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Book Review : Common Wealth-Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffery Sachs

Formerly the director of the Earth institute at The Columbia University the acclaimed and widely published Jeffery Sachs in manner only befitting a master’s take on their area of expertise, breaks down the intricate relationship between man and his environment.

Drawing on experience as the director of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) project as well as his advisory role to former U. N secretary general Ban Ki Moon, Jeffery Sachs allows the reader to assume a global perspective on this relationship.

Sachs, a professor of Public health policy and Management at Columbia University, sufficiently uses numerous examples drawn from both the present and past to critique, teach (literally spoon feed), inform ,stir debate and finally agitate for action on issues central to climate change. He details a sustainability approach and thus in essence the existence of man more so this 21st Century

Why MMI-MMC finds this book  worth a mention lies not its commendable efforts at providing insight into 21st century life by shedding light on such matters as the science that informs new age business like the multimoney green energy business; nor does it lie in the credentials of the author but rather in how Jeffery. D. Sachs manages to lighten heavy science -without diluting the facts- in an easy novel-like read .

In doing this, Jeffery. D. Sachs navigates the central challenge that plights scientific journalism: the delivery of science and its progress in a fashion palatable enough for the general interest reader. To put it in another way, making science fun.

In Common Wealth-Economics for a crowded planet Sachs is timely when put in context of the prevailing geopolitical and economic environment. The world had just seen an increase in the number and magnitude of natural calamities. Sachs cites examples such as the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina that was coupled with unprecedented levels of human suffering (Sachs, 812).

In a manner almost prophetic of the current famine of the Horn Of Africa, Sachs tells of the dire humanitarian situation facing the water deprived regions of the Horn, going further to draw parallels with the evergreen conflict in Gaza which according to Sachs is set upon the background of a drying up river Jordan.

Drawing from the able teacher that history is, Sachs charts the map of man through the ages arguing that the agrarian revolution which saw a boom in agriculture, was the key turning point: an important milestone as it that laid the ground for the  unfortunate but man-triggered events.

In a way, by placing the burden of the blame on the shoulders of mankind as the craftsmen of its own plights, MMI-MMC is reminded of the confounding effect of the Nuclear disaster on hard to forget Japan triple disaster.

In Contrast, Common Wealth-economics for a crowded planet also presents a picture of a world flourishing in the midst of such calamity. To navigate these contrasting situations in his attempt at a holistic delivery, Jeffery Sachs employs certain journalistic skills to great effect. Key among them is a frequent reference to various research findings in a manner reminiscent of a top chef measured use of seasoning to highlight the wholesome delight of a delicacy.

Road To Climate Change Deal

To the reader, value for money as by chewing the cud, the intricacy of the interrelationships between human activity and subsequent environmental degradation that ends in human calamity become ever so distinct. Having undertaken numerous research and consequently being authoritatively published, the issues Sachs raises can not only be vouched for but are also of benefit to the reader keen on understanding the forces at play in life this 21st century.

For instance, he mentions that research done by him and his colleagues at The Earth Institute that  led to development of the framework on global change through the Global Round table On Climate Change (GROCC). GROCC the forerunner to the Kyoto protocol from which the multimoney carbon trading business is premised on brought together stakeholders like as universities and non governmental institutions to deliberate on climate change and its effects.

Furthermore, in the initial phases of the book, Sachs reveals the collaborative effort put by various disciplines at The Earth Institute as the background of recent 21st Century science success. This take on work ethics seems to influence the major theme of the book: that of global cooperation in solving 21st century challenges ( Sachs,78). What Sachs proposes in collaboration as a key principle will necessitate change in how human activity is carried out in the21st Century and beyond.

This is because according to Jeffery Sachs, the advent of agrarian style agriculture and latter on the industrial age led to a point where human activity had huge negative impact on the all encompassing human ecosystem which irrespective of where or when the said human activities are centered.

Sachs goes on further to suggest commerce as the link between the two phenomena. This is because commerce is centered on exploitation on natural resource. The negative result of engaging in commerce and agriculture is a man made phenomenon as both can be accomplished by man alone he offers.

