Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Economics for a Crowded Planet

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. Penguin Press, 2008.

Jeffrey Sachs' 2005 book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time, was a bold attempt to convince the world that the Millennium Development Goals could be achieved in our lifetimes. Very ambitious, I wrote in my review. Well this book takes ambition to the next level.

The goals of this new initiative are worthy of an author with the title Director of the Earth Institute (at Columbia University). Sachs challenges us collectively to embrace the goals of economic development (and poverty elimination), environmental sustainability (with adequate water provision for all) and population control. The idea is that these three sets of goals are interrelated and that you cannot really achieve any one of them unless you address all three.

The book is very interesting but I admit that I like the last chapter ("The Power of One") best because it is, well, inspiring. Sachs concludes the book by making the case for taking up the challenge of development, environment and population even though the problems seem impossibly large. He quotes one of my favorite scholars, Albert O. Hirschman to the effect that all new ideas, good and bad, are generally met with three criticisms: futility, perversity and jeopardy. The problem can't be solved (futility), if you try you might make it worse (perversity) and wasting your effort here diverts attention from other areas where progress might be made (jeopardy).

Sachs cites a number of examples of problems where substantial progress has in fact been made despite the inevitable reaction that Hirschman cited. For better or worse this last chapter really does give you a feeling that something can be done, even if we might disagree about what that something is. Probably should be required reading for Peace Corps Volunteers.

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