In Review :: The Road to Sustainability

Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet
by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Penguin Press, 2008, $27.95

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

spacer cover of The Northwest Green Home Primer

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
by Lester R. Brown

W. W. Norton, 2008, $15.95

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

cover of The Urban Homestead The Bridge at the Edge of the World
by James Gustave Speth

Yale University Press, 2008, $28.00

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

spacer cover of The Northwest Green Home Primer

Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change
by Pat Murphy

New Society Publishers, 2008, $19.95

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

The deep recession now underway will probably last another year at least, but could spiral down to a second Great Depression. Political leaders worldwide are under pressure to use a variety of economic stimulus tools to restore normalcy. This will likely lead to some progress toward renewable sources of energy and energy conservation, especially in the U.S., now under the competent leadership of President Obama. But these welcome changes are only first steps toward meeting long-term sustainability challenges. The four books reviewed here illustrate contrasting approaches to the big changes that are needed, perhaps best appreciated as four points of the compass: north (global action) vs. south (local action), and east (reforming capitalism) vs. west (U.S. government policy reform).

Global reform is emphasized by Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who maintains that the defining challenge of our new century is to face “a common fate on a crowded planet.” We will flourish or perish in the new Anthropocene Era of a human-dominated earth by our ability to secure sustainable systems of energy and land, stabilize world population at 8 billion or less by 2050, and end extreme poverty by 2025, while improving economic security in rich countries.

Sachs advocates a new approach to global problems based on the creativity of nongovernmental organizations and cooperation among nations: among his proposals, a new financial architecture of seven global funds for sustainable development that would expand the Global Environment Facility and the UN Population Fund and create a new global infrastructure fund. The enthusiasm undergirding his many sensible proposals (for meeting water needs, conserving biodiversity, ending poverty traps, and achieving global goals, etc.) is commendable. Still, there is much more to be said about addressing sustainability.

James “Gus” Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and founder of the World Resources Institute, insists that reform of business and economics is imperative. Our market economy operates on “wildly wrong market signals” and lacks other correcting mechanisms. The basic need is “transformative change in the key features of contemporary capitalism.” This means making the market work for the environment (e.g., the polluter pays; prices reflect environmental costs of any product or service). He advocates using the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare as a more accurate overall measure of progress than GNP, changing the dynamics of the corporation, and promoting a “new consciousness” similar to the “Great Turning” proposed by David Korten.

Lester R. Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and head of the Earth Policy Institute, proposes that government should lead. His Plan B 3.0 expands on two previous editions—Plan B (2003) and its “2.0” update (2006). Brown describes the severe environmental degradation our planet faces, and like Sachs and Speth, calls for urgent action. His “Great Mobilization” scheme focuses on U.S. government policies—green tax codes, ending environmentally harmful subsidies to big agriculture and nonrenewable energy, a new Department of Global Security to be funded by resources from the Department of Defense, and a “Plan B Budget” to attain basic social and earth restoration goals such as planting trees and enhancing fisheries.

With a title like Plan C, readers might expect Pat Murphy’s book on community survival to be a response, but Lester Brown is never mentioned. After making a detailed case for (indisputable) climate change and for (disputable) “peak oil” depletion just ahead, Murphy lays out four possible futures. Plan A, or “Business as Usual,” is seen as still favored by “a sizable majority of the U.S. population.” Plan B, the “Clean Green Technology” approach, is dismissed as failing to sufficiently challenge capitalism and “its underlying values of competition and infinite growth.” The dystopian Plan D or “Die Off” describes individual and family survival for those who believe “it is too late to avoid catastrophe.”

Murphy favors Plan C, or “Curtailment and Community,” which involves “buying less, using less, wanting less, and wasting less.” Most of his book offers details of radical cutbacks, and food and energy conservation at the local level, no doubt now underway for many people as an economic necessity. Notably, Plan C is the only book reviewed here to see communities and individuals as an important part of the long-term shift to sustainability.

Murphy’s “Die Off” scenario is quite possible if bold actions are not taken, or if they prove unsuccessful. But it’s equally possible that, with luck and sensible policies, the economic shocks will stimulate many positive reforms. Already, the “sizable majority” that still practices business as usual is rapidly embracing Clean Green Technology in the unfolding age of Obama, while a number of business leaders are greening corporations with a “triple bottom line” that values social and environmental goals along with profit.

But much more will be needed. To accelerate the transition, ongoing global conversations are needed among the many authors who advocate different approaches to sustainability, and politicians, journalists, businesspeople, academics, and others who have yet to consider and embrace the sustainability imperative.

Michael Marien wrote this review as part of Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Michael recently retired from 30 years of editing Future Survey.
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