In a nutshell, global changes in human activity, leading to natural cycles manifested as global climate changes leading to human calamities with global implications. In light of this interdependence of commerce and environment, Sachs suggests that environmental preservation should be a central tent of all human activity.

Theory of Convergence

The Theory of Convergence (a economic principle) extrapolated in the book, explains the concerns of Sachs. According to the theory, recent phenomenon such as technology advances in the telecommunications industry has spurred a sudden surge in human activity worldwide. This has manifested as increased trade in the world with improving income per person.

This is with advances in information technology such as the documented successes of M-Commerce in Africa negates barriers to trade like geographical distances have thus enabling countries produce more for export, opening avenues for earning more. The returns from increased export trade are then used to purchase technologies.

These technologies reciprocally lead to an improvement on production thus boosting the export trade. The result of this cycle has been faster growth in the economies when expressed as the Gross domestic Product. This is seen currently in developing countries such as India, Brazil and China. When this growth is sustained at a rate that is at least one half of those of developed nations, the result would be convergence of the two economies.

In simpler terms, this could mean that more people are getting richer as both countries are growing albeit at different economic rates. The basic principle of convergence economics as argued by Sachs is that there are increasing numbers of people in the developing countries who have incomes that are similar to those in the richer economies.

Through well thought careful borrowing the tents of the Theory Of Convergence, Common Wealth-economics of a crowded planet gives the reader a perspective on the current global economic structure and the effects of globalized trade. The origins, evolution and environmental price of global trade provide the backbone of Sachs’s arguments on entrepreneurship and new business models in the 21stCentury

Sachs provokes the reader to examine their own contribution to the impeding calamity as part of their responsibility of being citizens of the earth. Governments and business are institutions of human societies, likewise, Sachs takes on the challenge by demanding action from these institutions. His bold approach is evident as he critiques how governments have let the rush for resources influence their foreign relations with other countries.

Global Warming, Geopolitics & Economics

It is this unhealthy competition that breeds foreign policy strategies that are fast being negated by time like the heavy sentiments of neo-conservatism that characterizes foreign policy driven by the Central Intelligence Agency (Sachs, 2461) that has led to America ceding ground to emerging powers like India and China.

Sachs cites the nuclear stand off of 1962 as an escalation of such tensions. Jeffery Sachs continues and attributes the previous world wars as examples of sequelae of such diplomatic stand points, albeit the wearer of the shoes being different at each of this low points in human history as was the case of Germany and World war two.

Sachs foresees a similar stand off developing in the 21st Century in keeping with the implications of the convergence economics and the attendant rush for resources. According to Sachs, the current instability in the Middle East can be traced to the skewed foreign policy of the former President Bush. The invasion of Iraq in an attempt to ensure the national security of the United States of America by securing its energy needs and the rise attendant sophistication of global terrorism provide two sides of a problem whose roots arise in the current world order (2465).

Such irrational nationalistic sentiments and messianic acts by leaders serve only to compound the problem. This is because gains earlier attained by humanity are threatened while the capability to solve new problems is put in jeopardy. Resource is also wasted on meaningless wars. The brunt of such a situation is felt more in those who already suffer more: the world poor.

In cognizance of the shortfalls of Gross Domestic product as a measure of prosperity of a citizenry and in acknowledgment of the widening rich-poor divide as the developing and developed economies converge, Sachs offers that those not part of the economic circle are driven deeper into the poverty more.

This analysis of 21st Century economic climate that by Common Wealth-economics for a crowded planet  insinuates that the genesis of such events like The Great Depression lies is the advent of agrarian agriculture that enabled man to live as communities by channeling and influencing natural resources to sustain the life in organized groups.

An economic order that later on nurtured by the industrial age which epitomized the specialization and division of labor- twin phenomena that are central to commerce. The current failings of the economic system as evidenced by the poverty in sub-Saharan Africa encompass the first of the few sections of this book.

