Every ten years or so a book is published that provides fresh new thinking that challenges preconceptions about sustainable development, global poverty and, more lately climate change. Whilst such books in the past may have had some influence their approach is not sustained in the face of the need for the developed nations to make socially and politically unacceptable changes to their population’s lifestyles.
Common Wealth by Jeffrey Sachs may just be the book to break the mould in that it proposes solutions that address many of the developed nations’ fears whilst not expecting a huge increase in public expenditure. Indeed if Sachs is right much of the cost could soon come from a reallocation of resources enabled by the reduction in conflict and from development in the poorest parts of the world.
The first part of this book sets out the development and environmental challenges facing the world in the twenty-first century and how the problems have been addressed to date – both successes and failures. It details the six trends that Sachs believes will shape the century:
It considers the successes and failures of past policies before it moves on to considering each major challenge in turn in the subsequent sections.
The current period is described as the Anthropocene as it is shaped by human activity. This section explores global solutions to climate change, environmental threats and the need to meet the water needs of a growing population. Along with providing for direct human needs there is also a need to ensure biodiversity not only for quality of life but to protect the ecological health of the planet.
This is a fascinating exploration of the dynamics of population growth and the psychology of family size. It also explains how conflict arises when life expectancy is low causing an excess population of under-employed young men without the moderating influence of elders.
Sachs models an economy where taking the poorest billion out of poverty can be achieved at an affordable cost and with positive benefits for all, including donors. It can be achieved by modest inputs to meet the health objectives and provide the finance to allow improvements in agricultural, or industrial, output which creates spare income for further growth and investment in family and societal development. he argues that it would quickly become self funding as has happened in much of India or China for example.
In the first part of Common Wealth, Jeffrey Sachs seems to gloss over the political dimension to delivering his proposed strategy. In this last section he rectifies this but before they get this point he may have lost the more sceptical readers which would be a great shame. It is such cynical audiences that most need to be convinced that the approach can be made to work.
This is a detailed and closely reasoned piece of work that addresses the biggest challenges for the future and provides a manifesto for a viable solution. Unlike many previous models for sustainable development such as Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher (1973) Common Wealth does not require fundamental sacrifices to lifestyles in the developed world or aspirations in developing countries.
However Sachs provides the framework for new thinking that should lead to government policy that will provide the security and sustainability that the major nations’ desire. All politicians and business leaders should read it with an open mind and then act positively.
This is a timely book with a new president who promises change in the United States, disturbance in the financial markets and concerns about climate and world health. It is to be hoped that a new generation of politicians across the world will recognise that the old policies are not working and here is a new approach for which there is already evidence that it works. It just needs the will - it should be essential reading for delegates to the G20 Summit.
It is not just for governments to take action but Common Wealth suggests ways that the individual can make a difference whilst maintaining their existing lifecycle. For the many people who are challenging their approach to life as a result of turmoil in the finance markets and their own indebtedness this book could be a turning point.
Jeffrey Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute and a special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals. He is also Quetell Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is a broadcaster, best-selling author and adviser to many governments around the world.
Common Wealth(ISBN:978-0-141-02615-2) by Jeffrey Sachs is published by Penguin at £9.99.
First appeared on Suite101