Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Common Wealth for a Crowded Planet - A book review

Let me admit up front, I really struggled with this book. Full of economic theory and a steady stream of statistics, it's certainly not a quick read. Regardless, I stuck with it (although I admit to skimming pages at times), and it definitely got easier to read in the last 100 pages (so if you're currently reading, stick with it or skim ahead to Part V).

The overall premise of the book was that the nations of the world, rich and poor, need to work together if we are to achieve peace, happiness, and an end to poverty and disease. But in this modern era, the bottom line is we're just not cooperating with each other - financial aid is being withdrawn from those who need it most, policies are being written that put unrealistic constraints on organizations who are trying to provide aid (US funding only the family planning programs that push abstinence-only), and we have lost the foresight to see that the results only increase the likelihood of  war, unrest, and increased terrorism. 

While there are quite a few topics on which I wholeheartedly agree with Sachs (voluntary population control; an increase in foreign financial aid for, and increased access to education and health care for highly impoverished areas; adoption of a social welfare model; dangerously misguided US foreign policy), I kept tripping over a couple of ideas.

Sachs talks about narrowing the gap between the developed (or rich) nations of the world and the impoverished ones (ok, I'm still with him there), but that the solution is simply in ensuring that the poor nations grow more quickly than the rich nations, thus closing the gap. That definitely helps narrow that gap (again, which I'm all for), but I don't agree that this perpetual growth is good. He doesn't even suggest that the rich nations evaluate consumptive behaviors or become more mindful of the way we interact with the Earth. From what I understand, he believes we should continue our growth as is, with the only change being, as I said, to aid poorer countries in catching up. However, I see a very direct link between our consumption and the exacerbation of poverty in  poor nations. I don't think you can ignore that.

So what about the abuse and neglect with which we heap upon the environment? In a number of places, Sachs insists that technology will step up to the plate and save us from ourselves. I absolutely do not agree. Technology will certainly have a role, but as we have seen with the shift to ethanol, not all technology works out quite the way we hoped, and some technolgoy (pesticide use, toxins in plastics) can cause serious, unforeseen damage. At least to me, he seems to be putting all our proverbial eggs in one basket. 

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get past these points. I sincerely believe that a considerable shift in lifestyle is essential among the developed nations in addition to, as he mentions, significant efforts to help developing nations. 

I know there were many of you who really enjoyed this book. Am I missing something?

P.S. Sachs also kept talking about high-yield seeds. What does this mean? Have they been genetically modified?


Burbanmom said...

Thanks for summing it up. I borrowed it from the library but fell asleep everytime I tried to read it.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

It seems to me, and this book you reviewed illustrates this, that perpetual growth is kind of seen as a 'given', no other model seems to be even considered.

And I have argued many times over with my family about technology saving us, or that 'they' are doing something about our problems. We have this almost innate inability to make decisions in our best interest, long-term. I call this the 'It Seemed Like A Good Idea At the Time' mentality. Basically, we often fail to see any negative consequence to our actions that isn't immediate.

I agree with you, it seems like people don't want to accept the simple fact that our lifestyles need to change.

Green Bean said...

I was one of the ones who really liked this book - the issues you point out and which I fully agree with notwithstanding. I've yet to find a perfect book and this one shares many of the same flaws as Break Through.

That said, I feel that both Break Through and Common Wealth are really important books in terms of changing the way we think. Yes, the books are both a bit tough to get through and yes, both assume that technology will be the savior but they also point the way to a new form of green movement. One where we work together. Where we recognize that developing countries will not stop developing just because of climate change. We will need to turn to technology to lessen the impact of growth in those countries even as, I believe, we in the developed world need to move toward a less impactful lifestyle.

Many of his solutions - voluntary restrictions on population growth, working as a planet on saving the oceans - would make a huge impact if we, as a world, can all agree long enough to make things happen.

Are the seeds GMO? I continually wondered that too. I know that there are drought resistant, high yield seeds that are the subject of careful, non-GMO selection. Is GMO the answer? I am absolutely against genetic modification. It scares the heck out of me. But then again I'm not watching my children starve as the lakes run dry. I might make some very difference choices in those circumstances.

Thank you for your review, Heather. I tend to only focus on what I liked. You did a great job providing a more balanced review.

kale for sale said...

Great review. I haven't read the book but I'm curious about it, primarily due to the parts you didn't like, well, except the struggling to stick with it parts. Earlier this year I saw Vendana Shiva speak in SF. She's apparently not a fan of the author and not because she doesn't believe we all need to work together but because of his position on high yield seeds, yes, GMO's. She spoke about the huge rate of suicide of farmers in India as a result of their switching to GMO seeds, their subsequent crop failures and the farmers inability to keep up with the purchase of the accompanying fertilizers and pesticides necessary. All of which I'm sure would be a book in itself and only a sliver of the story. Thanks again for such a well rounded and thought provoking review.

Melissa said...

I keep meaning to read this one so thanks for the heads up that it might be a little tough...I find that helps me stick with it if I know it's not an easy read ahead of time!

Heather @ SGF said...

burbanmom - I can see that. Part of the reason it took me so long was that I'd try to read as much as I could before bed. Zonk. I was out - try again tomorrow...

jennifer - I'm totally with you and I think what most people realize is that change doesn't have to be hard and it doesn't have to mean deprivation. Ease into life changes slowly and before long, you'll wonder why you didn't always live like that!

green bean - I know. I tried so hard to like it as much as you did. In fact, there were parts I did enjoy reading - particularly about the mess of foreign relations that the US has made. But the overall theme of the book is right. We have to stop squabbling over the little details and just get the job done! It's in everyone's best interest, so let's just do it, already.

kale for sale - that's kinda what I was thinking he meant and that bothered me.

melissa - best to just take it slow and have another book in the wings. This is a good book when you're in a serious mood, but if you need something light, you're going to need that other book. It's divided up nicely, though, so that you can read a couple pages at a time, then take a break to digest. It takes forever to read that way, but makes it easier to keep going.

Beany said...

Good review. I think I'll skip the book. I skipped radical simplicity. I am just not ready for all that number crunching.

I always assume that technology means resources and often those resources are not renewable. Unless the resource is solar I am very skeptical of any technology solutions that are put forth.

Heather @ SGF said...

Beany - I don't know what else you've read, but I really enjoyed the book "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman. Basically it's a hypothetical of what would happen to the environment if every single human just disappeared in an instant. It was an awesome book!