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SDG game changer

By Kristof Decoster
on September 7, 2015

This morning, I noticed a paratrooper in full dress near the Central Station loo in Antwerp (the guy was looking somewhat menacingly in my direction, probably because I was mumbling WTF). So I didn’t waste much time in that place, and headed towards ITM – at a brisker pace than usual.

Nevertheless, on the way to my institute, a 20 minute-walk from the station, I had ample time to wonder about Europe and the world in these weird times.

Global health buzzwords are always poking around in my brain, even if subconsciously, so time for yet another “game changer”, I’d say. A cost-effective one, that goes without saying. And yes, I’m looking in the direction of our beloved friends, Big Pharma, here. They are the very best, when it comes to thinking “out of the box” and making money out of it.  But in this case, I actually want them to focus on their core business: i.e. pills. Inside the box, so to speak.

Let’s face it: we will need a gargantuan mix of regulation, taxes, incentive structures, innovative research (see for example The Global Apollo program to combat climate change), technological “game changers”, … to make the transition towards a sustainable world and economic system in time. Time is running out to stay below the 2 (or 1.5) degrees limit, it is clear, and the same is probably true for social justice, in an ever more interconnected and independent world. Chaos looms. Ask Cameron.

Being a ‘causes of the causes’ person, I’m not a big fan of ‘quick wins’ and ‘silver bullets’ (not to mention the cost-effective discourse of the Copenhagen Consensus people), but nevertheless, wouldn’t it be nice to throw one particular pill “in the mix” these days? An ‘empathy-pill’, to be more precise. Roman Krznaric taught the world we need an Empathy revolution, and urgently so. But without a pill, I’m afraid we won’t make it in time to become truly ‘global citizens’ (clearly a need in the 21st century).

Big Pharma is great at making some of us more indifferent (antidepressants), so I’d think it can’t be that difficult for Gates & co to set up a “Grand Challenge” to develop a pill that would do the exact opposite.  Not too much, obviously – you don’t want Donald Trump to cry 24 hours on tv – but enough not to be callous.

Too much empathy is not needed for making good decisions in complex situations, but obviously, that doesn’t seem to be the problem these days.

So “the pill” would boost the empathy of all people, but first of all the higher echelons in society would be “targeted”, as many seem to have a bit of an issue there (Bill Clinton was an outlier, feeling the pain of the average Joe).

All WEF participants, Forbes 500 CEOs (including obviously the ones from the fossil fuel industry), top decision makers or politicians running for a high office, ultra-high-net-worth individuals, investment bankers, hedge fund managers,… would get ‘the pill’. In fact, it would soon become something like a status symbol. If you take the pill – for the good of the planet and the human species – you would have officially “made it” in this world.

Naturally, Big Pharma would first pilot the pill among their own top level staff. If that works out fine, it’s time to scale up. We could even consider a fancy PPP for the purpose.

As is evident from all the suffering in the world, the market for empathy is huge. There’s no market failure so to speak of in this case, so Big Pharma should be quite keen to develop ‘empathy boosting’ pills. And for The Donald they might even have a special offer, and add a smart pill or two.

Once you have many more empathic human beings, especially at the top level, magic will happen. A massive ‘trickle down’ effect, in a way the world has never seen before, including more trust, social cohesion and social capital at lower levels in society. A higher stock of empathy will lubricate the many ‘partnerships’ needed for the SDG era, tax havens will close shop, a ‘Grand Convergence’ will suddenly become feasible, the “end of history” will finally have arrived and the SDGs will become a piece of cake!

So Novartis, GSK & co, what are you waiting for?

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