Review: Common Wealth–Economics for a Crowded Planet

4 Star, Economics, Environment (Solutions)

CommonwealthDisappointing, March 24, 2008

Jeffrey D. Sachs

I wrote a rave review on the author’s earlier book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time and eagerly anticipated this book. It has been a real disappointment. Only the foreword by E.O. Wilson kept me from setting it aside entirely.

As someone who reads broadly and sees with increasing dismay the insularity of citation cabals, somewhat arthritic communities of practice, and a tendency to ignore diverse perspectives, I was immediately annoyed by this book’s failure to respect Lester Brown, Herman Daly, Paul Hawkin, C. K. Prahalad, and J. F. Rischard, to name but a few. The author does not appear to have read the High Level Threat Panel Report of the United Nations, and his over-all presentation, while accurate and erudite, is also dense, narrow, and of dubious implementability.

This is a book of, by, and for economic geeks. It is not a book for normal people. Below, in descending order of priority, are better books for the general reader, which is to say, equal or better coverage, easier to understand, with better over-all structure. Medard Gabel’s book “Seven Billion Billionaires” is not out yet, so I point to his lead article and post his brilliant cost image above.
Where to find 4 billion new customers: expanding the world’s marketplace; Smart companies looking for new growth opportunities should consider broadening … consultant.: An article from: The Futurist
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them
The Future of Life
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change
2007 State of the Future
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition

If you are steeped in the literature and care deeply about the details, then this book is an absolutely essential reference, and for that reason receives four stars.

The author opens with “Humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet.” Early on he says that sustainable energy could be achieved for 1% of world income. He believes Asia will be the economic center of gravity in the future (assuming this includes India, I agree).

He identifies six key factors for the near future:
1. Convergence
2. More people, higher incomes
3. Asian Century
4. Urban Century
5. Environmental Challenges
6. Poorest Billion

He loses one star, apart from failing to honor the real pioneers including Herman Daly, father of Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications, for overly general platitudes about global collaboration, technology, saving Darfur as if anything he lists was possible, and generally neglecting so many factors and metrics as to leave me wondering where the book was going.

He does well in itemizing the importance of the anthropocene, which tends to be neglected by many, listing impacts on land, water, carbon, nitrogen, plants, birds, and fisheries. The loss of amphibians and pollinators (e.g. bees) is noted.

He lists seven climate change impacts:
1. Rising ocean levels
2. Habitat destruction
3. Increased disease transmission
4. Changes in agricultural productivity
5. Changes in water availability
6. Increased natural hazards
7. Changes in ocean chemistry

These are all important, but I am distressed to see no reference to Blue Frontier, Blue Death, or Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. This confirms my unease–this is a brilliant man with a great deal of influence who is out of touch with a number of very significant observers whose intellectual contributions cannot be ignored in a work such as this.

Coming back to Darfur, one recommendation he makes with which I totally agree, is the value of introducing cell phones and cell towers to the high-risk areas. I wrote to the CEOs of both Nokia and Motorola about such an initiative a year ago, and never received a response. They do not seem to appreciate the reality that cell phones, like razors, should be given away, and the transactions monetized instead (“sell the shave, not the razor”).

He makes five points about the US that are certainly serious, but as one who has read Joe Nye, Jonathan Schell, Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Peters, and so many others, I see the following five points as the equivalent of a teen-age driver lecturing on highway safety:
1. Limits of military power (see Nye’s Paradox of American Power)
2. Wars of identity (see Peter’s Wars of Blood and Faith)
3. Drivers of violence (see UN High Level Threat Panel above)
4. Foreign Assistance (see O’Hanlon, Half Penny on the Dollar)
5. Real Security (proliferation, environment, failed states–ho hum)

The chapter on global problem solving was entirely reasonable, and I worry that I am communicating too harsh a sense of the book. If you are a geek and have time on your hands, by all means buy this book. Otherwise, read my reviews of all the others, and then buy Rischard’s book and spend time at the Earth Intelligence Network (all free).

He says the public sector should
1. Fund basic science (never mind the Republican war on science)
2. Promote early stage technologies (never mind Monsanto’s seeds of death or the Transylvanian Dracula patent system designed to retard human progress by locking up new stuff so the legacy stuff can continue to sell)
3. Create a global policy framework for solutions (see Earth Intelligence Network and the ten threats, twelve policies, and eight challengers, see especially the EarthGame(TM) as devised by Medard Gabel who helped Buckminster Fuller create the original analog World Game)
4. Finance the scale-up of successful innovations and technologies (huh?)

No mention of the public sector’s most important role in creating a social environment that is stable, orderly, and healthy, so that citizens can be educated and gainfully employed while exporting goodness.

