How to save the world

Jeffrey Sachs has been called “probably the most important economist in the world”. Now he’s tackling extreme poverty, overpopulation and climate change. Ed Pilkington reports.

When Jeffrey Sachs gave the first of his Reith Lectures at the Royal Society in London a year ago, he was confident that there, in the bosom of the Enlightenment, with Isaac Newton’s portrait staring down at him, his message about our ability to overcome the world’s problems would go down well. But when he finished he was astonished to be assailed by cries of “No we can’t!” No, the world will never cooperate! No, humankind will never be reasonable! No, we can’t bridge the divides!

“I was taken aback,” says Sachs. “I thought that in this place at least there would be a unanimous approval. This was the elite of UK society. But there was a measure of pessimism that I found frankly amazing.”

The story is a sharp illustration of Sachs’s peculiar role in life. He has become a sort of pantomime dame – a character in a traditional British comic production for children—of global politics. As the chorus rises around the world of “Oh no we can’t!”, his riposte grows louder too: “Oh yes we can!” Yes we can lift Africa out of the poverty trap and stabilise population at sustainable levels. Yes we can continue to enjoy rising living standards and longevity. Yes we can avert catastrophe by finding new technologies to combat climate change.

Were these protestations coming from anyone else, they might be dismissed as the ravings of Widow Twankey, a pantomime character who is a source of jokes. But Sachs has the intellectual muscle to be taken seriously. He has been termed “probably the most important economist in the world”. He has worked in more than 100 countries and advised governments across Latin America and the old Soviet Union. More recently, he has turned his attention to the major crises engulfing the planet, from Aids in Africa to water wars. He directed the United Nations Millennium Project under then-secretary general Kofi Annan. Bono, the Irish rock musician and activist, calls Sachs “my professor”, observing that “when this man gets going, he’s more like a Harlem preacher than a Boston bookworm.”

In the flesh, though, Sachs resembles neither of those archetypes. Rather, he comes across as a bushy-tailed graduate who, despite his 53 years, is as eager to launch himself at a problem as a twentysomething straight out of university. We are sitting in his elegant but sparsely furnished townhouse on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan, where he lives with his paediatrician wife and their three children, and as we talk he radiates an infectious enthusiasm. His book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, has the same quality. It bursts with ideas and is suffused with what can only be described as irrepressible optimism.

So where does this optimism come from? “From observation and experience,” Sachs replies in true Enlightenment style. “Maybe by temperament, also. I see the possibility of success. But I am clear. This is about choice. It’s not about the blind working of the market or the miracles of science. It’s about a decision.”

Sachs is a great believer in breaking things down, to reducing a daunting problem down to its smaller and more manageable parts. He applies the same logic to himself, saying his optimism has two components: a belief in the “ability of science to allow people to live prosperously and sustainably on the planet, and an optimism about the ability of people to cooperate across cultures, religions, language”. He pauses, then adds: “Both of these ideas are under attack.”

Sachs can point to practical examples of what he means. His favourite is the prescription of anti-retroviral medicines in Africa. “I remember a decade ago finding out that it was technically possible to treat very poor people with Aids using anti-retrovirals. I asked my colleagues could this be done, and the answer was ‘Yes, why not? Come, and I’ll show you.’ So I took that knowledge and put it to use.”

Problem. Scientific hypothesis. Practical solution. Then, working with the UN and various agencies, implementation. “As late as 2001 there wasn’t one African—not one human being—on a donor-supported programme to receive anti-retrovirals. Looking back, it was shocking the things that were said. The head of the USAid agency [at the time] said it wouldn’t work as Africans couldn’t tell the time. But now there are close to two million Africans on anti-retrovirals.”

Sachs’s life has followed an extraordinary trajectory. Brought up in the state of Michigan, he took Harvard University by storm, joining its economics faculty while still an undergraduate and being made a full professor by age 29. He spent more than 20 years there before moving to Columbia University in New York, where he is director of the Earth Institute.

There, he has taken on a mission that makes tackling Aids in Africa look timid. His book is a call to action on the three great challenges facing the world: overpopulation, extreme poverty and global warming. The most alarming projections suggest today’s 6.6 billion population could rise to 11.7 billion by 2050; poverty means African life expectancy is 33 years shorter than in high-income countries; and at current rates of economic growth in China and India, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere could double by 2050, leading to catastrophic climate change.

Confronted by that vision of apocalypse, you feel an affinity with the Royal Society audience. “Oh no we can’t!” Sachs’s response is, well, Sachsian. He breaks each problem down, analyses it and sets out practical solutions which he says are achievable and would cost the world remarkably little—a mere 2% to 3% of total income. “We are liable to be overwhelmed by the immensity of what is going on, even paralysed,” he says. “It’s a paradox. We could do enormous damage to ourselves—and are on a path to do that—and yet the cost of finding an alternative direction is extraordinarily modest.”

Environmentalists protest that Sachs wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants economic growth to continue, but he also wants to avert disastrous climate change born of economic activity.

To which he replies, quite unashamedly, that he believes in the power of technology and human ingenuity. Take climate change. He sees great hope in carbon sequestration as a possible way of reducing CO2 levels, and if that fails solar energy may step into the breach. In any case, he doesn’t want to set the clock back: “Is it wrong that fossil fuels had this massive climate effect and therefore we never should have used coal to fire a steam engine two centuries ago? I don’t think so. Do technologies have unexpected consequences and side-effects? Of course. But then you need to readjust.”

But the sharpest assault has come from Naomi Klein, who in her book The Shock Doctrine lays into Sachs with gusto. She claims the taming of Bolivian hyperinflation in the 1970s, an act of economic wizardry that helped make Sachs’s name, was only achieved through government repression that she calls “a kind of junta lite”. Later in Poland the free-market shock therapy he encouraged caused a full-blown depression, she contends.

“Well, come on, let’s have some sense of proportion,” is Sachs’s slightly peeved reply when I put Klein’s case to him. “Poland ended up the most successful recovery, with robust democratic institutions, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Oppression in Bolivia? That’s just factually wrong. There was no loss of life. When she called it Pinochet lite—I mean, Pinochet killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands. Bolivia was a 30-day emergency rule under the constitution at a time of 50,000% inflation.”

But Sachs agrees with Klein that the United States abdicated responsibility after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He says it felt as though he were shouting in the middle of a hurricane as his recommendations for debt cancellation and emergency loans for Russia were not listened to by the defence secretary in George Bush senior’s administration—one Dick Cheney.

Which brings us to Sachs’s greatest complaint. His book argues that the administration of George W Bush has stood in the way of progress on all the most critical fronts: from family planning, to aid in Africa and action against climate change. Instead, it has pursued a relentlessly militaristic path in which the United States now spends almost as much money on warfare as the rest of the world combined.

Reading Common Wealth, in which Sachs piles case upon case in which Bush has said no to global action, it dawns that the American president’s most damaging legacy will not be the Iraq war, or Kyoto, or any other single decision, but more generally his pervasive sponsorship of what Sachs calls “negativism as a state of mind”. Bush has encouraged the chorus of “No we can’t!” It may distress many of them to hear this, but the audience at the Royal Society are in this regard Bush’s disciples.

Sachs admits we are headed towards a cliff but, unsurprisingly, remains relentlessly upbeat. Hailing “the wonder of the American constitution, he says: “We will have a new president on January 20, 2009, around noon, and this will give us the chance for a fresh start.”

And then he offers a quotation from the American poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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