First, a little about Sachs. His credentials are very substantial. He is the head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, a cross-disciplinary team of specialists in agronomy, hydrology, engineering, ecology, public health, climatology, economics, geography, and so on. He was the head of the WHO's Commission on Macroeconomics and Health and then of the UN Millennium Project under Kofi Annan. He has worked with the current or former heads of state of several counties, including the USA and the UK. Presently he is an adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
His previous book, The End of Poverty (Amazon Google Books preview A-SCPL record) was a bestseller. Of course, that doesn't mean it sold as well as something by Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks, but within its genre it was one of the most noted books of 2007. The preface to this book was written by Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, who may be the most respected and famous biologist in the world today.
His method is not to make broad, unsupported assertions in stirring but vague rhetoric. Rather, he marshals more and more detail from official and academic sources to support his claims and then makes them in deliberate, cautious language. It seems like there is another graph or table on nearly every other page. In the end he makes a convincing case that addressing each of those issues is not just a matter of altruism but is vital to the economic and security interests of the developed nations.
Sachs's intention, I'd say, is to recommend to the developed nations of the world, and particularly to the United States, that they fulfill the commitments they have already made in several treaties and agreements. Without going here into their wordy, formal titles, these were made from 1992 into the 2000's, through both Democratic and Republican administrations in the U.S. (although more enthusiastically in the former than in the latter), and covered a wide range of interrelated concerns: poverty, climate change, overpopulation, desertification, contagious diseases, and the loss of biological diversity.
They certainly are interrelated, too. For instance, poverty leads people to cut down forests for charcoal or for farming, even if the soil will only be productive for a few years, and that contributes to climate change. Climate change leads to desertification, which forces species to migrate or become extinct. Loss of natural enemies lets disease vectors, like mosquitoes, proliferate. And those are just a few of the ways one problem leads to another.
If all those tragedies would stay in place, maybe they could safely be ignored by the United States, as long as we all were willing to harden our hearts to others' plight and to ignore God's call to justice and compassion. They move around, though. Two results of poverty, overpopulation and climate change will often be war and migration. that makes them vital security concerns for the U.S.
Darfur and Afghanistan are two examples. The genocide in Darfur is not just a result of the Janjaweed being bloodthirsty and cruel, although they are. It is basically a response to prolonged drought caused by climate change. Nomadic herders and settled farmers are competing desperately for diminishing resources, and when survival is at stake people will do anything they think they have to.
In the same way our war in Afghanistan is not just a response to the Taliban's religious fanaticism, although they are fanatics. The Taliban would not have the support they do, the government would not be so successfully corrupt, and growing opium poppies would not be such an irresistible option if Afghanistan were not in the grip of this same nexus of difficulties. Poverty and war have left it with little infrastructure with which to build its economy, desertification has cut into its agricultural sector's ability to feed its people, and it is is overpopulated in a way that gives it too many young men with nothing to do, no way to support a family, and no hope that things will get better.
Moving on from these two present hot spots, consider two that are imminent--South Asia and America's southern border. The third largest store of ice in the world is the glaciers of the Himalayas, but they are already receding faster than glaciers anywhere else in the world. They are the source of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. They flow through India before they go into Bangladesh, which is largely dependent on them for both domestic use and agriculture. The Indus River, on which Pakistan depends, also begins in the Himalayas and first goes through India. As the Himalayan glaciers recede, they will probably first increase the river's flow, making catastrophic floods more frequent. After the glaciers are gone, though, there won't be enough for everyone, especially if India intercepts most of these rivers' flow before they pass her borders. By 2030 the Ganges could join the growing ranks of rivers like the Colorado, that in the summer at least are completely dry before they reach the ocean. The same could happen to the Indus, too. How could Al-Qaeda or groups like it take advantage of a Pakistan in distress and chaos? What might a nuclear Pakistan do if it is being condemned to die of thirst by a neighbor with which it has had repeated wars?
Closer to home, consider what might happen to Mexico. More frequent and more intense hurricanes on both coasts will make storm surges more and more destructive. Rising ocean levels could easily put Cancun island, with its huge tourism income, permanently underwater, driving away all the people who moved there to work in American hotels. On the other hand, the interior of Mexico will become hotter and probably drier. Today greater Mexico City has a population of about 21 million, and it's certain to keep growing. If heat, lack of rainfall and population pressure deplete its groundwater resources and make it uninhabitable, where will all those people go? Not south to Guatemala and Honduras, that's for sure. No wall will keep them from making their way to Texas and California, then to Colorado, Ohio, and every other state.
Sachs doesn't put it quite this way--it's my generalization--but in the end he draws a picture of a world of trouble, touching every nation but focused on a band form Bangladesh--or even beginning in the Philippines--and stretching through Afghanistan and the more southern of the former Soviet Republics, all of the Middle East, into the Horn of Africa and all the way across Sub-Saharan Africa. Consider what it would be like if the scenarios I've suggested in South Asia and Mexico were repeated all across that band? What would be the cost to the United States of defending its security and interests in all those places while coping with the loss of all of southern Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the port and shore areas of every city on both coasts?
As an example of the sort of advance
planning going on in the military and intelligence communities of
many nations in preparation for all of this, read this
detailed, lengthy study produced by the UK's Ministry of Defence. I've read equivalent studies produced for the U.S. and Australia, too. They all agree that action now and planning for the future are necessary in order to "manage the unpreventable and prevent the unmanageable."
Sachs calculates that all it would take to mitigate much of this--it's already too late to completely prevent it--would be an increase in our foreign aid from today's parsimonious level of 0.14% of GNP to 0.70%. If we today fail to make the lifestyle changes and refuse to make the relatively modest investments needed to prevent all this, what will my grandchildren, whom I may never meet,say of us? Even more so, what will their grandchildren, who could live in a world in which the dystopia I've suggested would seem like a utopia, say of us?