He suggests the private sector has two core responsibilities besides making a profit (at our expense, see comment below on true costs):
1. Investing in R&D, often with public funding
2. Implementing large-scale technological solutions in partnership with the public sector

Hmmm. No mention of Green to Gold, Sustainable Design, Services Science, identification of “true cost” for all products and services, etc. There is an entire planet of literature relevant to this books purpose that does not appear here. I respect the author and his accomplishments, but at this point in the book I am exasperated.

The not-for-profit sector has five key roles, per the author:
1. Public advocacy (perhaps public education would be a better term)
2. Social entrepreneurship and problem solving (good)
3. Seed funding of solutions (but not willy nilly–has anyone heard of the concept of a creating a Global Range of Gifts Table for each of the ten threats across each of the twelve policies, with amounts from $10 to $100 million, such that individuals–80% of the giving–can select items directly, and Civil Affairs and NGO individuals all over the world can “call in” peace targets to the Table?)
4. Accountability of government and the private sector (see the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and what David Walker will be doing there–that is a first-class endeavor)
5. Scientific research, notably in academic institutions (where we should be emphasizing very low cost licensing to the governments of India, South Africa and others, and burying the profiteering pharmaceuticals and the predatory seed companies).

The author follows the above with a global funding architecture that is not persuasive and that would not satisfy my colleagues from the Office of Management and Budget.

The book ends with a limp, suggesting eight steps individuals can take:
1. Learn
2. Travel
3. Join
4. Community (face to face)
5. Social Networks (online)
6. Workplace
7. Live personally (Gandhi: be the change you want to see in the world.)

My bottom line: this book is not ready for prime time. It is dense, disappointing, and it will never be read nor understood by the kinds of people–less E.O. Wilson and George Soros–that have real power over the $1 trillion in charitable giving, the $1 trillion in spending on war instead of peace, or the $1 trillion in corporate and government and other foreign assistance.

I challenge the author to post a one page summary suitable for a President, and a one-page spending plan that addresses the ten threats and twelve policies that I list below for the convenience of the Amazon shopper:

TEN THREATS (LtGen Dr. Brent Scowcroft and others on High Level Threat Panel of the United Nations–in order of priority)
01 Poverty
02 Infectious Disease
03 Environmental Degradation (includes climate change and warming)
04 Inter-State Conflict (we spend $1.3 trillion on waging war)
05 Civil War (often occasioned by corruption and our support for 42 of the 44 dictators on the planet–see Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025
06 Genocide
07 Other Atrocities (kidnapping for body parts; kidnapping dumb cute girls from Connecticut that go to “movie auditions” alone)
08 Proliferation (no mention of small arms, the real weapon of mass destruction: the USA sells five times more weapons to the rest of the world than the UK, three times more than Russia–and the worst proliferators of nuclear, biological and chemical are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Reality check, anyone?)
09 Terrorism (a law enforcement problem, not even close to the casualties from automobile accidents in the US alone)
10 Transnational crime ($2 trillion against the US $7 trillion, and getting worse–they have better intelligence, encryption, computers, and wages than any government force)

The twelve policies, based on an EIN study of the last 5 presidential election “mandate for change books”:
01 Agriculture
02 Diplomacy
03 Economy
04 Education
05 Energy
06 Family
07 Health
08 Immigration
09 Justice
10 Security
11 Society
12 Water

Last but not least, the author, who is without question one of the very highest experts in his narrow chosen domain, appears out of touch with the literatures on collective intelligence and on the wealth of networks. I will mention only one book (there are others, including one now free at EIN on COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace). See my favorite, Yochai Benckler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

I am going to end with a harsh thought: As much as I admire Columbia University, as much as I see the possibilities for the United Nations, what I sense in this book is that the author is deeply entrenched in a pyramidal systems of systems, and is still in the “command and control” top-down elites rule mode. Common Wealth is not going to be orchestrated by the New York mandarins–it is going to be created by We the People, using Open Money, boycotting all products and services whose true costs are externalized (e.g. Exxon did not make $40 billion in profit–they externalized $12 in costs to the earth for EACH gallon of gas they sold–one will not find that fact in this author’s book–he might not be invited back to the high table).

See for instance (Amazon limits me to ten links, sorry):
Infinite Wealth by Barry Carter (the first real visionary)
Wealth of Networks by Tom Stewart
Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler
Group Genius by Keith Sawyer
Wikinomics by Don Tapscott

Then there is the sustainability and ecological economics literature:
Seven Tomorrows by Paul Hawkins
Green to Gold by by Daniel Esty and Andrew Williams
Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins
Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawkins
Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes
The Philosophy of Sustainable Design by Jason McClellan
and so on….

Argh. Annoying. I expected so MUCH more. I expect some negative votes. There are those that simply cannot stand to be told they have missed a big part of the diversity answer. As we used to say in Viet-Nam, “Sorry ’bout that.” It takes ALL of us, SHARING and creating COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE from the BOTTOM UP, to create Common Wealth. This book is certainly accurate as far as it goes, well-intentioned, but looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

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