by Martin Vander Weyer, April 12, 2008
Can it really be only three years since The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs's previous hellfire sermon on the sins of the rich world and what we must do to make amends? Yes it is, and you might be forgiven for thinking that another dose of moral medicine from Dr Sachs after such a brief interval - this time focused on environmental issues - is an extravagant use of the scarce resources of ink and paper.
But much has happened in the period between this pair of weighty bookends to make Common Wealth a more timely and significant work than its predecessor. J K Galbraith has died (as has his lifelong opponent, Milton Friedman), leaving Sachs unquestionably the most prominent voice at the free-markets-are-not-the-answer-to-everything end of the American intellectual spectrum.
Those of the Friedmanite persuasion who dismissed The End of Poverty's recipe for global self-improvement as super-arrogant interventionism have been subdued these past few months by a demonstration, in the credit crunch, of just how much havoc free markets sometimes cause and how desperate for intervention (in this case, from the Federal Reserve) they turn out to be when terror takes hold.
More importantly, as the Bush administration has fallen in public esteem, so receptiveness to Sachs's key debating points has been rising: most famously, his theme of the futility of US military spending compared to the efficacy of well-targeted aid, not only in relieving poverty but in achieving America's foreign policy aim of eradicating threats to US interests by engendering stability in potential trouble spots. A single day's budget for the Pentagon, he argues, would pay for a distribution of mosquito nets to combat malaria throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with all the social and economic benefits a radical reduction in the incidence of that disease would bring.
Likewise, environmental hellfire is that little bit closer. Bush's best-known environmental policies have been to turn his back on the Kyoto accord, to encourage oil drilling in Alaska's national wildlife refuge, and to pander to the "Big Corn'' lobby with a token initiative on biofuel. Which incoming president - even, if he wins it, the Republican John McCain - is not going to want an early photo-op with Jeffrey Sachs in the Oval Office? So, from all points of view, the timing of Common Wealth is well judged - and so, compared with The End of Poverty, is the tone. Though this book is subtitled Economics for a Crowded Planet, there is little economics in it, and very little recitation of Sachs's own triumphs in the precocious days when he stepped off aeroplanes in Latin America and Eastern Europe and changed national economic destinies with his amazingly self-confident advice.
Instead, he has provided a handbook of risks to the planet, written with admirable clarity and a helpful habit of resorting to lists: 12 quick-impact measures to rescue Darfur (including, surprisingly, more mobile phones), eight requirements to reduce unsustainable population growth by advancing family planning, six important activities to help us manage our "carbon budget'', and so on.
There is still a bit of showing-off - in the use of unfamiliar words such as "albedo'' (solar energy reflected from earth into space) and "transhumance'' (population shifts in search of grazing land) - and a bit of skating over whatever is inconvenient to the author's prejudices: bizarrely, the end of the Cold War is attributed to John F Kennedy's nuclear test ban treaty, presumably to avoid any favourable reference to Ronald Reagan.
But overall this is an impressive exercise in presenting complex subject matter in plain English, and in relating the practicalities of life - in subsistence agriculture and water management, for example - to the biggest ideas of modern science. There is still legitimate room to doubt the gloomiest and most sensational predictions of the climate-change lobby, but Sachs does the doomsters a service by representing their case in a persuasively unsensational way.
His account of non-linear environmental changes, or "threshold effects'', in which, at a critical point in the slow process of climate change a small incremental temperature increase could lead to crop failure, epidemic disease, wiping out of species, or a catastrophic rise in sea levels, is about as sensational as he gets - but even then his tone is one of professorial authority rather than headline-seeking panic-punditry.
The End of Poverty was admired for its analysis of global economic problems but derided by free-market commentators for proposing solutions that involved megalomaniac structures of global regulation. In Common Wealth, however, Sachs's position has evolved into that of an idealist who believes in, and hopes for, spontaneous co-operation between scientists, NGOs and corporate leaders, as well as governments and the UN, to address threats which he believes are real and imminent but also capable of solution through shifts in behaviour and relatively modest redirection of funds.
"Markets won't do the job by themselves. Social norms do not suffice. Governments are often cruelly shortsighted. Sustainability has to be a choice, a choice of a global society that thinks ahead and acts in unaccustomed harmony.'' That's a worthy sentiment, and now is a good time to think about it.