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Common Wealth

Sachs shows that sustainable development is achievable

By Mike Milne

Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Penguin Paperbacks ($18.50)

In a world of big problems such as ballooning human populations, growing poverty, climate change and pandemics, where do you turn for solutions? Jeffrey Sachs’s latest book, Common Wealth, is full of answers. Sachs is an American economist backed by a world-class interdisciplinary team of academics at the Earth Institute of New York’s Columbia University.

You may be wondering how a book by an economist can be anything but a cure for insomnia. But with our very survival on this planet hanging in the balance, you will stay alert. Also, Sachs writes engagingly with an easy narrative style. Chapters and titled sections are easily digested as Sachs makes sense of the broad swath of human history. Facts, graphs, charts and maps bolster his analysis of the world’s present mess.

This book is scary — partly because its themes are so well documented, and partly because Sachs’s style lacks hysteria or an argumentative tone. The book is ultimately hopeful because Sachs, a United Nations adviser on Millennium Development Goals, shows that solutions are feasible and possible.

Don’t expect to agree with all of the author’s theories. For example, he puts way too much stock in agricultural solutions that rely on petroleum-based fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Such solutions falter badly when fertilizer prices skyrocket or seed patent-holders decide they need to widen profit margins.

For the most part, Sachs shows that sustainable development is achievable. Population growth can be brought under control, poverty eliminated, climate change reversed. All that is required is about three percent of world income and a common will “to reinvent global co-operation,” as Sachs puts it. Religion is not part of his scheme, but non-governmental organizations are “crucial” in the process of saving the world. Justice-oriented churches may want to pay attention.

Common Wealth may not be light bedside reading, but if the fate of God’s creation is already keeping you awake at night, it’s a book worth looking into.

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