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The Last Word

The Last Word

A Time for Us

The ever-eloquent Carl Sagan, a rare scientist who could soar above the clouds of human existence to enlighten the citizenry in unexpected and moving ways, penned a book: “The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,” a particularly moving segment of which we believe is worth republishing. The “Pale Blue Dot is the ultimate reminder that, despite the power and promise of science and technology, humanity will need to rely on our “Planet A” because — in at least our grandchildren’s lifetimes — there is no “Planet B” for us.

And that is why, despite all the devastating headlines, I believe that  Carl Sagan, if he were alive today, would be optimistic about the progress humanity has achieved since his premature death in 1996.

Another outstanding communicator, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, has just published a book predicated on this notion, but going back much further than the last three decades. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress provides hard facts that support the assertion that the percentage of humanity living longer, healthier and happier lives has never been higher. For example:

  • According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy at birth of the global population in 2015 is 71.4 years old.
  • Since 1990 the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved thanks to vaccinations, treatment of diarrhea, promotion of breast-feeding and other simple steps.
  • Between 1961 and 2009 the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12 percent, but the amount of food grown increased by 300 percent.

This isn’t an abstraction to me. I have had the extraordinary privilege of witnessing an unprecedented application of the principles underlying Pinker’s portrait of global progress. My wife, Dr. Joanna Rubinstein, was selected by the macroeconomist (and Academy Honorary Member) Jeffrey Sachs to serve as his Chief of Staff as he labored to convert  from theory to action, humanity’s first effort to dramatically reduce extreme poverty and unnecessary death by disease, to increase education and bring hope for self-sufficiency to the poorest countries on earth.

This was the Millennium Development Goals Project. It was conceived in 1999 by then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. First he persuaded the 191 United Nations member states (at that time) and more than 20 international organizations, to commit to what seemed like a hopelessly aspirational notion: that a roadmap for systemic change could be developed … and even implemented … in 15 years that would dramatically improve the lives of the world’s poorest people.

Then he hired Jeffrey Sachs to create a team of experts who could envision and articulate a way forward: the Millennium Goals Plan. And then he assigned Jeff and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which Jeff headed, to actually achieve eight of the most challenging goals ever envisioned.

How did it go? According to the 2015 U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals Report some of the goals reached include:

  • In 2010 — five years ahead of schedule — they met their target of reducing extreme poverty (defined as making less than $1.25 per day) by half! Seven hundred million fewer people lived in poverty in 2010 than in 1990.
  • In Southern Asia, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990. Today, 103 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys.
  • Two billion people gained access to improved drinking water.
  • The maternal mortality ratio was cut nearly in half.
  • And there was a 58 percent decline in malaria mortality rates worldwide — averting over 6.2 million deaths primarily in children under five in Sub-Saharan Africa.

How in the world was this unprecedented global success possible?

The spirit of Carl’s vision of the future of humanity is at the core of the successes achieved by Jeff … and, by extension, his formal and informal team of tens of thousands of scientists, technologists, policy makers and individual villagers. He proposed a fully integrated approach to water, food production, disease control, connectivity and, of course, education. They succeeded thanks to science and technology, but also two crucial words: COLLECTIVE ACTION.

The power of this principle — never practiced on a global scale before or during Carl Sagan’s lifetime — became so evident, the U.N.'s next Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, convinced the 193 U.N. member nations to build on what had been achieved in the Developing World by undertaking the even grander challenge of ensuring a sustainable “pale blue dot.”

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by every U.N. member nation can be achieved through the wise application of science and technology. But they will ONLY be implemented through collective action. What an honor that the New York Academy of Sciences was chosen by Secretary General Ban and, now, by the new Secretary General António Guterres’ appointed executive charged to achieve the Goals by 2030 — the indomitable Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed — to bring our extraordinary network of expert Members and Member institutions to the challenge. I hope you feel inspired.

Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO