Monday, April 20, 2015

rank 5: Jeffrey Sachs

The top five intepreters with authoritative command or Deutungshoheit are all prolific authors, with many, many publications under their belts. For the sake of brevity I'll limit myself to one book per author. The environmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, number five, is the most conventional of the interpreters on the list. He has an Ivy League pedigree. He has been extraordinarily successful in the academic establishment. He is held in high esteem not only by progressives and environmentalists, but also among the middle-of-the-road folks. Sachs teaches at Columbia, where he holds the chair for Sustainable Development and serves as the director of the Earth Institute.

One reason he makes the list is because of his exemplary 'compression' of  information. If one had time to read only one of his books, then Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (London: Penguin 2009) should be it, in my opinion. Its fourteen chapters are 'Common challenges, common wealth,' 'Our crowded planet,' 'The anthropocene,' 'Global solutions to climate change,' 'Securing our water needs,' 'A home for all species,' 'Global population dynamics,' 'Completing the demographic transition,' 'The strategy of economic development,' 'Ending poverty traps,' 'Economic security in a changing world,' 'Rethinking foreign policy,' 'Achieving global goals,' and 'The power of one'. The goals Sachs refers to are the Millennium Goals of the United Nations.

Already the first chapter (p. 3-15) is a brilliant exercise in a total-field image. It powerfully compresses information. Normally, squeezing the facts down to their quintessential meaning risks resulting in trivialities and commonplaces, but the times we're living in are so interesting that Sachs can pull it all together and remain compellingly eloquent. For example, the opening sentence reads:
  • The twenty-first century will overturn many of our basic assumptions about economic life. (p.3)
In the remainder, the following 'fact-squeezes' elaborate the opening statement:
  • The defining challenge of the twenty-first century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. (p.3)
  • Our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives and on the practical means to achieve them. (4)
  • The forging of nationwide commitments was [by 2015, this should probably be replaced by 'is'] hardest in societies like the United States, which are divided by race, religion, ethnicity, class, and the native born versus the immigrants. (5)
  • The world can certainly save itself, but only if we recognize accurately the dangers that humanity confronts together. (5)
  • Human pressures on the Earth's ecosystems and climate, unless mitigated substantially, will cause dangerous climate change, massive species extinctions, and the destruction of vital life-support functions. (6)
Later in the chapter, he pits the historic Peace Address (June 1963) by President Kennedy against "the Bush administration's unilateralism" (p. 11). In the middle of his speech, JFK remarks:
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
Contrast this with Sachs' characterization of the Bush administration (loc. cit.):
The Bush's administration's unilateralism ... has deep roots in one facet of American foreign policy [i.e., "the reckless unilateralism of the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba," p. 10], but its crudeness and violence are unprecedented. Like the earlier excesses during the Cold War, the Bush administration's excesses are rooted in a perverse belief system in which American goodness can and must be defended against foreign evil by violent, covert, and dishonest means. Both the Cold War' and today's war against Islamic fundamentalism are born of a messianism that sees the world in black and white, and lacks the basic insight that all parts of the world, including the Islamic world, inhabit the same planet and breathe the same air. Indeed, as deeply ecologically stressed parts of the world, the Islamic drylands of the Sahel of Africa (just south of the Sahara), the Middle East, and Central Asia have a greater stake in international cooperation on the environmental challenges and extreme poverty than just about any other part of the world. Yet the United States has completely failed to recognize our common links with these regions, and instead has carried on an utterly destructive war on peoples and societies that we barely understand.
This is spot on. In 2006, my university dismantled the environmental studies department for ideological reasons and encouraged the green junior faculty to find employment elsewhere. As an academic, I went through this period and remember how close to fascism it veered. Most of my colleagues were not gutsy. Although the Bush-Cheney nightmare has passed, and although Obama ended the two wars the Republicans wilfully started, the failure of recognition of common links with the Islamic region--Sachs claim--still rings true. America remained too divided to conduct a war crimes trial and bring the warmongers and torturers to justice. The creation of the Africa command under Obama's watch, the drone war, and the expansion of semi-covert US military activities in the Sahel and environs have only intensified the fundamentalism there. In the chapter on foreign policy, Sachs writes (p. 271):
The United States is on the wrong track in foreign policy and is thereby endangering itself and the world. ... Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has failed to play a leadership role in global poverty, environmental and climate policy, energy policy, and global population change.
Regulatory capture by oil corporations prevents US leadership in climate and energy policy. Market dogmatism breeds social stratification and prevents leadership in global poverty eradication. Evangelical Christianity, with its doctrine of sexuality serving procreation in the sacrament of a heterosexual two-people marriage, prevents leadership in global population change.

And then there's climate change. Here's the opening passage of chapter 4 "Global Solutions to Climate Change," p. 83, written in 2008. Consider how much truth-value it has gained since then:
In recent years the Earth's climate has been buffeted by extremes. ... A consensu exist among scientists that these changes are human-induced, or anthropogenic. Anthropogenic climate change is the greatest of all environmental risks, since large-scale cliamte change would disrupt every ecosystem and impose catastrophic hardships on many parts of the world. The risks are growing markedly as we delay launching strong measures in response. The reason for hope is that powerful technologies will likely be available to enable us to mitigate the climate shocks at a very modest cost, much lower than the costs of inaction. But these technological opportunities will be small consolation if we keep closing our eyes to the dangers. Markets alone, on a business-as-usual path, will not carry us to safety.
The 'powerful technologies' are now implemented in the German Energiewende, so the future's here. In chapter 2, there's another perfect one-sentence 'compression' of the climate challenge:
Climate change will render large parts of the world unfit for agriculture unless we are able to mitigate the man-made climate trends as well as adapt successfully to them. (p. 29)
(Contined in next post)

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