Common Wealth

U.S. military spending in 2006 was nearly equal to the military spending of the rest of the world combined.

One day’s Pentagon spending would provide enough funds to ensure antimalarial bed net protection for every sleeping site in Africa for five years.
p. 274 Common Wealth

One sixth of the world remains trapped in extreme poverty unrelieved by global economic growth, and the poverty trap poses tragic hardships for the poor and great risks for the rest of the world.
p. 6 Common Wealth

China is adding the equivalent of 500-megawatt coal-fired plants per week - the total capacity of the UK power grid.
p. 75 Common Wealth

By adopting a number of practical low-carbon technologies, we can bring the climate change problem under control at modest cost, indeed a far lower cost than the horrendous climate risks we face with business as usual.
p. 103 Common Wealth

Human pressures on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate, unless mitigated substantially, will cause dangerous climate change, massive species extinctions, and the destruction of vital life-support functions.
p. 6 Common Wealth

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Common Wealth Club

The Earth Institute Newsletter

Memo to the Next President

This is a memo about achieving sustainable development, but more deeply, it is about achieving peace through sustainable development.

Let me begin by outlining our three over-riding foreign policy objectives, and the ways that the United States has been addressing those objectives in recent years.

The three over-riding goals of U.S. foreign policy are:

First, to promote our national security, which is at threat from: energy instability, global disease transmission, failed states and terrorism, the manifold threats of climate change

Second, to promote our national economy, which is at threat from: rising commodity scarcity (energy), competition from abroad encroaching U.S. industries, resource stresses (drought in the U.S. southwest, natural hazards in the Gulf of Mexico), excess dependency on foreign capital

And third, to promote values of personal freedom, political accountability, safety of individuals, and human rights, all of which we support as universal values enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Let me then summarize the Bush Administration’s approach to these issues.

First, that our national security is best secured through a robust military approach, especially through anti-terrorist actions abroad and an enduring military presence in the Middle East and many other parts of the world;

Second, that our over-riding need for economic security is reliable access to Middle East oil, the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. Whenever that has been threatened in the past, as in 1953, 1974, 1979, 1990, or 2001, the U.S. must be ready and able to intervene militarily;

Third, that our objectives are threatened by hostile regimes with anti-American ideologies, most extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, middle powers like Russia, China, and India are opportunistic and ready to side with anti-American ideologues when it suits their purposes. We must therefore fight extremist powers and actively coalitions of the willing to block the opportunistic actions of our opponents.

I believe that these premises are fundamentally flawed.

Military approaches are incapable of providing security in a cost-effective manner. The U.S. can not occupy or militarily dominate the Middle East except at a cost that will bring down the U.S. economy, inflame global opposition, and undermine our military defense. We will spend at least $1 trillion, and possibly much more, on the Iraq debacle, and without any lasting security benefits whatsoever.

Moreover, these militarized approaches misunderstand the scale and nature of our security challenges. Most importantly, we are up against global ecological limits which did not exist a generation ago. These limits are felt in climate change, growing scarcity of oil, land degradation, water scarcity, alarming declines in species abundance and biodiversity, food insecurity, and irreversible failures of ecosystem functions, all exacerbated by rising demographic pressures, especially unemployed young men in unstable and low-income regions.

National security and a peaceful world will require, among other things:

These international challenges are felt acutely around the world, and simultaneously by all regions of the world. There is no escape, no region outside of a shared global ecological threat. Water scarcity affects Phoenix, New Mexico; Atlanta, Georgia; Monterrey, Mexico; Darfur, Sudan; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Teheran, Iran. Soaring food prices affect Chicago and Shanghai. Heat waves are felt throughout the world. These ecological shocks are now positively correlated, meaning that losses in one region of the world are not generally offset by gains in another.

For the first time in human history, local actions now have enormous and rapid global ramifications. Shocks quickly spill over national boundaries. Food and energy markets are now inter-linked at global scale. Consider today’s FT report on soaring rice prices (p. 1, March 28, 2008), in which an Egyptian ban on rice exports, following bans by India and Vietnam, led immediately to soaring rice prices in the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.

True solutions to these challenges will require a mix of new technologies and new approaches to social organization, notably in how we organize urban life and how we choose to feed ourselves.

Strategic economic policy impels us to adjust in advance to these realities. The later we adjust to carbon constraints, fossil-fuel limitations, scarce water supplies, rising food prices, and other ecological limits, the more likely we are to overshoot the ecological and resource constraints, and the more likely we are to face a significant decline in living standards. Also, the more likely it is that the world will spiral into a direct resource conflict.

The economic winners of the early 21st century will be the technological leaders and early adapters to the challenges of sustainable development. The U.S. can reap enormous economic gains through its technological prowess, but only if that technological prowess is channeled into sustainable technologies through supportive public policies. GE’s “Ecomagination” strategy shows on a company level what a national industrial policy for sustainable development might mean, in terms of improved global options and expanding markets for U.S.-led approaches.

