20080421 common wealth cover 18
Cover of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" - 


KAI RYSSDAL: This is going to sound a little counterintuitive, but I'd guess food analysts are hoping the Commodities Futures Trading Commission comes up with some evidence of a conspiracy at a hearing it's holding tomorrow. The commission's going to be looking into why grain prices are so high, and how much of those records are due to speculation. If they're simply supply and demand, then that could be a much longer-term problem.

In the past month or so, some of the world's poorest consumers, in Africa and Asia, have rioted over the rising price of wheat and rice. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs says this is no surprise really. In his latest book, "Common Wealth," Sachs says unless we cut back on consumption, we'd better get used to food riots and skyrocketing energy costs.

JEFFREY SACHS: Not only are we currently on an unsustainable trajectory, whether it's in climate, or water, or land use, or global population growth, but things are getting worse. The pressures that we're putting on the world's systems will multiply tremendously until we understand that we need a different approach.

RYSSDAL: This is a time, though, of a unified global economy, but a sharply divided global society. How do you get there from here?

SACHS: The point is, that if we understand that we share common problems, that Phoenix and the west of the United States is facing climate change and drying the same way that Pakistan and Tehran and the Sahel of Africa are facing climate change and drying, then we can start thinking together and working together on truly common interests. The chance to work together would be grasped with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm in so many parts of the world.

RYSSDAL: Who do they want help from, though? Do they want it from the United States, or don't they care?

SACHS: Well, I think the idea that the U.S. is the leader of these problems or solutions is passe. My book doesn't call for the United States to assume the global leadership role. We need cooperation with China. China now emits more greenhouse gasses than we do. China's demand for growing food supply puts pressures in all parts of the world, so this is simply a call to say, let's look at the problem systematically. Look at the technologies, because that's where I put the focus. Understand that the costs of solutions are much less than people fear, and then work together to implement.

RYSSDAL: Is there a prescriptive remedy? Can we sit here and say listen, we need to do this about climate change, this about population, this about poverty and this about politics and then, presto?

SACHS: We don't know everything that will need to be done, because there's going to be a lot of exploration and learning along the way, but on climate change, for instance, we can understand fully that at the core of the climate change problem is the transition to a sustainable energy system. That means converting to new technologies, whether it's concentrated solar thermal in the Mojave desert, or whether it's plug-in hybrids, or some other high mileage technology for automobiles. We can't say exactly which of these options, or which combination for that matter, will be the ones that will prove to be the least cost and the most scalable, but we know a lot about what's within reach, and then the kinds of systems that need to be put in place to get them adopted.

RYSSDAL: Seems to me what you're asking for here, what you're calling for, is a series of global public investments. Where's the dividing line between the public sector responsibility and corporate America and corporate Europe and corporate Asia?

SACHS: The nature of major technological change is that there must be the broad participation of many different parts of society, so we need academia. We need large-scale government financing for the basic science and for early-stage demonstration. We need the private sector, which does one marvelous thing, when the price is right and the technology is close to demonstration or demonstrated, it can scale up remarkably if the market incentives are put in place.

RYSSDAL: Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He's a special advisor to the Untied Nation Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. His latest book is called "Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." Professor Sachs, thanks for your time.

SACHS: Well, thank you for having me on the show today.