Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speaks with a velvet tongue but packs a mighty punch.
Big business, he says, is not responsible only for destroying the American democratic system, but has also transformed citizens into consumer addicts.
While multinationals continue to line their own pockets, what they leave in their wake is billions of people who are not only unhappy, but are suffering increasing levels of anxiety.
While a few companies are serious about dealing with the sustainability challenges of our age, Sachs says many more are still engaging in green washing, while he describes the fossil-fuel lobby, and the Koch brothers in particular, as “disgusting.”
A dangerous direction
Not only is Sachs clear that the old economic paradigm, which is based on a fixation of GDP growth, is leading us to disaster, but that we need to find a completely new way of measuring the success of society.
Sachs, who amongst many roles is special adviser to UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon on the millennium development goals, believes the creation of a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) could be one route towards achieving that.
His particular interest is in developing a measure for wellbeing and happiness and he recently co-organised a major conference on the subject at the UN in New York, in partnership with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
I caught up with Sachs at the Rio+20 conference where he is keeping up a punishing schedule, engaging in several public and private debates ranging across the public policy sphere, from poverty to education.
“The point of the move to better metrics is the realisation that not only does gross national product not measure properly what makes us well-off and satisfied, it is leading us now in a very dangerous direction,” he told the Guardian. “If we continue to follow that indicator we will follow a path right over the cliff.
“One of the key planks of the SDGs is that we need better measurement of wellbeing and one way is to ask people how well are you doing, life satisfaction. A legion of scholars have been studying this and picking up great traditions as brought by Buddhism and Bhutan in particular. We can now identify pretty systematically places were people are deeply unhappy, highly anxious and also identify systematically the reasons why.
“Money matters and especially for the poor. But once you reach a certain level of wellbeing, the additional gains are very small and perhaps not there at all. The US has tripled its per capital GDP over the last 50 years but there has not even been a twitch of the needle in raising wellbeing.
“Second, people are, like Aristotle said, social animals. We depend on our sense of participation in communities and if there is a lack trust, our lives are miserable, and if we live in unhappy places where people do not co-operate with each other and altruism is not a moral virtue that is defended, where cheating is rife and pervasive, then unhappiness soars and this is one of the most important findings of US sociology over the past 25 years.
“Americans do not trust each other, and there is so much cheating and illegality and this raises the third point, which is when people do not trust their governments to be fair honest and transparent, their own personal happiness suffers a lot.”
A breakdown of modern democracy
Sachs, who became known for his role as an adviser to Eastern European governments during their transition from communism, says business has a major responsibility for the mess we are in, but also has great respect for the ability of multinationals to operate effectively on a global scale.