Jeffrey Sachs. Photo: kevin813 via Flickr

Jeffrey Sachs speaks at the University of North Carolina.
Photo: Kevin Tsui

Jeffrey Sachs — the renowned economist who devised a grand plan in 2005 to rid the world of poverty — is now focused on an even broader ambition: saving the planet and all of us who call it home.

His new book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, explores the crises of climate change and ecological degradation in a world squeezed by soaring population and industrial growth. But it’s no doomsayer’s lament. Sachs is a practical problem solver who’s made his name advising big players in international politics and drawing up detailed plans for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — plus palling around with do-gooding celebs like Bono and Angelina Jolie. A professor of sustainable development and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Sachs is also a bigwig at the United Nations, where he advises Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He previously served as special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan from 2002 to 2006, during which time he oversaw the U.N.’s Millennium Project.

In Common Wealth, Sachs argues that a new era of global cooperation will be needed to stabilize the world’s population, spread sustainable technologies, eradicate disease, and lift billions of people from poverty. More pragmatist than eco-purist, Sachs advocates solutions ranging from solar power and ultra-efficient cars to advanced coal technologies, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds.

I called Sachs up at his office in New York City to suss out his vision for a sustainable future, and the political path that would make it a reality.


Your book outlines the defining challenges we face on an increasingly crowded planet, and a series of goals to address them. Let’s start with an overview.

The goals address all aspects of human survival and well-being related to security, hunger, extreme poverty, disease, climate change, species extinction, and the destruction of ecosystems.

To avert these dire threats, we must devise sustainable systems of energy and agriculture; stabilize the world population at 8 billion or below by 2050 via voluntary fertility choices; and widely disseminate technology that helps end extreme poverty. These goals are bold but achievable. And if we follow through on them, we’ll find ourselves in a more peaceful, stable, prosperous, and secure world.

What do you think it would cost the U.S. to help implement these goals?

Roughly 2 to 3 percent of our GNP for the next several decades. It is a lot, but modest in view of the fact that we would still be achieving sustained economic growth. That sum, I estimate, could enable us to revamp the global energy system, conserve biodiversity, ensure an adequate food supply, help the poorest of the poor who are trapped in poverty to escape from that trap, and enable everybody to meet basic needs and be part of a growing and secure global economic system.

What would be the costs if we fail to implement these goals?

The costs of failure are untold. They could be absolutely horrendous. Given its current trajectory, climate change could push us past thresholds of profound collapse of our food systems, among so much else. Moreover, the kinds of shocks that we’re facing could easily push us to war, to much more violence, to a loss of economic growth that would be, relative to the costs of adjusting, absolutely enormous.

The crucial thing is to begin immediately. My hope is to have these goals in the inaugural address of the next president so that they are a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy going forward.

Would an Obama administration or a McCain administration be better positioned to carry out these goals?

As a U.N. senior official, I cannot and do not get into U.S. politics. But I can say that I am very concerned when Sen. McCain says that our transcendent challenge is Islamic extremism. This is completely wrong in that it’s targeting symptoms rather than understanding deep causes. It completely neglects the far deeper, globe-threatening challenges that are reasons for much of the instability and extremism that we see.

Already we’re seeing soaring food prices and significant challenges within our agriculture system due to an imbalance of supply and demand. What do we need to do about it?

We need to end the subsidies for ethanol and biofuels, which were a huge mistake, skewed supply and demand, and drove up crop costs. But the most important single step is to help the low-income, food-deficit countries be more productive. The good news is there are opportunities for rapid increases in food production, especially in Africa, where peasant farmers have not yet gotten access to improved technologies.

Technologies meaning fertilizers and genetically modified seeds?

Even with current, non-GMO technologies — just traditional seed breeding — Africa could double or triple its food production. In the longer term, I believe that there is potential for genetically modified seeds that increase yield, resist and adapt to drought, and possibly “nutraceuticals” that provide nutritional fortification.

Are you concerned about possible side effects of GMOs — genetic drift on crops or negative human health impacts?

For these kinds of seed modifications, there neither seems to be a mechanism for, nor any evidence of, negative human health impacts. On the genetic drift, there’s no question that this has to be done under controlled conditions and it must be a regulated technology. This is a concern that must be reasonably addressed, but I’m also profoundly worried about people going hungry.

What role will chemical fertilizers play in the future of the global food supply?

Especially on easily weathered tropical soils, fertilizers play a very important role. In all the world but Africa, farmers are using on average around 100 kilograms per hectare of fertilizer. In Africa it’s essentially zero, which is one of the real reasons for the massive hunger right now.

I think it’s fair to say that while fertilizers need to be used more efficiently, we will not feed 6.7 billion people on the planet without chemical fertilizers.

