Future solutions in credible predictions
MY heart sank when I looked at the acknowledgments in Jeffrey Sachs’s new book. He was honoured to advise the UN secretary- general and other UN leaders who had ‘‘ profound talents’’. It had been his ‘‘ profound privilege’’ to collaborate with various world leaders, to whom he expressed his admiration and ‘‘ deepest appreciation’’.
He was thrilled to head an international commission under the ‘‘ brilliant leadership’’ of its chairman. He was grateful to Bono and Angelina Jolie for their ‘‘ unstinting commitment, generosity, leadership and outreach’’. And so on for five pages.
As it happens, the book is a lot better than the acknowledgments. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and author of a previous bestseller, The End of Poverty . This new book is designed to identify the key economic and environmental problems the world will face during the next half century and to propose solutions to them: a formidable task, but Sachs has no doubt that he is up to it.
We should note, as Sachs does, that there have been significant improvements in many developing countries during the past 50 years, particularly in the areas of agriculture and disease control.
This has been achieved largely by foreign aid, which has mostly meant US funds, although often managed by international agencies.
But Sachs is especially concerned with regions that have lagged well behind these successes, chiefly much of Africa and central Asia. One obvious factor in these countries is the rapid rate of population growth, which is a cause as well as a product of poverty. Sachs has a detailed program to address this problem. Like most of his solutions, it is based on international agreements and implementation by UN agencies.
Often this approach seems to underestimate the difficulties thrown up by national regimes and cultural climates.
One key element of the population strategy, for example, is the education and emancipation of women: hardly a promising start in Islamic countries. Similarly, Sachs has a wide- ranging program for the utterly depressed and oppressed region of Darfur. But he does not really acknowledge that it is under the control of the Sudanese Government and that his proposals would require its unlikely co- operation.
Sachs recognises that water — or lack of it — is one of the biggest factors holding back development in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. This has produced some of the most desperate conditions on the globe. He is optimistic, however, that even these areas can be assisted, arguing that geography shapes but does not settle the fate of a region.
This may be too optimistic, however. Austra- lia’s development has obviously been determined largely by the fact that most of the continent is a desert. In this context Sachs notes the emerging consequences of the overuse of the Murray- Darling water system.
One problem that is not, of course, confined to developing countries is climate change. There is do doubt global warming is occurring, but its causes are not so easily identified. Assuming that carbon emissions are a significant factor, their reduction in Australia poses particular difficulties, given the reliance of the country’s urban clusters on automobiles for transport and coal for electric power. Sachs has a range of proposals for reducing carbon emissions but seems coy about the most obvious method, nuclear power. He does not mention, for example, that almost all electricity in France, and much of it in other European Union countries, and Japan, comes from this source.
The book has some advice for Western countries as well as the developing world. Sachs very much favours the social welfare model of the Scandinavian group, with its high levels of expenditure on services as a share of gross national product. It needs to be remembered, however, that these nations are small, longestablished and essentially homogenous. Even if this model is considered an ideal — about which there may be some debate — it seems doubtful that it could be applied to larger and more multicultural societies such as the US, Australia and Canada.
Sachs is highly critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policies. This is not hard to understand, but arguably he overemphasises polls indicating negative views of the US in various countries, including members of the EU. The inhabitants of these countries try desperately to imitate many aspects of American life and their heroes are Hollywood stars. This may not be a rational position but it does suggest a degree of ambivalence about the global role of the US.
All predictions about the future are bound to be at least partially wrong but this book is a good attempt to identify some of the biggest problems the world will face during the next half century. It is obviously possible to argue with some of the solutions that it proposes, but the author, as a professional economist, would hardly be dismayed by that. It deserves to be read widely.
Michael Sexton is the NSW Solicitor- General.