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The Earth’s population is threatened but can survive, an economist writes — provided advanced nations give up a small portion of their income, make smart use of technology, and

Economics for a Crowded Planet
by Jeffrey D. Sachs,
Penguin, 386 pps.

While the 20th century was a time of tremendous change, the 21st century will experience more significant shifts, with the rise of political powerhouses such as China and India and a broader distribution of economic prosperity across the globe. More fundamentally, however, it will witness a staggering increase in human population — from the current total of 6.6 billion to a projected 9 billion by the year 2050. It will also be the first time in history that the majority of people are urban dwellers; already in 2008, half of us live in cities.

As humans begin to fill every ecological niche on the planet, the earth’s carrying capacity is being exceeded, writes author Jeffrey Sachs. And it is this pressure that has fueled violent conflicts, extreme poverty, and environmental instability. “We are, in short, in one another’s faces as never before, crowded into an interconnected society of global trade, migration, ideas, and . . . risk of pandemic diseases, terrorism, refugee movements and conflicts.” As the world grows increasingly interdependent, no part of it “can be abandoned to extreme poverty, or used as a dumping ground for the toxic, without jeopardizing and diminishing all the rest.” Thus, for Sachs, a leading U.S. economist and professor of sustainable development and health policy at Columbia University, the core challenge of the new century will be for people to confront their “common fate on a crowded planet.”

As head of Columbia’s Earth Institute, special advisor to the United Nations’ secretary general Ban Ki-moon, and co-founder of a nonprofit aimed at ending poverty, Sachs brings considerable experience — and passion — to global sustainable development. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet is his wake-up call to a threatened population, in which he provides a thorough analysis of what he considers the most pressing challenges: overpopulation, extreme poverty, and environmental instability. He seeks to raise awareness about the 1 billion poor who live on less than a dollar a year and 8 million who die “because they are too poor to stay alive;” of the growing scarcity of resources and resulting conflicts over land and water use; and of the 5,624 vertebrates, 2,101 invertebrates and 8,390 plants that by 2006 were threatened with extinction.

Sachs moves beyond alarming statistics to offer prescriptions for action. Some of these are familiar: for example, increased spending and attention to education, research and development and sustainable technologies. Yet Sachs also promotes specific programs, such as the introduction of quotas for harvesting natural resources and offering incentives for alternative energy use. He further proposes what he acknowledges will be a hard sell: Developed countries should underwrite the efforts of developing countries to adapt to climate change. Not only do the world’s largest polluters — China, the United States and Australia — have an obligation to do so, he reasons, but it’s in their own best interest. Advanced countries should also assist countries trapped in extreme poverty, Sachs believes. Doing so would cost no more than 1 percent of their annual incomes, while helping secure greater global stability.

Sachs is also a technology enthusiast, championing the capture and sequestration of coal power plant emissions, development of hybrid vehicles, and use of agronomic techniques to reduce nitrogen fertilizer runoff. He would introduce extensive mobile-phone service in sparsely populated Darfur to support health services, increase communication and provide updates on weather and natural hazards — all of which would contribute to peace in the region. For Sachs, farms and cities alike can become more productive if provided with basic electricity, computers and broadband.

Underlying all of Common Wealth is Sach’s conviction in the “power of one” — the potential and importance of global cooperation. In his views, even apart from the disastrous unilateralism of the Bush administration, post-Cold War America has increasingly turned away from the plight and interdependency of the world. For the sake of its own national security, he argues, the country needs to reaffirm international partnerships, global goodwill and aid to struggling states. Not surprisingly for someone who has long been involved in U.N. work on climate change, biological diversity, desertification, poverty and disease, Sachs places considerable faith in joint international efforts.

Sachs believes the world can surmount its challenges, but only with a truly global effort. “What seems impossible at the start, requiring billions of fragmentary and uncoordinated actions, will ultimately take shape as a global movement to achieve peace, prosperity, and environmental sustainability,” he writes. Some readers may judge Sachs overly optimistic about the willingness of governments, NGOs, industry, and private individuals to collaborate. But he makes a persuasive case that we have no choice.


Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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