'Common Wealth' makes common sense

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 25, 2008

“Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet,” by Jeffrey D. Sachs. The Penguin Press. 2008. 339 pp. $27.95.
By John Whitfield
For the Salisbury Post
Alexander Pope described “true wit as nature to advantage dressed, what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
The same might be said for Jeffrey Sachs’ extensive treatment of the economic and ecological issues facing a burgeoning world population now and in the near future.
His assessment in “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet” is concise and comprehensive, combining readability with detailed analysis. This would be very informative reading for anyone concerned about the Earth future generations will inherit.
Sachs begins by identifying points he considers realities which are leading to the coming crisis for the world’s population. The primary sources of the crisis are extreme pressures on the world’s climate and ecosystems, rapid population growth, extreme and unrelenting poverty among one sixth of the world’s people and paralysis in global problem solving.
An important concept in Sachs’ premise is that of sustainability or renewability of resources. For example, a few hundred people living in colonial America could fish, hunt and use firewood without significant impact on the environment. The world’s present 6 billion people, however, taking 500 million pounds of fish from the ocean daily, killing thousands of animals, cutting forests, depleting soil and pouring pollutants into the water and air can cause damage from which recuperation is doubtful. Sachs’ belief is that we must solve these problems cooperatively on a global level or they will not be solved.
The author presents cogent data to support his contentions. There are separate chapters on population, water, climate, soil and fossil fuel usage. Other subjects include species reduction, damage to ecosystems and the pernicious and broad effects of the “poverty trap.” By this he means the extreme and persistent poverty faced by millions who have no resources to pull themselves out. They tend to have more children, often live in areas with unstable governments and put pressure on the rest of the world to act in their behalf.
Sachs points out the interaction of issues: For example, as the Chinese prosper they are consuming more meat. To feed these animals, soy beans are imported from Brazil, where old forests are cut down to make more farmland. This leads to reduced animal habitat and soil run-off which pollutes rivers and damages downstream fishing.
Interestingly, this is not a doomsday book. The author presents a wide variety of ways in which problem areas can be addressed and resolved. They are feasible, attainable solutions which he describes in a logical manner, addressing the involvement of both private, or market, forces and governmental entities.
There have been successful initiatives undertaken and Sachs points them out as examples which can accomplish the needed goals. These include the control of infectious diseases such as smallpox; major advances in avoiding ozone deterioration; improved agriculture production in developing countries including India; the rise of literacy in many areas; increased family planning and lowered population gains and improved AIDS treatment.
While these successes have occurred, Sachs points out that there is still little overall progress for a variety of reasons. These include the piecemeal approach to broad issues, the tendency of countries to deal with the issues without cooperating with others and the resistance of individuals and groups to accept the need to act. He is critical of the United States’ policies for the past several years, discussing several “disastrous choices.”
Among these are the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for climate control which other nations have adopted; withholding funding on several programs such as the United Nations Population Fund and failure to follow through on aspects of the Millennium Promise program.
He states that the Pentagon budget for one day would provide netting for most families in Africa for five years, thereby reducing cases of malaria; and he suggests that by helping Afghans grow something other than poppies for heroin through soil improvement and seed variation several years ago war might have been averted.
Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Sachs suggests that this is the present attitude of rich nations, including those of Western Europe, China, the United States, India and Japan, where resources are consumed voraciously. These resources are clearly unsustainable and unrenewable, but consumption continues with the expectation they will somehow not be depleted.
Isolationists may feel that we need not address problems around the world, yet several countries are facing mass immigration problems which might be avoided by helping poor countries develop better agriculture and cottage industries.
This is a timely book, given the issues arising daily. One reads of North and South Carolina going to court over water rights; the glaciers are shrinking; there are arguments over corn as fuel versus food; the U.S. Senate cannot pass a climate control bill; gasoline and oil prices are soaring worldwide; several varieties of fish, including red snapper, cod and yellowfin tuna are disappearing; and on and on. These are the types of issues Sachs confronts.
Not everyone will agree with Sachs’ assessments and suggestions, but readers are encouraged to at least read the book and see his point of view. It is not a light book to read but is so well written, so sparkling in prose and so clear in ideas that it is well worth the time and effort.
The final part of “Common Wealth” addresses the opportunity each individual has to participate in the proposed solutions. Sachs lays out concrete suggestions, calling each of us to action. He concludes positively, suggesting that by responding we may enable our great-great-grandchildren to experience polar bears, glaciers, fresh air and clean water as something more that a distant memory.
John Whitfield lives in Salisbury.