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Common wealth

Jeffrey Sachs’ book, Common Wealth:  Economics for a Crowded Planet (New York: Penguin, 2008), lays out the case for strategies that might both temper the inequities of globalization and also generate more wealth for everyone.  The urgency of the argument relies on the fact that (a) more than a billion people on the planet live in abject poverty, (b) sustainable and environmentally sound approaches cannot be any more considered soft or squishy leftist solutions but rather, if ignored, will convert emerging inconveniences into ugly geopolitical crises (expanded disease vectors, water shortages, dirty air, no fossil fuels), and (c) the old dynamics of international rivalry, predicated on nations competing with each other for prized but scarce resources, must give way to strategies predicated more on cooperation than competition.

I confess that on first picking it up, I wondered whether Sachs had anything more to say than was said by circa-1970’s eco-crisis figures like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome types who resurrected neo-Malthusianism.  Although Sachs’ book is suffused with a rhetoric of optimism and updated by the discourses of globalization, one might say the argument is a familiar one nonetheless:  the world’s population is booming, closer contact brings both benefits and peril, the ascendency into middle class culture of two national populations (China, India) risk overwhelming systems of sustenance, there isn’t enough food or fuel to go around – all this sounds familiar.  The green technologies in which so much hope has been invested (solar power and all the rest) have shifted in the national consciousness, it seems, from reflecting a sort of vague crunchy utopianism to now sounding more hard headed and urgently pragmatic, but the basic contours feel the same.

A certain vaguely apocalyptic mindset is at work, reflective I imagine of a whole range of lurking dangers, such as economic unease and climate change and six years of the war, combined with a sense that the nation’s leadership is either too oblivious or gridlocked to do anything while the dangers grow.  One of the science channels I sometimes watch shows documentary after documentary tallying the dangers.  First we were asked to imagine a world without humans, which made for a tantalizing premise but was also unnerving since the production visuals implied that some alien spaceship had airlifted everyone to Venus.  Now it’s the world without oil, a program that enacts a spirit of accumulating anger and paranoia by returning us repeatedly to a nice working class couple victimized by the oil shortages – as the gas station lines get longer they start to snap at each other and some hooded thief siphons gas out of the truck and it gets worse from there.  Then, after that, a show describing a world without water, which may already be here – it turns out that in Spain they have to build water desalinization plants and pipelines that run down the middle of interstate highways to makes sure there’s enough drinking water.  And even if these scenarios fade from view it will be hard to forget Al Gore’s awful mantra:  soon there will be no more Snows of Kilimanjaro.

What makes Sachs’ argument more audacious is his sense of optimism that poverty can be remedied in ways that will not bankrupt the rich, and in so arguing he ends up directly confronting the often unspoken premise (based on the Biblical saying) that “the poor you will have with you always.”  Sachs claims that only modest investments in technological infrastructure are needed to cure poverty:  “For less than one percent of annual income of the high-income countries – the U.S., Europe, Japan, and a few others – we could end poverty once and for all.”

This point, which is also reflected in Al Gore’s optimism about green technology, is increasingly echoed by business school curricula teaching sustainable business practices.  Stanford, which was recently ranked Number One by a 2007 Aspen Institute report (“Beyond Grey Pinstripes”) for its programs in environmental responsibility, is only one of many now teaching these topics (e.g., the Harvard Business School case studies include a Nestle-based one on sustainable agriculture).  At the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco the whole curriculum is sustainability based.

The argument is increasingly made by Sachs and others that corporations who fail to consider the effects of their operations on the environment are not just damaging the planet but also shortchanging their own bottom lines.  Whether the combination of ecological unease and educational optimism can move the issue forward in a fundamental way remains, of course, to be seen.  But the combination of stressing the low cost of investments needed to protect the environment and eradicate poverty and the high profits to be made for those who get there first can’t hurt.

SOURCES:  Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (New York: Penguin, 2008); Martha Brant and Miyoko Ohtake, “A Growth Industry: Business Schools are Teaching Entrepreneurs How to Get Rich Helping to Save the Environment,” Newsweek, 14 April 2008, p. 64; Kirk Shinkle, “Where Markets Don’t Work:  Economist Says Beating Global Poverty Would be a Bargain,” US News & World Report, 21 April 2008, p. 78.


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