Wolfgang Sachs Essay

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Wolfgang Sachs studied sociology and Catholic theology at Berkeley and in Munich and Tubingen, Germany. As an assistant professor in Berlin from 1975-84, he conducted the 1980-84 research project “Energy and Society.” After stints in Italy, the United States, and elsewhere, in 1993 he began working at the Wuppertal-Institute in Germany where he acts as chairman for the interdisciplinary project “Globalization and Sustainability.” He has been the chairman of the supervisory board for Greenpeace since 1994 and is a member of the Club of Rome.

Sachs has devoted his academic work to studying the questions of sustainability, global, social, and environmental justice, and, in recent years, more and more to globalization and its economic and electronic consequences. He has analyzed the impact of Western lifestyles and globalization on poverty, ecological destruction, social exclusion, and the deformation of viable communities in developing countries. His ironic and sometimes sarcastic presentation has earned him a reputation as one of the most thoughtful, and perhaps notorious, intellectuals to deal with the crisis of the Western world’s relations with nature and social justice.

He explores the ambivalences and controversies that pervade the terrain of global environmental politics in detail. Presenting at both the Rio Conference in 1992 and the World Summit for Sustainability in 2002, his inquiries turned around one nagging hypothesis: The Western development model is at odds with both the quest for justice among the world’s people and the aspiration to reconcile humanity and nature. According to Sachs, it is not possible for all citizens of the world to share in the fossil fuel-based, money-driven development model that has come to hold sway in the world today; the biosphere, eventually, may give in. In the case of mid-19th century America, Sachs, therefore, denounced fixation on the idea that the development of the North was obsolete and a disservice to the South, since development could no longer be separated from ecology.

On ecological development, his criticism remains sharp; he asks if ecological policies are just means of establishing a “clean” economy that does not simultaneously change lifestyles toward higher social sensitivity and inclusion. He also demystifies conventional distinctions between North and South as diplomatic artifacts, since the real divide goes through every society between the globalized rich and the localized poor. He views poverty mainly as a lack of power, and, therefore, advocates for reinforcing the rights of the poor and of poor communities.

Sachs suggests ways to leave conventional modernity behind by creating sophisticated but moderate-impact technologies, redirecting relentless accumulation, and appreciating ways of living that are simpler in means but richer in ends. Finally, he advocates for a so-called “leap-frog” into a solar age, for abandoning large-scale energy-intensive industrial economies that waste clean water, virgin land, and fresh air, and for decentralized smaller-scaled production patterns that are more considerate of nature and require more labor and intelligence.


  1. Wolfgang Sachs, , Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict (Zed Books, 1993);
  2. Wolfgang Sachs, “Ecology, Justice, and the End of Development,” Development (v.40/2, 1997);
  3. Wolfgang Sachs, “Wasting Time is an Ecological Virtue,” New Perspectives Quarterly (v.1, 1997);
  4. Wolfgang Sachs, Planet Dialectics: Explorations in Environment and Development (Zed Books, 1999);
  5. Wolfgang Sachs, “Rich in Things, Poor in Time: Poverty of Time Degrades the Wealth of Goods,” Resurgence (v.196, 1999);
  6. Wolfgang Sachs, “Being and Buying: The Power of Limits-An Inquiry into New Models of Wealth,” New Perspectives Quarterly (v.17/4, 2000);
  7. Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske, and Manfred Linz, Greening the North: A Post-Industrial Blueprint for Ecology and Equity (Zed Books, 1998).

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