Common Wealth

May 19, 2009

This is what I wrote, almost a year ago, about Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty:

“I know that some of what he says or has done is hotly debated, but I would encourage any and every thinking person to read Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty”, if you haven’t already. Some of the proposals are counterintuitive, and maybe some elements are oversimplified, but by far, overall, it’s an incredibly effective and convincing book. And the most important thing? It’s made me think of extreme poverty, and its attendant conditions, as a problem or series of problems that have solutions, rather than one that is too big and too heartbreaking to think about.”

This is equally true of Sachs’ 2008 book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.  The writing has a few more uneven patches (although it is still astoundingly clear and convincing), and there’s a great deal more criticism of George W. Bush’s policies (having lived through another 3 years of them, I guess there’s good reason), but overall it was an eye-opening, heartening argument.

And the things I liked about the first one are still here: the focus on multilateral, multidisciplinary solutions to these massive problems (ie, Sachs argues that corporations, NGOs, academia, local, national and international governmental bodies are all going to have to play a role in sustainable development) ; a commitment to rationalism and reasonable solutions, even when these might not fit with our idealism ; an understanding of both failed and successful development efforts ; an economic quantification of what it would take to resolve these issues ; and incredible (but, as I say, even better because he makes it credible) optimism.

Common Wealth argues that the greatest challenge facing the world now is our thinking: that we need to begin thinking and working more globally (because our economy is already working on a global level), and that the financial and logistical problems surrounding extreme poverty, climate change, and sustainable development are simple once our mindset has changed:

“We must keep remembering that complex global problems can be solved by collective global goal setting, reliance on scientific evidence, mobilization of technology, and most crucially, thinking ahead. We will have to appreciate, with urgency, that the ecological challenges will not solve themselves in a ‘self-organizing’ manner. Markets, we have emphasized, won’t do the job by themselves. Social norms do not suffice. Governments are often cruelly short-sighted. Sustainability has to be a choice, a choice of a global society that thinks ahead and acts in unaccustomed harmony.” (81)

And then he gets to the figures. “One day’s Pentagon spending would provide enough funds to ensure antimalarial bed net protection for every sleeping site in Africa for five years” (274). On page 301 he outlines how “seven global funds would cover the vast range of sustainable development needs”. On 309 and 310 he describes the costs of failure and the financial commitment needed to address the Millenium Promises. The 0.7 % of rich countries’ GNP already committed, but not given, would eliminate extreme poverty and put all countries “on the development ladder”, as Sachs says. All of the goals he outlines would require 2.4 % of the GNP of donor countries:

“The difference between the dangherous and unsustainable global trajectory we are on now and a sustainable trajectory that addresses the challenges of environment, population, and poverty, is a modest 2 to 3 percent of annual income. Yes, that is politically large, but it is not large in terms of human well-being, or investments needed to save the world from dire and growing risks…[As] in so many cases in the past, the ultimate costs of action are likely to prove far smaller than we fear today, since we are more clever than we know once we’ve mobilized our efforts.”   (311)

And he finishes with 8 actions we all can make:

1. Educate ourselves about the science and economics of sustainable development.

2. “To the extent that it is personally possible, travel.”

3. Start or join an organization committed to sustainable development.

4. Encourage engagement of and in your community.

5. Promote sustainable development through your social network(ing sites).

6. Become politically engaged.

7. Engage your workplace.

8. “Live personally according to the standards of the Millenium Promises. Seek out contacts across countries, cultures, and class divides to ensure that we can each appreciate the common interests of our generation.”

(337-338)

And let me know if you want to borrow my copy to read it for yourself.

Advertisements

5 Responses to “Common Wealth”

  1. And then he gets to the figures. “One day’s Pentagon spending would provide enough funds to ensure antimalarial bed net protection for every sleeping site in Africa for five years” (274). On page 301 he outlines how “seven global funds would cover the vast range of sustainable development needs”. On 309 and 310 he describes the costs of failure and the financial commitment needed to address the Millenium Promises.

    As astounding as this information is, how feasible is it to convince people to make these types of concessions for a day? I’d be interested in borrowing this book, if anything because I am so jaded about these types of issues and I do not see change as some definite achievable goal. Cheers.

  2. Faith said

    Believe me, I completely understand. Like I said, that was one of the most astonishing things about “The End of Poverty”: that it convinced me that these aren’t huge, heartbreaking problems (or, at least, if we do things rationally and actively, they don’t have to be).
    He emphasizes throughout that we might not do it, and haven’t been…but that this is what it would take if we did, and these would be the astonishing results of comparatively small investments.
    Anyway, I’ll bring it for you next Wednesday, if you like.

  3. Kate said

    I think the second action works against his call to sustainability. While I can infer that he encourages folks who wouldn’t otherwise see extreme poverty to go and see it (experience it?), I strongly believe that this makes those who are in extreme poverty a spectacle. Do we really need to “travel” to find extreme poverty? And I wonder how Sachs explains sustainable travel?

    • Faith said

      One of the things that struck me (more in The End of Poverty, but here too) is Sachs’ discussion of ideas that might not seemingly fit with the larger goals. In The End of Poverty, he talks about sweatshops (I don’t think he even avoids the term, although he qualifies it) as an important first step in an impoverished country’s economic development. Here…it’s hard to know. I suppose he thinks the best way to get people involved is to show it to them, and that the consequences of that can be dealt with more readily than the consequences of ignorance. Like Rick Mercer says, “I swore I wouldn’t come back from Africa as one of those people who won’t shut up about Africa, but I did.”

  4. […] can see what I said about them before, here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by Faith Filed in books, contemporary, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: