Sachs Explains 'Economics for a Crowded Planet' Economist Jeffrey Sachs says that the world's population, climate change, poverty and resource use are all closely intertwined. In his book Common Wealth, Sachs discusses the intersection of economics and the environment and argues that humanity must address global problems on a global scale.
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Sachs Explains 'Economics for a Crowded Planet'

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Sachs Explains 'Economics for a Crowded Planet'

Sachs Explains 'Economics for a Crowded Planet'

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This is Talk of The Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. With an ever-increasing population, it seems to be getting harder and harder for our planet to sustain us. And the signs of wear and tear are everywhere from soaring, food and energy prices to rising carbon dioxide levels to dwindling biodiversity. But can we turn the ship around? Well, my next guest thinks so. But it's going to take a change of attitude and a lot of effort. Joining me now to talk about his ideas for how economics and science and technology can help take some of the strain off the planet, is Jeffrey Sachs. He's director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general. His new book is "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." And he joins us here in our New York Studio. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. JEFFREY SACHS (Economist, Director of Earth Institute): It's great to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to see you. You've put those three challenges right up there at the top, overpopulation, global warming, and poverty.

Mr. SACHS: We are stretched, just as you said, and we're starting to bounce off the walls right now. Look at how the rapid economic growth in recent years has driven up oil prices to astounding levels. And just in the last year, we've had a doubling of food prices. Now, we can't predict exactly when and where these stresses are gonna hit. But it's, like you said, the wear and tear is pretty much everywhere now. Virtually every part of the Earth's systems, whether it's the water, whether it's the food production, whether it's the climate, whether it's the fisheries, whether it's the survival of other species. All of these factors are showing up with the flashing red alerts. But sometimes you feel that nobody is watching, at least none of our political leadership, because we go on and on, as if nothing has changed and as if there's no danger, thinking that normal economics is going to carry us through and it just won't.

FLATOW: Some people get frustrated and think this problem is so big. Where do you tackle it?

Mr. SACHS: I think, like any good problem solving, you have to take it into its component parts, understand what the base of the problem is, understand what the nature of solutions might be. I start with the idea of a crowded planet, 6.7 billion people, now with enough economic productivity that the average output per person is about 10,000 dollars per year in the United States, of course much higher, in other countries much lower, but on average 10,000. So, with 6.7 billion people and 10,000 dollars of output per person on average, that's 67 trillion dollars of economic activity well over a 100, perhaps two or 300 times what it was when we got started on industrialization a couple of centuries ago. Well, this is all brand new for us because it's come so fast. Our institutions, economic principles, a way we observe the Earth have not caught up with all of the pressures we're putting on the Earth. And so, we don't really know what we're doing until we focus on it.

FLATOW: Hey, do you think, speaking globally about global climate change and global warming, we keep hearing all the time that unless the developing countries, the big countries like China and India come on board and decide, especially China, if that is going to adopt pollution control and CO2 caps, that there's nothing that you know, no matter what we do, it's not going to really make much of a difference.

Mr. SACHS: Well, I wouldn't say much of a difference, but I think the arithmetic is pretty straightforward. China now emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, as best we can tell. The cross-over point is approximately this year 2008. And China is still booming which means that with an economy that has been achieving economic growth of, say, 10 percent per year, that means a doubling period of seven years. Every seven years, the Chinese economy is doubling right now. So, they will far surpass us in total emissions of these greenhouse gases. We're still far ahead in emissions per person, but China is more than four times the population of the United States. Of course, the atmosphere doesn't care about per capita.

It doesn't care about who's doing it. It cares about the total emissions. And that's why I say it's a matter of arithmetic that the United States, China, and other major emitters like the European Union, Japan, Russia, and so forth, are going to have to get together to take this on. And Ira, I think the point is that even where we are today, 67 trillion dollars of output, that's already enough pressure that if we carry on, we can't sustain where we are. But we're not stopping here with China's growth, with India's growth, with continued growth of the world's population. It's quite clear that we will absolutely run over a cliff in terms of the damages to the environment, to other species, to the ecosystems, to water availability, to oil availability, and so forth. We have to change course.

FLATOW: But how do you - I'm talking with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." How do you tell people who don't have what you have, hey, I want what you have? You can't keep me from saying, you know, you can't keep me from getting what you have. Well, you have to give up something.

Mr. SACHS: Of course, I'm a development economist first, so I spend a lot of my time trying to help poor countries get richer. I know that for them, this is a life-and-death issue. It's not a whim. A place that has no electricity right now, that has no access to an automobile, it means that a child dies before the child can get to a clinic for one dollar medicine. And we have millions of children dying of extreme poverty right now. So I don't tell them that at all. And I find the idea of somehow balancing the environment on the backs of the poor a horrendous idea that also won't work. What we need to do, Ira, is find ways to combine the legitimate desire for improving material life with the realities of the physical environment, and what we've had often is an unfruitful debate between those who deny the environmental harms, that's basically the Wall Street Journal editorial page, it's basically the Oval Office until very, very recently, and those who deny the value of economic development.

Some environmentalists say, well, let's just stop, or let's go back to a bucolic past, which is impossible because the bucolic past had one tenth the world's population that we have now, and I think we have a real interest in helping everybody have enough to eat, and everybody being able to meet their needs. And so my view is we have to combine economic development and the environmental realities. Now, how can you do that when it doesn't add up? We have to find technologies that meet the material needs, but don't impact the environment the way our current technologies do. I put the core of the problem in technological development of sustainable technologies.

FLATOW: Such as, what kind?

Mr. SACHS: In essence, if the problem is greenhouse gas emissions largely from the way we burn fossil fuels, the idea is not to say, well, let's stop using energy, or let's deny electricity to the poor, or let's deny electricity to us. But rather, to use energy in a much smarter way. And what could that mean? On the one side, it could mean developing renewables, of course. Solar power, I think, is the most promising of all, at scale, that it can be used without emitting greenhouse gases that you get when you burn fossil fuels.

And in addition, use energy more wisely. We could probably get in not very many years, automobiles that very effectively deliver 100 miles per gallon rather than 25 miles per gallon. Ironically, President Bush, a few days ago, called for 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. Not very ambitious, since Europe's already passed that right now.

So, that's one way to do it, is to use the energy, more effectively, renewables. And another way is to capture the carbon dioxide that is produced at the fossil fuel-based power plants, for example, and safely store them in the soil.

FLATOW: But that hasn't been proven yet on a large scale, right?

Dr. SACHS: Of course, and that is exactly the point of my book. I think the logic of the situation on the planet is the following. We need technologies that are sustainable, that can combine the imperatives of the environment with the logic of economic development. Sometimes, those technologies already exist today but we don't use them, for a variety of reasons.

The poorest of the poor can't afford them or nobody pays to take care of the global commons. But sometimes the technologies don't exist now and they have to be developed. And for me, a good mantra is not R&D, as we sometimes talk about research and development, but RDD&D which I think is more logical, research, development, demonstration and diffusion of technology.

It means going from the basic idea all the way to its use, the diffusion of the technology, and that can be for better food systems. That can be for long-mileage automobiles. That can be for disease control technologies as simple as anti-malaria bed nets.

FLATOW: Mm hm.1-800-989-8255. Anne, quickly before the break, from Walnut Creek, California. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. Well, I think that you cannot leave politics and greed out of the equation, as far as oil is concerned. In fact, I think they're the only reason that we have an oil shortage. And I think that, in terms of new technologies, these same people suppress the development of new technology. So, I think we need a political solution.

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. SACHS: Anne, politics matters, but we had a lot of greed two years ago when the price of oil was about 25 dollars a barrel, and we have about same amount of greed today and the price of oil is about 110 dollars a barrel. So, greed plays its role but I think that hitting up against these limits plays its role as well.

FLATOW: You know, on the interesting side, we talk a lot about alternative energy here. We are in the forefront of looking into it. We've talked everything from - about, you know, from soil, like you mentioned. We've talked about algae.

We've talked about simple things, like growing switchgrass, other kinds of pulpy plants that will grow in very poor regions. There seems to be real opportunities for getting people who can't grow anything to grow these things and become energy exporter.

Dr. SACHS: That's exactly right and I direct an institute filled with wonderful engineers with 101 ideas. Now, what's happening? What's happening is that we're not putting these ideas to test. We're not developing them. We're not putting them to the demonstration scale, and we're certainly not diffusing them, and that's the point of the book.

That won't happen by market forces alone. There's where we need a much more subtle and directed kind of approach. We need to take this issue seriously. Then we need to invest in it. For example, we spend about 30 billion dollars a year of federal funds for the National Institutes of Health for medical advances.

We get good value for that money. But we're only spending one-tenth of that amount for energy research. We've just been asleep at the switch as we've been going over the cliff in climate and energy scarcity. We've got to invest in our future.

FLATOW: All right, we have to take a break. Come back and talk lots more with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet," terrific book. 1-800-989-8255. We'll talk about your calls and other calls from Second Life. If you're there, send us some questions. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Commonwealth" - or "Common Wealth" - whichever way you'd like to pronounce it.

But it's still "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." Our number, 1-800-989-8255, and when we left for the break, we were talking a bit about the difference in research and development money being spent for energy and being spent for other kinds of resources. Give us an idea of that.

Dr. SACHS: Right, we are spending, as I said, about 30 billion dollars a year on health and getting great value for it. Every study shows that what the National Institutes of Health means for us and longer lives and healthier lives has been a phenomenal return. We just haven't been investing in energy and it's a very odd thing, Ira, because the president, I think, rightly, has said on many occasions, the key to these issues is technology. But then, unfortunately, the Bush administration's spending on war but it's not spending on...

FLATOW: Well...

Dr. SACHS: On solving problems that could avoid the wars, because the wars are also linked...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACHS: To Middle East oil, without question. So, it turns out, we're putting, total, about three billion dollars a year right now into energy research. Put it in perspective. Each day we spend nearly two billion dollars on the Pentagon. So this is like a day and a half of Pentagon spending, devoted to our economic future. Now, we're at 110-dollar barrel oil, the cost of this for our economy and the world economy is horrendous, but where are those alternatives? We haven't helped develop them.

FLATOW: Well, if you think of national security and if you think we're spending a billion dollars a month in Iraq...

Dr. SACHS: Oh, more than a billion.

FLATOW: Ten billion, 10 billion a month, I'm sorry, in Iraq, and then you're talking about three billion here...

Dr. SACHS: It makes no sense.

FLATOW: That's a few weeks in Iraq is what we're spending for the whole year.

Dr. SACHS: And of course, we're not getting results on what we're spending in Iraq. That's a big difference. Whereas, as you were saying, you've had people on the show that have great ideas. I have colleagues with great ideas about how to push forward low-cost energy, which would be not only marvelous, by the way, for our economy, and the world economy in the sense of availability, but also, for our technological lead. Because we want industries that actually can compete globally, and if we're not investing in sustainable energy, our industries are going to fall by the wayside.


Dr. SACHS: Look what happened, of course, with automobiles, where it's the hybrid technology of Toyota that made such huge inroads, where it's our SUVs that are going to be the dinosaurs of our time.

FLATOW: Yep. Detroit's going broke. Let me talk about food a little bit. We've all noticed the tremendous rise in food prices. Help me understand what's going on. Can it all be just from ethanol? I mean, it's all based to the - we're now turning our food into fuel?

Dr. SACHS: Fascinating problem, although "fascinating" sounds a little academic, because this is a dreadful problem also, and an urgent one. What's happening with food, of course, it's a perfect storm, several things coming together. One thing is our pressure on the land is already very great, so it's not easy to expand in new areas without cutting down the rain forest. So we have a limited land area.

We're pressing against the valuable biodiversity every time we try to expand the food supply by more land area, number one. Number two, climate shocks. A lot of the grain exporters got hard hit by climate shocks, probably due to long-term climate change. Australia, wiped out by drought in the last couple of years. Europe, the heat, floods, all of the climate shocks that Europe has been facing.

What it meant, Ira, was that in 2005 and 2006, global grain production fell. Now, at the same time, world demand has been soaring. And that's because of the big growth in China. So, you have grain production falling, you have world demand rising, and then comes along a not-very-clever idea, and that's to put our food in our gas tank. That's what we call our Subsidized Grain to Ethanol Program in the United States.

We're turning roughly 30 percent of our corn production this year, our maize, into ethanol, rather than putting it in to the feed and the food supply chains for the world. Europe is little better. They have not so much grain-to-ethanol, but what they have is rapeseed, or canola, being turned into biodiesel. And they are taking out a lot of grain land in Germany, in the UK, and Poland, that would be going to wheat, for example, and it's producing rapeseed.

