bookworm update

16 06 2008

Time to update on my slow read through Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey Sachs. And to make sure that you don’t get the wrong idea, my speed is NOT a reflection of the readability of this book. Sure, it’s not quite the page turner that many people want before bedtime, but for me this book has changed the way I understand my surroundings. Listening to the news has become bearable, choosing which actions to take is easier, and I feel connections with people I have never met from around the world. This is a book for someone who is trying to make sense of the world we live in today.

That’s not to say that I have completely made sense of the world. (I still have a quarter of the book left to go… maybe it will become clear as I polish off this last section.) While I was familiar with many of the environmental challenges that Sachs outlines, I hadn’t understood how demographic issues link to them, and how global prosperity is tied in. Sachs brings it home with his message that ultimately we will experience successes and failures with all of these issues together as a planet.

Sachs demonstrates his ability to think BIG time and time again through the book. I’d like to sit down with him and pick his brain. Right now I’m stuck on a question about fertilizer… stay with me. Sachs talks about the potential for the world to reach a population of 10.6 billion by 2050 (we’re currently hovering around 6.8). Now, if you’re like me and you put 2 and 2 together, then you’re probably wondering HTF can the planet handle THAT? We’re having food crises now, trying to feed our current population.

Sachs has a couple of solutions to our population problems. One is to encourage a voluntary reduction in population growth so that we don’t hit 10.6 by 2050. The highest total fertility rates are in developing countries around the world, and he points out that this is not a coincidence. One of the reasons parents procreate is to ensure their own security. For a voluntary reduction to occur, Sachs says that these countries need to experience economic security. When parents no longer see children as the only commodity and security available to them, the total fertility rate will begin to decline.

Okay, so here’s the fertilizer question. Sachs says that part of promoting economic security in developing countries is to improve agricultural productivity. He recommends fertilizers as one way to do this. This stumps me. While I’m guilty of having used them from time to time, recently I’ve come to think of widespread use of fertilizers to be bad for the environment… bad for our water system, and bad for the overall nutrition of the soil. Does Sachs know what he’s talking about here? I wonder… especially when he seems so darn smart with the rest of the book.




4 responses

18 06 2008
Green Bean

Great book review. I never actually reviewed this one – just read it and absorbed it into my life. You say everything I wish I would have put down.

I too had my eyes opened and better understood global society as a result of this book. But there are those little questions, like the fertilizer and the drought-resistant seeds (are they GMO?), that nag.

Overall, a very important read, though, even if not all of his solutions are perfect. Thanks for reviewing this.

19 06 2008

SO glad you recommended it, GB!

20 07 2008
aunt bee

Hey gill, this post of yours got me thinking about fertilizer.

If we take out of the earth by selectively growing individual plants we want to eat, we have a responsibility to replenish those soil nutrients that have been disproportionately depleted by our monoculture habits: is that an assumption we’re in agreement on?

Id est, if we’re not reverting to a hunting and gathering culture, aren’t we forced into some kind of contrived re-balancing? There are better and worse ways to do that – organic re-balancing would be my uninformed choice – but monocultures (gardens for the gardener, flax fields for the farmer) by design aren’t mother nature’s usual way of distributing plant species, so aren’t we stuck with contrived products if organic re-balancing doesn’t address the particular deficits we create? (I seem to remember from my foodie days that organic does do the best job, but not in all cases…)

What about cost? If a marginal farmer in a developing nation can afford to partially re-balance his soil with bagged chemicals, but can’t get it all the way back to healthy with more time and labour intensive organic means because there’s only one of him and one ox to every 2 acres needing attention, which moral good to we opt for? His short-term, individual survival (continue to sell him the chemicals), or a greater chance for the long-term survival of the species? What if we finesse the necessity to opt, by planning that, in his case, bags of chemicals might be an acceptable bridging solution, though that’s certainly not the original intention we had when we started marketing to him: a bridge until we’ve figured out ways to make organic replenishment cheaper and less labour-intensive?

Not that we’re doing much of that. Personally, I’d love to legislate that the fertilizer industry allocate 1% of it’s profits to research in getting organic replenishment costs down, just to see what would result.

Anyway, Common Wealth has now made the priority list on my reading plans, thanks to your post.

aunt bee

21 07 2008

Aunt Bee, I’m so glad it’s part of your reading plans! I still have unanswered questions after having read the book – things like you point out, shouldn’t we be trying to promote living in balance with nature – but the book DID answer a lot for me, including questions like how to compare short-term and long-term gains.

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