Through his dissection of matters human activity as they be, Sachs emphasizes our common origins and the common environment we all inhabit. He stresses that the challenges faced are global with the actions of every one of us affecting others. For instance the widening of the poverty gap contributes to further environmental disasters as the stressed communities exert more pressures on the environment in a bid to survive. This challenges local ecosystems and alters natural cycles on a global scale. This as explained above puts global economic prosperity at risk.

By way of a wholesome approach to the human condition, Jeffery Sachs not only simplifies the science by revealing the tail and head of the coin but also suggests away forward through the identification of points of convergence of factors and elaborate presentation of the socio economic effects of human activity.

From palatable descriptions of the hydrological cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the green house effect and the effect of the earth’s position on its axis on global temperatures the reader is provided by scientific basis of Sachs’s claims. To further elaborate his view, the book graphically highlights how environmental degradation affects ecology.

Jeffery Sachs draws examples from the loss of marine ecosystems through human activities such as over fishing. He details the effects of overgrazing of lands in sub-Saharan Africa leading to spread of deserts and further decreasing arable land.

In Common Wealth-economics for a crowded planet, a few light bulbs guaranteed to be lit. Take for instance the revelation that agricultural activities help fixate nitrogen in soils negating the use of modern fertilizers in order to improve agricultural productivity which alters the nitrogen cycle. Did I hear some one mention Organic farming?

The widespread use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy contributes to global warming which may have detrimental effects such as melting of arctic glaciers. This leads to rise in sea levels submerging the increasing number of people residing in cities most of which are found along coastlines. Through such revelations, Sachs effectively manages to put doubts in the reader’s mind about the future of mankind thus drawing sympathy to his cause.

Globalization a topic that is in current public domains receives sufficient mention by Sachs. An expert on globalization, his prowess is evident as interesting perspectives on the matter are brought fourth. For instance, he associates the development of trade routes with the spread of disease. This is because new populations are exposed to new microorganisms in similar fashion to how the bubonic plague spread to Europe from China in the eighteenth century.

An overriding theme of the book is that of population explosion and its ties to commerce and the environment. Of particular concern is the concomitant rise in human population as human activity increases. He attributes it to the ability of H.Sapiens to alter his environment by use of technology such as agriculture to suit mans survival.

In the 21st century, the convergence of economies and technological advances are the culprits as  Sachs points out the concomitant improvement in life expectancy in with rising wealth as the populations have better access to healthcare, food and are better equipped to handle challenges.

Jeffery Sachs adds that in spite of the lower life expectancy (average the late forties) the poorest region of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, is still set to witness an exponential growth in population attributed to a higher fertility rate. In this assertion, Sachs agrees with the Malthusian principle on population growth that explains how population growth is tied to the availability of resource.

If resource is available, the population continues to grow and only stops in the event of a major calamity ( Sachs, 1506). This calamity usually is due to population pressure on the environment such that the environment can no longer sustain the population. He is quick to add that at the time Malthus did not envision the advent of technological advances and thus globalization. The two developments that have hastened the population growth curve leading to a faster approach to the nemesis

Not shying away from controversy, Jeffery Sachs argues that sustenance of man as a species is dependent on maintaining a population that based on current estimates should not exceed eight billion people by the year 2050 (1512). This population target can be achieved by initiating public policy that encourages voluntary control of fertility rates by means such as contraception.

Jeffery Sachs on Science Policy: Collaboration, Global Aid as an Enabler & Technology Transfer

Among the critical issues raised in this book is the urgent nature of the matter and the need of a shift in policies. The solutions lie in the development of a new understanding on current challenges.  Jeffery Sachs wades into the controversies of science, technology and society relationship by prescribing adoption of the worldview that all societies have a stake in a sustainable future. This prescription lays the ground for forging an understanding based on shared responsibility.

