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Common Wealth, by Jeffrey D Sachs

CostsOfLiving.jpg May 18, 2008, New York Times, Costs of Living, by Daniel Gross.

COMMON WEALTH: Economics for a Crowded Planet.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs.

386 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.

The timing for Jeffrey D. Sachs's new book on how to avert global economic catastrophe couldn't be better, with food riots in Haiti, oil topping $120 a barrel and a gnawing sense that there's just less of everything — rice, fossil fuels, credit — to go around. Of course, we've been here before. In the 19th century, Thomas Malthus teased out the implications of humans reproducing more rapidly than the supply of food could grow. In 1972, the Club of Rome published, to much hoopla, a book entitled "Limits to Growth." The thesis: There are too many people and too few natural resources to go around. In 1978, Mr. Smith, my sixth-grade science teacher, proclaimed that there was sufficient petroleum to last 25 to 30 years. Well, as Yogi Berra once may have said, "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

And yet. Even congenital optimists have good reason to suspect that this time the prophets of economic doom may be on point, with the advent of seemingly unstoppable developments like climate change and the explosive growth of China and India. Which is why Sachs's book — lucid, quietly urgent and relentlessly logical — resonates. Things are different today, he writes, because of four trends: human pressure on the earth, a dangerous rise in population, extreme poverty and a political climate characterized by "cynicism, defeatism and outdated institutions." These pressures will increase as the developing world inexorably catches up to the developed world. By 2050, he writes, the world's population may rise to 9.2 billion from 6.6 billion today — an increase of 2.6 billion people, which is "too many people to absorb safely." The combination of climate change and a rapidly growing population clustering in coastal urban zones will set the stage for many Katrinas, not to mention "a global epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease and adult-onset diabetes."

Sachs smartly describes how we got here, and the path we must take to avert disaster. The director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of "The End of Poverty," Sachs is perhaps the best-known economist writing on developmental issues (or any other kind of issues) today. And this is Bigthink with a capital B. "The very idea of competing nation-states that scramble for markets, power and resources will become passé," he writes, introducing a reasoned plea for one-worldism. As the kids in "High School Musical" sing, we're all in this together. "In the 21st century our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives and on the practical means to achieve them." By working together and harnessing the productive genius of the public and private sectors, Sachs argues, we can build sustainable systems, stabilize world population at about eight billion and end extreme poverty by 2025.

The bien-pensant classes, of which I count myself a paid-in-full member, will coast through this well-constructed book (sipping fair-trade coffee, nibbling organic carrots and pausing to catch the headlines on National Public Radio) and nod along through the primers on greenhouse gases, China's development and the potential for carbon capture; the digs at President Bush; and the call for the creation of seven global funds concentrating on areas like agriculture, the environment and infrastructure. In a particularly trenchant passage, he gently fillets critics, like William Easterly, who have argued that foreign aid doesn't work. (Aid money spent bringing fertilizer to India in the 1960s, Sachs notes, yielded spectacular returns.) And it's refreshing to hear a distinguished economist declare that markets alone can't get us out of the mess markets have created.

There are a few discordant notes, however. Sachs too frequently lapses into a sort of reductio ad PowerPoint. It seems every catastrophe can be averted if we take fewer than 10 simple steps. Sachs presents "four compelling reasons why the poorest countries need to speed the demographic transition," "a list of seven requirements to enable family planning programs to accelerate the decline in fertility" and "six steps to transform" American "security policy into a workable framework for the 21st century." Of course, that last list is really much longer. And anybody who was involved with post-Soviet Russian economic reforms, as Sachs was, knows that altering and redesigning complex systems isn't a matter of following simple best practices and blueprints. Politics, greed, folly, venality — in short, human nature — always intrude.

Which gives rise to another quibble. Sachs is remarkably fluent on noneconomic issues like technology and science, but, to my mind, he doesn't pay sufficient deference to the disciplines of politics or psychology. A study of the United Nations should call into question the effectiveness of global decision-making. Yes, trade, technology and common markets are eroding borders separating nations, thus enhancing the potential for collaborative, transnational policies, but there's an equally powerful countertrend of people clinging fiercely to national and ethnic difference — see Tibet, Kosovo and Kenya. And if a Houston oilman can't make common political cause with the poor immigrant worker who tends his lawn, how can we expect him to do so with a factory worker in China? Sachs notes that each nation "faces a distinctive challenge based on its own unique geography, demography and history," but he doesn't fully tease out the obstacles to progress these conditions present.

As for psychology, the cool, persistent logic that powers Sachs's prose doesn't account for the many irrationalities embedded in personal economic choices, and hence in the global system at large. The subtext of Sachs's argument is that we could solve all the problems we face — from global warming to persistent poverty — if only we acted in a rational, commonsensical manner. But the growing cadre of behavioral economists has highlighted the myriad ways in which fear, neurosis and desire influence economic decisions large and small. I would have enjoyed seeing Sachs take a detour into the behaviorists' lounge to see how we could create structures and incentives that would encourage irrational people to engage in the sort of rational collective and individual action he urges.

While Sachs conceives of problems and solutions on a global scale, he concludes by saying that there's plenty individuals can do. He provides a list of "eight actions that each of us can take to fulfill the hopes of a generation in building a world of peace and sustainable development." These include learning, traveling (which involves a lot of carbon emissions) and living in a sustainable manner. But it's hard to practice what you preach. Many of us still drive S.U.V.'s instead of compact cars because they're more comfortable. We buy hardcover copies of "Common Wealth" (which consumes paper and energy) rather than purchasing electronic versions because we simply prefer books. In an age when we don't need to have lots of children to work the fields, or to compensate for high infant mortality, Sachs argues that it's both economically rational — and crucial for a future of sustainable growth — for people to reproduce at a rate close to 2.1 children per family. In his acknowledgments, Sachs thanks his three children.

Daniel Gross writes the Money Culture column for Newsweek and the Moneybox column for Slate.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters, Haitians protesting last month against the rising cost of food.

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