Jeffrey D. Sachs, Common Wealth; Economics for a Crowded Planet (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 386pp.
When I was born in 1955, the global population stood at about 2.5 billion people. Today it is 6.6 billion. According to conservative estimates, by 2050, 9.2 billion people will populate planet earth, and in gloomier forecasts the figure rises to 11.7 billion. Most of the growth has taken place in the poorest countries that can least afford it (literally or figuratively). Like never before, writes Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, we share "a common fate on a crowded planet," and that common human fate demands a shared responsibility.
In his previous book, The End of Poverty (2005), Sachs tackled the problem of the roughly 40% of our world that lives in poverty or "extreme poverty" (on jumi a day or less). In that book he argued that the real obstacles to poverty reduction are not so much ineptitude, corruption, and laziness but structural problems, geographic isolation, overall vulnerability, and rich-world miserliness. He chided the United States in particular for its short-sighted stinginess. Our development aid has "declined for decades," he wrote, because we insist upon looking for "the cheap way out." Fierce critics of aid such as William Easterly (The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) argued that Sachs simply wanted to throw more aid dollars at problems, when such aid has failed in the past.
Sachs broadens his scope in the current book, but continues the same theme. After two introductory chapters, the middle nine chapters of the book focus on three broad obstacles to sharing the world's common wealth: environmental sustainability (climate change, water, and species extinction), population stabilization, and poverty reduction. Our current trajectory is simply unsustainable. If we do nothing, he says, only calamity awaits us. Nor can we expect free markets alone to solve these problems.
Our main problem, he argues repeatedly, is not the lack of available solutions but the absence of political leadership, global cooperation, and implementation. What we must overcome is nothing less than "the collapse of faith in global problem-solving" and the "cynical disbelief in global cooperation itself." The age of global convergence and cooperation is all the more important, in his mind, because the age of American hegemony, especially given the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, is over.
Sachs does not argue that economic growth like that in India or China is undesirable or unsustainable. It's only unsustainable if we do nothing. Nor is he a pessimist, but in fact an unabashed optimist about the power of science and technology to lead the way. "These burdens are surmountable, and at a remarkably low cost. Food production can be increased; diseases can be controlled; education and literacy can be expanded to ensure universal coverage of the young; and infrastructure — especially roads, power, water, and sanitation — can be put in place. Indeed, these things can happen rapidly if the projects can be implemented. While in a handful of cases the limiting factor is poor governance, in most cases it is finance. The poor know what to do but are too poor to do it. Since they can't meet their immediate needs (food, safe water, health care) they also can't afford to save and invest for the future. This is where foreign assistance comes in" (229).
If we can mobilize more financial aid, and then mobilize all the many and necessary actors (government, business, NGOs, scientists, universities, etc.) to work in concert, Sachs is confident that we can enjoy economic growth for all, environmental sustainability, and population stabilization. He points to past successes like the eradication of small pox and polio, a million Africans now on affordable anti-retrovirals, and the Grameen Bank founded by Muhammad Yunus that has extended micro-credit loans to seven million borrowers (mainly women). In his view persistence, generosity, and enlightened self-interest by the global community must triumph over pessimism and business as usual. The former path leads to an "economics for a crowded planet," the latter to certain catastrophe.