Sachs champions for collaborative efforts in tackling 21st century problems. He scoffs at the notion that it is an unachievable goal by lauding the efforts of previous concerted efforts such as The United Nation’s MDGs. Efforts in regional collaboration, the Kyoto protocol as the carbon trading infrastructure in Europe contributes to sustainable living contrary to common opinion.
Jeffery Sachs also recognizes that there may be challenges in achieving the goal as key constraints such as the question on who will be mandated with the task of  sharing out the responsibilities and how to finance the operations are a major concern. To this end, he cites examples where global cooperation has been successful including giving his view on the controversial issue of aid to developing nations.

Controversially, Jeffery Sachs defends aid programmes as he argues that the world’s poor caught in the poverty trap are capable and are willing to help themselves. But the circumstances often conspire to make it difficult to escape poverty. According to Sachs, through aid programmes investment in four critical areas would see the fortune of Africa and consequently those of the world change.

Global aid should be viewed as an effort to correct wrongs that he traces to colonialism. For instance, he gives an example of the contrasting way in which railway infrastructure was developed in India in comparison to Africa. Jeffery Sachs points out that it is the responsibility of developed nations to transfer technology to Africa in the four critical areas.

These areas include agricultural productivity, accessibility to healthcare, accessibility to education and development of basic infrastructure such as roads to enable Africa become part of the converged economies. This will enable African populations earn from exports, save their earnings and inevitably not only purchase but contribute to the technology pool by availing funds for R&D.

The obligation of rich countries stems out of the fact that industrialized nations such as the USA which constitutes only five percent of the world population owns a quarter of the world’s wealth while the effects of the human activities of the G8 are world felt. In similar fashion he calls on the developing countries like BRICS (Brazil,India, China, South Africa) group to assume more responsibility as the recent growth on of their economies has had similar effects.

Sachs offers more solutions on how to ensure obstacles to this technology transfer are overcome. The importance of research and development comes to light. Since most research is funded by governments and private institutions, the natural desire to get a return on investments is great. The sister issue of intellectual property rights inevitably has to be reviewed to ensure innovators efforts are protected while those in need of technology access it.

After all Jeffery Sachs argues, technology is a unique product since it is not exhaustible like say oranges or mangoes. Thus the use of technology in one part of the world does not constrain its use elsewhere. The cost constrains usually cited as slowing technological advancements have no basis.  Jeffery Sachs argues that cost is a result poor planning as seventy percent of the 100 billion US dollars set aside for research by the USA government are spent on military research.

It is precisely this type of policies that Jeffery Sachs is against. He pays homage to President Kennedy in the manner in which he handled the Cuba missile crisis. Based on this example from history- peace as a diplomatic strategy-he argues, is a remedy that is feasible and should as such be considered.

Through out the book as Sachs discusses the different assaults on the ecology he follows his discussion with practical examples which he offers as guides that human activity should be based on. For instance he fronts breakthrough technology such as the carbon capture and sequestration (921).

The critical point raised by such examples is the availability of sustainable technologies undergoing the final steps in their development before mass adaptation. In such cases only a final push in terms of prioritization by the political class and increased commitment of funds would suffice.

The development of such technologies should not be left on the funding bodies alone. The scholars involved should also make a point of collaborating with innovators in other disciplines to ensure a holistic approach to a diverse problem.

As discussed it is evident that the issue currently facing the world are as diverse itself. Jeffery Sachs manages to tackle this expansive subject in a manner, as he had hoped in the preface, in a manner which highlights the need of a collaborative multidisciplinary approach. This was achieved   by dividing the book into four parts. The first part not only introduces the subject matter but also gives peak preview of the issues to be discussed. Subsequent parts delve into specifics of each subject matter.

The divisions of these parts into chapters allows for systematic analysis of the issues. Although quite a long read, it provides a good read for the general reader with a liking for quick facts, scientific knowledge  albeit in a palatable fashion in the context of today’s world. Common Wealth   is a good reference for history, international relations, engineering, architecture, public health and planning students as it alludes to the global forces that chart the likely direction of their careers in the future.

One for your home library?

Sachs, D. J. Common Wealth- Economics for a crowded planet. NY: Penguin press, 2008

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