Will fertilizers be affordable in an era of increasingly costly petrochemicals?

They weren’t affordable even at $30-a-barrel oil. Now, they’re certainly not affordable by the poorest farmers at $120-a-barrel oil. So this is a major issue. One of the overall solutions is to ease the energy bind, which means investing in sustainable energy technologies. If you have enough energy, you can also make fertilizers without fossil fuel, but right now that’s not the economical way to do it. As long as we rely on fossil fuels as a vital feedstock for so many sectors, we’re going to be in a tighter and tighter squeeze.

What role do you see coal and nuclear playing in the global energy future?

My guess is that in a world of 6.7 billion people and rising — we’re currently on a trajectory to add over 2.5 billion more by 2050 — alongside global economic growth, energy use will go up significantly. Against the backdrop of absolute declines of global oil reserves, possibly within the next 10, 20, or 30 years, we’re going to want to tap a very wide range of energy sources. We need to do it in a way that reaches the poor, is as low-cost as feasible, and is environmentally safe.

Coal can only work if there is carbon capture and sequestration. Nuclear can only work if it’s in a context where waste and proliferation issues are addressed. I believe that it’s possible to do both of those things.

My view on technology is don’t dismiss broad classes from the start. Analyze them, demonstrate them, be aware of their weaknesses, keep a quantitative framework to understand what they can contribute and what they can’t contribute. But don’t make broad, sweeping, ideological decisions about classes of technology, because usually those decisions violate the basic human arithmetic we’re facing today.

What policy tools will be most effective for shifting America toward a sustainable energy landscape?

We need, first of all, a technology strategy that would include high-mileage automobiles, green buildings, solar power and renewables, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels that don’t compete with food production.

The program should be comparable to what we do with the National Institutes of Health, where we spend $30 billion a year on science and clinical testing that gets taken to scale by the private sector afterwards. This National Institutes of Sustainable Technology would focus on both energy and food systems, water use, water recycling, drought-resistant crop varieties, and agro-ecological systems.

I’d combine this active technology program with a tax* on carbon emissions, which I think would be far more effective than a tradable permit system.

We need a cabinet-level representative of the president who can work domestically and globally to face the challenges of water, food, energy, demography, and climate change. We’re flying blind right now because we don’t see the links between these challenges — even though they’re staring us in the face. You can’t leave this to the Pentagon or to diplomats or to a gutted U.S. Agency for International Development or to the National Security Council.

Whose responsibility would it be to pay for sustainability programs, both domestic and international?

Part of the point of my book is that if it’s really true that the costs are as modest as they are, we shouldn’t spend all our time arguing who’s going to pay. Broadly speaking, I think the rich countries ought to pay for the poorest countries, and the middle-income countries, by and large, ought to pay on their own. As for technology dissemination, the intellectual property rights need to be examined carefully so it doesn’t lead to a monopolization of critical technologies.

The approach has to be: We’re going to come out well ahead of where we are right now. Let’s make sure Africa has solar thermal energy. Let’s make sure that 10 million children aren’t dying from extreme poverty through our neglect as they are right now. Let’s make sure that farmers in low-income countries can produce enough food so we don’t have these horrendous crises that we’re living through right now. And when we do get new technologies that are life-saving, let’s make sure that they reach the poor rather than pretending that markets will solve the problem, because markets don’t deliver to the poor.

How would you bring China and India to the negotiating table on sustainability?

They’re absolutely ready to be there because China is 22 percent of the world’s population, 7 percent of the world’s land area, and perhaps 6 percent of the freshwater resources. It’s incredibly water- and land-stressed, and vulnerable to climate change. India even more: It’s perhaps 15 percent of the world’s population, maybe 2.5 percent of the world’s land area, and facing tremendous water and climate stresses. They know that for their own security and long-term development, they need to be at the table. The problem isn’t their unreadiness to be at the table; the problem is, there’s no table right now! We’re not there, so they are then completely without a framework to act.

In his foreword to your book, E.O. Wilson says that it charts out “humankind’s one shot at a permanently bright future.” Do you see an era of global cooperation in a kind of utopian light?

I’d put it the other way: If we don’t do this, we’re in a heap of trouble. I don’t think we can expect permanent brightness and utopia. Later generations will face different challenges. But our challenge right now is to address this crowded planet and understand how urgent these interconnected challenges are. We need to get through this very difficult path. If we do, we have a chance for tremendous progress — progress that comes from a stabilizing world population, and having a literate, urban global population. But we’re seeing before our eyes right now how fast the clouds can come if we don’t immediately address the fundamental problems at hand.

*[Correction, 15 July 2008: Due to a transcription error, this piece originally quoted Sachs as saying he supports a cap on carbon emissions when in fact he said he supports a tax on carbon emissions.]