This book is not so much a book about economics as it is a political manifesto. Professor Sachs is on the faculty at the School of International and Public Affairs and is director of the Earth Institute, both at Columbia University. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and was previously Special Advisor to Kofi Annan, Director of the UN Millennium Project, and was advisor to a number of governments around the world at times of economic crisis. In 2007 some of his students at Columbia sought to get him to run for president. In short, Sachs is not "just" an academic, but a man with a mission, and this book is a call to action.
Sachs considers that, with 6.6bn people, we live on a "very crowded planet". (There are those who disagree: see Julian Simon and his followers, for example (there are some excellent lectures on YouTube), who believe that there need be no practical upper limit to the number of people on the planet.) Personally, however, I am instinctively with Sachs on this one, and even if Simon turns out to be right I would rather we approached further population increases rather cautiously. Sachs demonstrates how the key to lowering population growth depends above all on reducing infant mortality in those areas of greatest poverty that are also the areas of highest population growth - sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and some parts of South America. That in turn depends as much on reducing that poverty as tackling disease directly, and that on education, appropriate investments and support, economic participation in the global economy, etc. These were the subject of the "Millennium Promises" that the developed world made in 2000 but which, as Sachs points out, are a long way from being delivered.
Population is at the core of this book, but Sachs covers many other areas as well. He covers global warming, water shortage and biodiversity in some detail, although I found this the least satisfactory part of the book: this section is a good example of what Bjorn Lomborg called "the litany" in "The Skeptical Environmentalist", and Sachs repeatedly refers to the consensus about man-made global warming, etc, without any acknowledgement that there are those who disagree, e.g. "the outcome, we now know with near certainty, is that human activity is decisively changing the climate...". Sachs is, of course, a "UN man", so may have thought it politically sensible to repeat the IPCC line. In fact, action to prevent man-made global warming forms only a small part of his final recommendations, and I was left wondering to what extent he is really convinced by these arguments. (He puts a great deal of faith in the idea of carbon sequestration from coal burning power stations and industry.) In short, if you tend towards scepticism on MMGW you might skip Part Two, while if you agree with the IPCC's assessment and "the consensus" you will find all your existing views confirmed.
Sachs also talks about foreign policy, and in particular (and not surprisingly), about US Foreign Policy. He is highly critical of the current approach of the US government and of neo-conservatism. This is all probably rather more controversial in the US that it will appear to most European observers. His suggestion that supranational organisations like the European Union represent the future, and that the EU should be strengthened through giving its executive a democratic mandate, may be more challenging to those in the UK. Sachs is clearly not an economist who believes that the free market can deal with all of the world's problems, but nor is he a very "left wing" one. He was, after all, the man responsible for devising (although he dislikes the term) "shock therapy" for dealing with economic malaise in Eastern Europe and South America.
Sachs recommends the creation of six new "global funds", along the line of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, to bring together governments, academics, NGOs, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and businesses to tackle (more) diseases, African food production, the environment, population, infrastructure, education and community development. To achieve this he estimates a cost of 2.4% of GNP for donor countries, including 1% to develop sustainable energy systems to tackle MMGW. This is a great deal more than the rich world is currently spending, but might, Sachs argues, be a small price to pay to remedy the many problems that will otherwise arise, like overpopulation, famine and mass migration.
This is a thought-provoking book. Whether his plans would work, and whether this approach would represent the best use of the substantial funds required, is another question. There must be a fair chance, however, especially if Barack Obama wins the presidential election, that the US will look much more favourably on this multi-lateralist approach to global economic development.
Apart from its parroting of the "global consensus" view on global warming, I have few criticisms of this book, but the main one would be about references. Sachs makes a large number of quite bold statements in the book, but there are no footnotes, although he does give a series of page referenced notes at the end. I was also surprised that Bjorn Lomborg, whose work on ways to reduce world poverty are not so very different from Sachs', gets not a single mention!