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Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffery Sachs

An argument for preemptive sustainable development rather than post-hoc military interventions.

An open book.
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Jeffery Sachs is an awesome guy; he’s the director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. I first came upon his writings when I was doing Model UN in high school, and I found that Sachs could easily link clear explanations of global issues with actionable policy recommendations. Common Wealth certainly fits this description as well.

Common Wealth examines three pressing global concerns: environmental degradation, rapid population growth, and extreme poverty. At first, Common Wealth reads like a white paper on these issues; if you don’t know much about these issues, this book is a great place to start. Once Sachs explains each of these issues, he looks at what we can do about them. Helpfully, he distinguishes the roles governments, non-profits, businesses, and citizens can each play.

If we take quick action as a unified global society, these daunting challenges can be overcome within fifty years, Sachs argues. He illustrates a path by which to eliminate extreme poverty, stabilize the global population, and embrace sustainable development. This may seem overly optimistic as I describe it here, but Sachs’ argument is clear and well-argued.

Sachs may be optimistic about the possibility to peacefully resolve these issues during this century, but he does recognize that such accomplishments are far from inevitable. The last section of the book examines how foreign policy needs to be reworked in order to eliminate extreme poverty, stabilize the global population, and avoid environmental catastrophe. The first half of the book reads like a white paper; in the second half, Sachs makes his best and most original arguments. He argues that we have consistently over-invested in the military and neglected the power of foreign aid as a tool of stability. In a world in which foreign policy challenges are primarily political, economic, and environmental, he argues we must invest in international sustainable development to defuse unstable regions before they erupt into violent conflict. If for whatever awful reason I become president one day, I want Sachs in my cabinet.

Common Wealth is clearly written, grounded in science and policy, and especially friendly to people new to these issues. I recommend this book if extreme poverty, rapid population growth, and environmental degradation are new topics to you, or if you want to better understand the fundamental challenges (and policy choices) facing us this century as a planet. If you already have a good grasp on these issues, I still recommend you read the last few chapters of Common Wealth, in which Sachs persuasively argues that our foreign policy must focus on pre-emptive sustainable development rather than post-hoc military interventions.