Here then are the 10 steps that I would suggest on January 21, 2009

First, end the Iraq War immediately. I would immediately assign $30 billion in 2009 to the United Nations, to be divided between a peacekeeping contingent and an economic development program. Withdrawal of troops will be phased, and probably require another $30 billion. Net saving in 2009 would be on the order of $100 billion, and net saving in later years would be at least $150 billion per year.

Second, announce the end of the Bush Tax cuts in FY 2010. Net budget savings will be around $250 billion per year.

Third, send a climate-change envoy to China, the EU, India, and the G-77 countries, to open intensive negotiations on a climate-change agreement by the end of 2009. That agreement should focus on national targets for emission reductions, pledges to adopt best available technologies, massive increases in adaptation funding for the poorest countries, a large-scale solar-initiative for Africa, and a large-scale clean-coal initiative for India, China, and the United States.

Fourth, hold a summit of Dry Land regions and countries in the White House in the spring of 2007, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, the U.S., Mexico, Australia, North Africa, and Mediterranean Europe. The goal would be to launch a three-year undertaking to assess water risks, food insecurity, new engineering and agronomic approaches, and climate-change hazards to the world’s dry lands.

Fifth, call on Congress to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Sixth, triple the public-sector funding for R&D into sustainable energy systems, to reach $10 billion per year in 2010. This should be directed at five priorities: (1) demonstration of carbon-capture and sequestration, both in the U.S. and abroad; (2) development of solar power, both concentrated thermal and photovoltaics; (3) high-mileage automobiles, including plug-in hybrids; (4) improved safety and efficacy of nuclear power; and (5) support for green building design and construction

Seventh, embrace the Millennium Development Goals as the organizing principle for U.S. foreign assistance, and commit the U.S. to double aid from $25 billion today to $50 billion per year in FY 2010, and to reach 0.7 percent of GNP (roughly $100 billion per year at current income levels) by 2015. The aid would be directed to water, disease control, renewable energy sources, and increased agricultural productivity, and at least half of all aid would go to Africa.

Eighth, call on Congress to eliminate the subsidy on ethanol immediately, in order to reduce pressures on national and global food prices, and to rationalize our approach to sustainable energy.

Ninth, immediately re-establish the U.S. contribution to the UN Population Fund, and call on countries to re-visit the objectives of the Global Plan on Population and Development. The aim should be to stabilize the world’s population by 2050 at 8 billion or less, through a rapid and voluntary reduction of fertility rates, supported by universal access to family planning services.

Tenth, establish a new Department for International Sustainable Development (DFISD) at the Cabinet level, which will oversee our international efforts in poverty alleviation, climate change, and biodiversity conservation.

Note that these budget objectives would leave a net saving of well over $200 billion per year, to address other domestic needs and to reduce the U.S. budget deficit.

Many people will say “No we can’t!” to one or all of these proposals.

The Economist Magazine put it this way about my new book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.

This brings us to the main problem with the book . . . If everyone in the world were as reasonable as Mr Sachs, his solutions would be easy to implement. However, if everyone were that reasonable, there would not be so many problems in the first place.

Let me confess to being a reasonable person, or at least to trying to be one. And let me thank The Economist Magazine for their gracious review (March 29-April 4, 2008, p. 111-112). Yet, I am concerned about their comment. It reflects a view, which is pervasive in our time, that our counterparts abroad are less rational that we, that our biggest problem is the implacable opposition of our foes.

I believe that this is wrong. Our counterparts will be far more likely to be rational and cooperative if we approach our problems in a spirit of rationality and cooperation as well. I am not advocating blind trust in the cooperation of others, but in the possibility of reaching mutually beneficial results when we try.

Let me end this memo by referring back to another time, when our foe was far stronger, and seemingly far more implacable, than al-Qaeda, and that was of course the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The world was brought to the brink of annihilation in October 1962, after provocative Soviet actions in placing missiles in Cuba, which followed provocative U.S. actions in 1961 in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Only John F. Kennedy’s profound courage in October 1962, and negotiating skills, saved the world. Then, in the following months, he launched the magic initiative which turned the Cold War towards peaceful coexistence, then détente, then the end of the Soviet Union itself.

Kennedy hit on a profound truth, equally applicable in our time. The common interests of the U.S. and the Soviet Union outweighed the conflicting interests. Conflict seemed inevitable because of a tit-for-tat reaction in which each provocation was followed by the next in widening swings of instability. It was at that moment that Kennedy seized the opportunity to change the dynamic, by calling for peace and by taking unilateral actions towards peace.

President Kennedy put it in a way (in his Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963) that speaks to us across two generations. His ideas exemplify how the U.S. can make peace today through sustainable development.

First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable – that mankind is doomed – that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good ill of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace – based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions – on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace -- no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process – a way of solving problems.

So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it and to move irresistibly toward it.

He summarized this approach with the most important truths of our time:

So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.


Discuss this Memo on our Common Wealth Forum