The global challenges of poverty, environmental degradation, and climate change, can seem overwhelming – even downright depressing – when faced squarely. The problems are big, and achieving international cooperation to do anything about them can seem a forlorn hope faced with a global political culture of distrust and myopic self-interest.
So it is encouraging to read a book that faces most of the big issues head-on and retains a persuasive optimism about the possibilities for a positive future. In Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, economist Jeffrey Sachs does just that – and goes on to suggest a programme to deal with some of our pressing global problems.
Sachs identifies four pressing global challenges (p.6):
- Human pressure on ecosystems and the environment
- Human population increase
- Persistent extreme poverty for the poorest 1/6th (a billion or more) of humanity
- Paralysed global problem solving in the face of these problems.
He describes the relationship between economy, environment, and humanity using a simple equation (pp.29-30):
I = P *A/S
(Or I equals P times A divided by S)
I = Human impact on the environment
P = Human population
A = Average human income
S = Ecological efficiency of income
This equation neatly illustrates some key issues:
I (our human impact on the environment) is already unsustainable, but P (population) is continuing to rise. Short of deliberate intervention or disaster or resource exhaustion/eco-collapse, A is likely to continue to rise (in the short-medium term), and indeed we desperately need to raise A for the poorest sixth of the world’s people caught in a terrible poverty trap.
Clearly, then, to bring things into balance we need to work on slowing the rate of population increase, and significantly increasing S (i.e. reducing the ecological impact of each unit of income). Sachs doesn’t raise the other possibility – probably both because he thinks it unnecessary (he is a technological optimist) and also because he thinks it politically unfeasible – but it is clear from the equation that we may need to reduce the income of the global rich too (especially if you don’t share his level of technological optimism).
Sachs is very clear that markets alone cannot and will not solve these problems (pp.31-35). Markets alone won’t solve poverty traps. Markets alone won’t ensure the development of more sustainable technologies. And markets alone won’t ensure the adoption of more sustainable technologies. We need collective public investment – to fund sustainability research and development, to support incentives for the adoption of more sustainable technologies, to provide the aid, infrastructure, training, and health care needed to lift those in extreme poverty up out of their suffering, and to support population programmes.
Much of the rest of the book consists of Sachs showing – using persuasive real-world examples – that it is possible for public investments in these various areas to work. Rather than reinventing the wheel, he points to global goals already agreed through the United Nations: the Rio Treaties on Environmental matters, the U.N. Population Agreement, and the Millennium Development Goals. The point is not that these are perfect, or that in all cases they will be enough, but that they provide a place to start and build from.
Sachs’ team at Columbia have attempted to measure the likely cost of achieving these goals (pp.308-311) – they total 2-3% of annual income for the donor countries (who agreed to the goals). It seems a tiny price to pay in comparison to the problems we face and the implications of failing to deal with them.
But our global problem solving seems paralysed. Self-interest, indifference, and myopia seem to prevent global collective action on the critical issues. Sachs is particularly scathing of the militarism and foreign policy of his own country, the United States – and with the election of Barrack Obama it is worth noting that his criticism is not limited to the Bush administration (though he regards it as particularly egregrious). Here in New Zealand, we have little cause to feel smug, though: while our governments have been longstanding supporters of multilateralism and the U.N., we have consistently failed to live up to our commitments in regard to Overseas Development Aid. And we have recently elected a Government that seems to be jettisoning even our timid efforts to meet our Kyoto obligations.
It is clear – though left implicit – that Sachs feels the U.S. could break this impasse by exercising positive global leadership – he refers to the example of the post WWII Marshall plan that helped rebuild Europe – and that this book is a plea to U.S. politicians, opinion leaders, and public to support such an effort. But equally, another reality the book identifies is that it is now a multi-polar world, and we all – as global citizens – have a role to play in pushing for collective action. This book shows that effective global collective action is possible, and it needn’t cost the Earth (pun intended).
Even as a small nation, we in Aotearoa New Zealand need not fear that taking such a step before other major nations do would be pointless or foolish:
- If we do, our action could be a political example for timid politicians around the world who fear that electorates will not support such actions.
- Even a small country can make a lasting global difference with investments in sustainability research and development. One good idea can be repeated a million times and a million times again across the globe.
- We can continue to target much of our Overseas Development Aid to small Pacific nations where it can make a huge difference.
- Again, remember we are only talking a very small amount – 2-3 cents in the dollar of future income.