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Excerpt From Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

In the 21st century 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. The pressures of scarce energy resources, growing environmental stresses, a rising global population, legal and illegal mass migration, shifting economic power and vast inequalities of income are too great to be left to naked market forces and untrammeled geopolitical competition among nations. A clash of civilizations could well result from the rising tensions, and it could truly be our last and utterly devastating clash. To find our way peacefully through these difficulties, we will have to learn, on a global scale, the same core lessons that successful societies have gradually and grudgingly learned within their own national borders.

It has not been easy to forge cooperation even within national boundaries. In the first century of industrialization, England and other early industrializing countries were characterized by harsh social conditions in which individuals and families were largely left to scramble in the new industrial age. Charles Dickens and Friedrich Engels left a lasting testimony to the harshness of the times. Gradually and fitfully, the early industrializing societies began to understand that they could not simply leave their own poor to wallow in deprivation, disease, and hunger without courting crime, instability, and disease for all. Gradually, and with enormous political strife, social insurance and transfer schemes for the poor became tools of social peace and prosperity during the period from roughly 1880 onward. Around half a century ago, many nations began to recognize that their air, water and land resources also had to be managed more intensively for the common good of their citizens in an industrial age. The poorest parts of town could not be the dumping ground of toxic wastes without jeopardizing the rich neighborhoods as well. Heavy industry was despoiling the air and the water. Industrial pollution in one region could be carried by winds, rains, and rivers hundred of miles downstream to destroy forests, lakes, wetlands and water reservoirs.

The forging of nationwide commitments was hardest in societies like the United States, which are divided by race, religion, ethnicity, class, and the native born versus immigrants. Social-welfare systems proved to be most effective and popular in ethnically homogenous societies, such as Scandinavia, where people believed that their tax payments were “helping their own.” The United States, racially and ethnically the most divided of all the high-income counties, is also the only high-income country without national health insurance. Even within national borders of divided societies, human beings have a hard time believing that they share responsibilities and fates with those across the income, religious, and perhaps especially, racial divide.


Yet now the recognition that we share responsibilities and fates across the social divide will need to be extended internationally so that the world as a whole takes care to ensure sustainable development in all regions of the world. No part of the world can be abandoned to extreme poverty, or used as a dumping ground for the toxic, without jeopardizing and diminishing all the rest. It might seem that such global cooperation will prove to be utopian. The prevailing unilateralism of the United States will seem for many people to be an inevitable feature of world politics in which politicians are voted in or out of office by their own populations rather than by a global electorate. A major theme of this book, however, is that global cooperation in many fields has been enormously successful in the past, in large part because well-informed national electorates support global cooperation when they understand that it is in their own enlightened self-interest and vital for the well-being of their children and children’s children. Our challenge is not so much to invent global cooperation as it is to rejuvenate, modernize and extend it.

Excerpted from Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © March 2008.

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