So you have climate shocks, growing world demand, a squeeze on arable land to begin with, and then a diversion of what should be our food and feed into the gas tank. And that's the perfect storm. Food prices have skyrocketed, and we're still in an extremely vulnerable period, because the amount of inventory that we have is very low compared to world demand. If we get more big global shocks, we're in a heap of trouble.

FLATOW: And you would think, as you say, as you point out, we should be investing in more ways to not use the food, but use other plants that we can turn into fuel stocks or solar energy, or things like that.

Dr. SACHS: There are so many alternatives that are better than this. Of course, using cellulose rather than corn would be great, because cellulose doesn't compete directly with our food supply. You can get cellulose on marginal lands, on the switchgrass, and on the wood chips, rather than our core food and feed grain.


Dr. SACHS: And that's what we ought to be doing, but we're just not spending any money on that, trying to get that developed in time. And now, there's one more thing that really needs to be put on the table. And that is we already have technologies to enable the poorest countries in the world to double or to triple their food output right now.

In Africa, for example, where a disaster of hunger is being compounded by the soaring world food prices. What's the problem there? The problem, in that case, is extreme poverty, that the poorest people in the world can't buy the basic technologies, even a bag of fertilizer and a tin of high-yield seed. So what do we do while we standby watching them go hungry and riot? Or we ship very expensive food aid.

But we don't help them to get the basic technologies already existing so they can double or triple their food supply, and that's the last D of the RDD&D. It's the "diffusion" part. We have to put to work the technologies that we have. Markets won't do it for the poorest people of the world, because the poorest people can't access the inputs on the market.

FLATOW: Talking with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." 1-800-989-8255. In about five minutes that we have remaining, let's talk about something that you do see a role for, and that is for nuclear power. You believe in nuclear power.

Dr. SACHS: I think we are so much up against the wall in terms of peak oil, in terms of the difficulties of coal and the fossil fuels, in terms of the rising world demand, that nuclear has to be part of the mix. Of course, it's got to be safe. We have to be able to police it against proliferation. And I think it's notable that, when the public sector of the government, in fact, of France, said, we take this on for security, they built an efficient and safe nuclear industry with Electricite de France.

Whereas in the United States, so we kind of had the market running around, lost public confidence, had the Three Mile Island and stopped building nuclear plants. And so I think we have to bring back the question of reviving a safe nuclear industry with enough governmental scrutiny, transparency, and control to make it possible to do.

But whether I say it or not, China is going to go ahead with nuclear. India is going ahead with nuclear. Korea is going ahead with nuclear. Japan is going ahead with nuclear. This will be a major part if the global energy scene. It doesn't produce greenhouse gas emissions. There are technologies, I believe, that can make it safe, but we also need a cooperative global system.

FLATOW: That's my point. Is it possible, do you think, politically possible, for all of us to cooperate together, to reverse global warming, reverse these energy trends?

Dr. SACHS: I think the Bush administration has been so unilateralist in, of course, launching a preemptive war that we forget that global cooperation actually is possible. And so we've gotten out of the habit of it, but I refer in my book to many, many cases of true global cooperation on many fronts to stop the depletion of the ozone level, or to eradicate small pox, or what has been a relatively-successful global system of non-proliferation, if we were more cooperative rather than trying to do this by demand and force. I think we'd have more results.

FLATOW: One last question, this is a political, presidential season. Do you see much difference in the candidates, all three of them, in terms of global warming?

Dr. SACHS: Well, they're all talking about global warming, but I'd think we need something to go beyond the talk about climate. We need a new approach that says war isn't going to do it. We need to be investing in sustainable development as national security. That's what I'd like to hear from the candidates, an awareness that the military approaches are horrendously expensive.

They're not going to work, and the pittance that we give to investing in the poor, investing in ending extreme poverty and instability in those countries, and investing in alternative energy sources and sustainable technologies is a better way to achieve real national security. That, I'd like to hear more.

FLATOW: All right. And hopefully we'll hear more. We'll try to get these opinions on if we can, and - but we have yours. Jeffrey, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet," excellent read. Thanks again for taking the time to do it.

Dr. SACHS: It's always great to be with you on your marvelous show, Ira. Thanks.

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