and risks of the mitigation of and adaptation to environmental damage?
  2. Based upon these principles what normative framework of reference should inform and guide environmental policy?

These are complex considerations that speak to an expanded normative framework pertaining to peace and justice.

Sachs also asserts the fundamental importance of ethical thinking; he states:

“ … we can be sure that the role of ethical thinking is vital for good public policy. We therefore need to have more discussions, more public awareness, and more debate about these underlying ethical choices, because the goals of sustainable development depend on the ethical positions we adopt (p. 228).”

Ethical thinking entails moral justification and judgment as well as the public use of reason.

The validity of human rights claims is contingent upon moral justification within a system of rules, which are derived from the basic standards of normative justification. The process of justification comprises our moral judgment and that process has been articulated in a plurality of ways. Three of the most prominent are:

  1. A Teleological approach: this approach is Realization-Focused, a demand for the substantive good guaranteed by the right is justified on the grounds that it is of primary significance for human flourishing; these goods have been expressed in terms of Utility (happiness, development), Capabilities (substantive freedom), or basic physical needs (Nussbaum, 2011; Sen, 2009).
  2. A Deontological approach: this approach is person-focused; the rights demand is justified on the grounds that it is required by respect for the person understood as an innate quality of humanity: dignity, equality, sacredness, self-ownership, etc., the nature of reason and autonomy (Kant, Cicero), or mutual agreement among equals under fair conditions (social contract—Rawls, Locke, Rousseau) (Forst, 2013; Rawls, 1971, 1993; Rawls & Kelly, 2001).
  3. A Democratic approach: this approach is procedure-focused; rights are justified by being necessary for a fair, democratic procedural political structure that enables and empowers citizen to determine what is just (Forst, 2013; Habermas, 1996).

All three of these approaches require the public use of reason. They require that citizens are capable of and affirm the importance of engaging in some process of moral justification in the course of public deliberation and discourse. This point comports with Sachs’s Principles of Good Governance (Accountability, Transparency, and Participation) necessary for both social justice and environmental and developmental sustainability, especially the principle of participation: “the ability of citizens … to participate in decision making … The ability to participate through public discourse, through public deliberations, and through hearings on regulation are all extremely important (p. 503).” Participation is particularly important for social justice, for “[i]nequality is … a legacy of power, history, economy, and individual differences, amplified or diminished through the powers of the state (p. 238, emphasis added).” Human rights as the core of global justice provides the content of public reason, in that rights constitutes a mutually shared and recognizable point of view that can serve as public reasons for the justification of particular public policies.

Furthermore, this ethical perspective is global in scope, in that the issues we face often transcend the boundaries of particular communities, including nations, to form a global public (Dewey, 1954 [1927]). As Sachs suggests, “There is an underpinning of ethics in all these ideas. When we talk about moving to global SDGs, we are also talking about the need for and possibility of a shared global ethics (p. 508).” A core part of this global ethic (along with the considerations discussed above) should be a conception of global distributive justice. Burdened societies trapped in poverty and underdevelopment need assistance to lift them out of that trap. Sachs strongly recommends that developed nations provide significant development assistance. Assistance speaks to what approach to global distributive justice is justifiable (Armstrong, 2012)? A “relational approach” suggests that “Distributive justice becomes relevant between people when they exist in a certain kind of relationship with each other (Armstrong, 2015, p. 25).” If we share a single world, potentially or actually impact each other’s lives, and establish institutional relationships, then distributive justice is applicable in regulating the fairness of the distribution of benefits and burdens that result from our relationship. The scope of our relationships determines the scope of justice; if global, then the scope of justice should be global. A non-relational approach maintains that humans have rights simply as humans based upon innate dignity and respect for persons—our humanity creates rights and duties of justice. At minimum, either approach suggests a strong moral imperative for developmental assistance at least at a level that guarantees the social minimum of a decent life—this moral threshold would entail lifting everyone out of extreme poverty as an urgent matter of justice.

Peace Education: Political Efficacy and Reflective Peace-Learning

While Sachs points to the importance of moral judgement and complex analytic thinking, the educational development of a population of citizens with these capacities (necessary in fact for sustainable development) is also (along with the war system discussed above) a missing element of considerable significance.   The above reading of Sachs’s theory of sustainable development, however, has significant implications for peace education. It informs a conception of peace education that would emphasize the development of the capacities of normative judgment and analytic thinking as outlined above. This perspective speaks to the primary aim of peace education as the development of the political efficacy of current future citizens, enabling them to participate in democratic political processes and transformative political action (B. A. Reardon & Snauwaert, 2011, 2015a).

Political efficacy is not a matter per se of what to think; it is more fundamentally about how to think. In other words, political efficacy is dependent upon sound political thinking. Learning how to think concerns conceptual clarity, thinking within conceptual, analytic, and normative frameworks, posing questions, rationality, and most importantly reflective inquiry. It involves both analytic complexity thinking and normative judgment, which requires pedagogies of multiple forms of reflective inquiry. Peace learning and thus reflective practice is both cognitive and normative, pertaining to both the discernment of the sociopolitical world and ethical assessment. The capacity to participate in public deliberation and discourse is contingent upon the cognitive, ethical, and self-reflective capacities of citizens. The public use of reason is a reflective-practice. Being a reflective practice it requires both the capacity and space for reflective inquiry in dialogue with a diverse range of other citizens, local, national, and global. The analytic and normative frameworks offered by the ideas of sustainable development and human rights-based global justice have significant potential for framing the curriculum and pedagogy of peace education

The following graphic illustrates the interrelationship between the frameworks, democracy and peace education:

In summary, as outlined in this essay, Sachs’s powerful, multi-dimensional conception of sustainable development has significant potential for giving peace, human rights-based global justice, and peace education an empowering, expansive framework for sustainable just peace. This innovation allows for the development of holistic educational approaches that would equip citizens with both the understanding and capacities to achieve a socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable society within the context of an evolving just peace. This unique, integral approach would involve the development of curricular and pedagogical elements from within, and complementary to, Sachs’s framework, including critical reflection about societal cultivation of a shared global ethic of peace, and the realities and impacts of our current war system.

The achievement of a peaceful, just society that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, is contingent upon a citizenry that possesses the capacities of complex analytic and normative thinking. Our citizenry should be afforded educational opportunities that provide them with the intellectual and moral capacities as well as the empowering political efficacy to shape the development of sustainable just peace as a matter of right. 


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3 thoughts on “Sustainable Just Peace:  Jeffery Sachs’s “The Age of Sustainable Development””

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