A global shortage of solutions

John Whitelegg on a review of current economic challenges that overpromises and underdelivers

五月 1, 2008

The dust jacket proclaims that this book is about "how we should address the great and the interconnected global challenges of the 21st century". The high-level language and rhetoric continues with "how do we move forward together" and "how do we steer global politics". These are noble questions and more than whet the appetite but they are not answered. The book contains a mass of information on the nature of ecological crises, climate change, poverty, demography and international efforts to deal with these very large and very important questions. The material is not new and adds very little by way of extra value to the large number of assessments and publications that deal with the same subject matter. More worryingly, there are no answers to the "how" questions.

The complexity of these large-scale global issues and their ramifications through every geographical scale and every layer of personal, governmental and institutional culpability present us all with severe challenges of the variety "what exactly should we do next Monday morning to put it right". The problem with this book is that it is tall on promises and short on delivery. Rudi Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, once said "always underpromise and overdeliver", and here we have a text that adopts the reverse philosophy.

Climate change is a recurrent theme in this book but very little progress is made in explaining why we do badly and how we could do better. Jeffrey Sachs seems unaware of the divergence between problem recognition and willingness to do anything about it.

In the UK we have some of the "best" climate change policy, including a world-leading Act of Parliament. We have huge amounts of impressive rhetoric from prime ministers, chief scientific advisers and many more about what a huge threat climate change poses, how seriously we are taking it and how we are leading the world. The problem with all this, ignored by Sachs, is that all this can happen on a Monday but on Tuesday our political leaders agree to triple the size of aviation, add thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases through useless road-building projects and ignore the proven benefits of micro-generation of electricity based on renewables. More worryingly, Sachs encourages us to travel more when policymakers everywhere are struggling with the rise in demand for transport and its links with damaging consequences for climate change.

Sachs asserts that the income gap between rich and poor globally is "narrowing fast". This will come as a surprise to many and is flatly contradicted by research in this field by J. Martens (A Compendium of Inequality: The Human Development Report 2005, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Berlin). The phrase "deep inequalities are widening" in Martens is hardly compatible with the assessment in this book.

There are many topics in this volume where the logic and analysis are weak. The attempt to bring geography to bear on these matters is weak in the extreme and geographers long ago gave up the strange notion advanced by Sachs that a country that is landlocked, mountainous and far from seaports is in trouble. A trip to Switzerland might help to get this point cleared up. In a similar vein, investment in roads frequently crops up but with no recognition of the extensive research on road investment, poverty eradication and rural development in the South.

This is a disappointing book and the disappointment rises to a crescendo when Sachs turns to his eight actions "that each of us can take to fulfil the hopes of a generation in building a world of peace and sustainable development". The eight actions neatly sidestep the role of government in helping us achieve great things. We can all recycle if government introduces efficient recycling systems and not otherwise. We can use cars less if government switches billions of dollars from roads into attractive walking, cycling and public transport and not otherwise. We can generate our own electricity in our own homes if government helps and not otherwise. It is way off the mark to place the burden on "each of us" and let government off the hook.

After more than 300 pages, Sachs still leaves us very much in the dark about how we recast our economic and social systems to deal with hyperconsumption, unfair trade rules, growing inequalities, massive public subsidy of damaging activities, corporate greed, the billions of dollars spent on war and killing people, adulation of mobility and a complete lack of correspondence between what politicians say and what they do. Some of this would have been very helpful.

Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

By Jeffrey Sachs

Allen Lane, 400pp, £22.00

ISBN 9780713999198

Published March 2008



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