Book review of Jeffrey Sachs, 2008. “Common Wealth. Economics for a crowded planet” Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, 386 p.

This timely book draws together a truly global analysis that is commensurate with the author's role as special adviser to successive Secretary Generals of the United Nations and Director of the Millennium Project that . Jeffrey D. Sachs gauges what can and should be done to implement the existing political commitments, most notably the Millennium Development Goals.

In his typical clear language he walks us through a synthesis of how human appropriation and use of natural resources to carve out better living conditions and survival has transformed the planet over the last 10,000 years. The numbers are stark: It is the very success of our species and our demographic development that is now on the verge of pushing us over the cliff. The growth of human populations from one billion in 1830 to 6.6 billion today enabled by unprecedented expansion of industrial development and technology is now exercising unsustainable pressures on even the remotest corners of the planet. It is not only the present numbers but the dynamic of continued growth particularly in the more disadvantaged societies least prepared to cope that poses threats to humanity as a whole.

We critically affect water resources both in quantity and quality through over-abstraction and pollution. Several of the major rivers do not even reach the sea for much of the year thus creating negative repercussions on coastal zones, while overpumping of aquifers for often inefficient agriculture irrigation not only exhausts freshwater supplies in arid and semi-arid regions, but can also salinate soils and thus reduce their productivity. We have to face reduced space for food production of a still growing human population as agricultural land is lost to urbanisation and roads, to erosion from poor land use practices and little additional arable land can be brought into production through further expansion. Rampant overfishing fuelled by subsidies has reduced marine resources and their ecosystem to a mere shadow of what they were only 100 years ago. We threaten the survival of tens of thousands other species needed for functioning ecosystems by encroaching on their habitats, eradicating megafauna and affecting living conditions of countless other species. Our deforestation, burning of fossil fuels and other unsustainable practices are throwing the very balance of global climate off course. We have already increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million (ppm) in the preindustrial era to 380 ppm today and starting to see increased frequencies of extreme events as a result of mean temperature increases. The prevailing view of scientists and European policy makers is that an increase of 2oC above pre-industrial levels will pose unmanageable threats on many fronts and that CO2 concentrations must therefore be stabilised at 560 ppm or preferably below. Needless to say that current trajectories almost surely make us overshoot that target.

The diagnosis challenges our inclination to extrapolate linearly from past experience and address problems on a sectoral basis. It shows that this sort of reasoning steeped in our biology and social institutions is a poor guide for the future. This is where the economic, social and environmental sustainability argumention of the book appeals to readers to develop a new perception of the where even the rich countries' interests lie and what the implications are for action. Targeting mostly a readership in the USA and other industrialised countries, Sachs marshals his arguments around the central logic of an interdependent world and underpins them with a quantitative summary pulled together out of vast datasets. He shows that it is not only necessary and desirable – even from a perspective of enlightened self-interest of the economically rich countries – but also possible to meet the Millennium promises and enable prosperity for all citizens on the planet without further degrading natural resources and their ecosystems on which our very survival hinges.

The key message to people in decision-making positions is that the tremendous wealth of the global economy can and must be harnessed to address inacceptable life-threatening inequities in the distribution of wealth and the degradation of our natural environment. We have a limited window of time to accomplish that, but it can still be done.

A special effort has gone into clear language and structuring the text so that the book's five parts and 14 chapters are very readable, help to demystify complex concepts and can serve as a reference and guide for understanding and action. The emphasis on action is particularly commendable as many calls for more studies merely seem to prevent taking action on what is already known.

Having said this, the book is an invitation to invest much more resources and attention into spreading education, learning, science and technology to all corners of the globe, particularly Sub-Sahran Africa and other regions, which are inacceptably lagging behind and paying with very low life expectancy of an average of only 47 years and overall Human Development Indicators. While placing the overriding emphasis on the economics as a major driver in decision-making in private companies and governments, the story line pays some attention to social forces in the form of civil society organisations, who have forced environmental themes since the 1970s onto the mainstream agenda. The final chapter aptly addresses individual citizens and concludes with eight actions everyone can take to build a world of peace and sustainable development.

To do this much more effectively, we'll need also to overcome deep-seated mechanisms of our biology which make us help our kin more readily than others, despite wide-spread altruism (Fehr and Fischbacher, 2003). The punishment of free riders in particular is an essential mechanism to sustain cooperation for the wider good (Bowles and Gintis, 2002). That socially undesirable action can be suppressed by enforcing social norms, including through avoidance mechanisms, is shown for other biologically based human behaviour (Thornhill and Palmer, 2000).

The book is very well-researched. It provides an excellent balance between quantitative summary data and an immensely readable narrative without unnecessary jargon. One of the best aspect of the book is that it resists the temptation to delve too much into sectoral specialisations. This is how we tend to approach most challenges and often unwittingly create new problems elsewhere by addressing the originally identified one. The message is that piecemeal responses need to be replaced by a global perspective, not only individual pieces of the picture. We will have to take action for global solutions. Some can lie in the testing and roll out of new technologies as illustrated by examples such as carbon capture and storage. But we still have to contextualise many of the solutions at regional and local levels so as to enable and accelerate uptake and develop a sustainable balance between competing aspects of the overall challenge. An integrated perspective also implies that technological sophistication is not an end in itself, but that sustainable development can take many site-specific routes and that it might often be the 'second-best' technological answer that strikes the best balance between social, environmental and economic concerns. The starkest message is that those solutions require global cooperation and significant, but realistic transfers and adaptation of knowledge and resources as well as build up of operational capacities in those countries and regions left behind so far. A must-read for all those concerned about the world we have borrowed from our children and grand children.

Bowles, S. and H. Gintis, 2002. Behavioural science: Homo reciprocans. Nature, 415:125-128.

Fehr, E. and U. Fischbacher, 2003. The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425:785-791.

Thornhill, R. and C.T. Palmer, 2000. A natural history of rape. Biological bases for sexual coercion. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 251 p. (second edition)

by Cornelia E Nauen, May 2008