Sustainable Acclaim

When an academic gets to introduce his new book on "The Daily Show," you know he's reaching a wider audience. A Miller-McCune interview of The Earth Institute's Jeffrey Sachs.
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When an academic gets to introduce his new book on "The Daily Show," you know he's reaching a wider audience. A Miller-McCune interview of The Earth Institute's Jeffrey Sachs.

From food shortages in developing countries to melting glaciers in the arctic to soaring fuel prices everywhere, the American public has been confronted with an array of global sustainability and security problems. The onset of this barrage may seem sudden, but economist Jeffrey Sachs has been dealing with sustainability problems for decades as an academic and an economic adviser to countries around the world. He's now director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, a multidisciplinary research center created to tackle the complex issues of sustainable development, and a special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sachs was also director of the U.N. Millennium Project, an international agreement that seeks to reduce extreme poverty in many dimensions and to particular levels, known as the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015. But he is perhaps best known as a best-selling author writing for general audiences, a virtual rock star of academia. His previous book, The End of Poverty, was a global sensation, and his latest, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, has already hit the New York Times best-seller list.

If the new book has a theme, it is that meeting the common challenges will require global cooperation at all levels, from government to business to the individual. Sachs has a knack for presenting his arguments — often based on complex economic theory — in elegant prose accessible even to those unversed in the dismal science. He also has the gift of metaphor, as in this passage from Common Wealth discussing the problems of Darfur and Somalia: "Trying to solve such crises through peacekeepers and sanctions alone, without the prospects of long-term development, is like putting a Band-Aid on an infected wound. The bleeding might stop temporarily, but the risk of continuing infection, even death, remains."

Sachs sat down to talk with Miller-McCune recently amid the publicity tour for his newest book.

Miller-McCune: Why did you write Common Wealth?

Jeffrey Sachs: Of course I write books about things that I am thinking about, worrying about and working on. And as director of The Earth Institute, my central focus day in and day out, morning and night, is on sustainable development — that is how to reconcile the challenges of a rising population and economic growth with environmental sustainability. When you have the good fortune that I do to have so many wonderful colleagues to be involved in many incredible eye-opening projects, you want to share that experience and help people to understand these issues because they are complicated; there are technical aspects to them, and yet they're extremely important for everyone to understand.

M-M: You appeared on The Daily Show. Was that your first publicity for this book?

Sachs: Yes. That was opening night. That was a great launch.

M-M: So, how was it?

Sachs: Well, it was a thrill, and also afterwards, it was a relief. (Laughter.) Of course, with all of my kids' friends watching all over the country, I had to do all right. That's, of course, not only a wonderful show and incredibly viewed; it's kind of a prime demographic for my kids. ... I was relieved that their dad didn't embarrass them.

M-M: How many kids do you have?

Video: Sachs on The Daily Show

Sachs: We have three kids, and all of them are avid Jon Stewart fans.

M-M: Not Colbert?

Sachs: Also Colbert, which I did for the last book. Which was fantastic also.

M-M: You're getting all of this notice about your work. How did you attract that notice? Did you actively seek it out? Did people just find your books?

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Sachs: I've been now involved in economics and economic policy for 28 years at the professional level, and I've advised dozens of countries around the world and been involved in several relatively high-profile activities — ending hyperinflations, or the end of communism, or the fight against pandemic diseases, or the fight for debt cancellation — and in that way for quite a long time people have known my work, debated it and so forth. I'm very gratified for the debates. Some people approve. Other people have questions. But it leads to a lively debate and I think a constructive one. And a lot of things that I've recommended over time have ended up coming into public policy — The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, malaria, or the scale of the fight against these diseases more generally, or the cancellation of debts and other things that I've recommended have come to pass. And so, that has again been part of the public discussion and the public debate.

M-M: So when you went to find an agent it was pretty easy for you?

Sachs: No problem.

M-M: What advice would you give to researchers and academics who are trying to find a wider audience to share their good works with?

Sachs: I think, of course, that everybody has their distinct situation, so there's not an easy generalization. In my own work, especially since 1985, I've tried to combine academic work with on-the-ground, practical problem solving. And my career has enabled me to work both in the academic side and the problem-solving side. That's what I write about in my books. So for me the public audience is quite natural because I'm involved very much in public policy and in practical problem solving. Other academics are involved in beautiful theory or creating beautiful art or literary criticism, which mean quite different things from what I do, so it's not a simple generalization. So I'd say, "Stay true to your approach, and remember the excitement that you have in the field, and then convey it to others." And I think that is a winning formula. People do want to know and understand the things that are exciting and important for them, and so if one could convey those things clearly, there's a very large receptivity. And I do my best.

M-M: What kind of impact do you hope Common Wealth will have? What are you hoping for?

Sachs: I'm hoping for a very broad discussion and a change of policy within the United States, so that our country focuses more on these challenges of sustainable development than it has been doing. With The End of Poverty, similarly, I hoped for a new approach to fighting extreme poverty — more interest, more scale-up of effort, more understanding of the challenges — and I think it's contributed to that. I hope so, and I believe so. I hope that Common Wealth contributes to a more central role of sustainable development in our public policy and in our public discussion.

M-M: Do you think the popularity of the new "green" movement will help you sell more books?

Sachs: Well, I think it reflects the interest of people in this topic, and they're interested in it because the topic is really important. So in that sense, the answer is yes. And I think that people who are interested in this topic can find a perspective. What I try to do, of course, is combine economics with the issues of the environment. The fact that there is such a large green movement is testimony not to a fad but to a reality that it's quite important.

M-M: Usually when someone reaches your level of success as an author, everybody wants to be their friend, whether it's to make connections or to have you blurb for their book. Do you find that people come to you trying to sell their ideas?

Sachs: You might have to tell some of my critics that. (Laughter.) Not all of them want to be my friend. But, of course, I have lots of friends and allies in these efforts, and there are a lot of terrific books coming out right now. And I do provide blurbs for many authors whom I respect, and I would like to do what little I can to help them find a wide readership.

M-M: How many works do you receive in a week?

Sachs: Oh, I certainly get several books in a week sent to me and probably a couple manuscripts a week or something like that. I don't know the count exactly, but it's a lot. And I try to read as much and as fast as I can because it's important to see that there are perspectives, and this is such a vast field, and there is so much to know and endless opportunity to learn more. I spend a tremendous amount of time reading; that I personally recommend. I think it is one of life's most pleasurable experiences.

M-M: You've been openly critical of the Bush administration, and we're obviously headed toward a change in government. Do you have any advice for the next president?

Sachs: Get serious on sustainable development. Stop ducking the challenges of climate, water, food, population, poverty — the things that my book is about. We have not paid attention to those. We've taken a military approach to global problems, and that approach has not worked, so we need a different approach. And that's a significant part of the theme of Common Wealth: how to take a different approach that gets at the root causes of problems.

M-M: Do you think any of the candidates have focused on this issue?

Sachs: To an extent, but our public debate seems to keep dragging us down to trivialities, and this is quite disappointing. I'd rather have probing debates about exactly what they mean about climate change or how they would approach diplomacy or how they feel about global poverty, rather than about if they wear a flag in their lapel or what they meant by a remark or some other gotcha moment, which to me is a trivialization of politics. And not just a trivialization — I think it's dangerous. I think it is a misjudgment for people about choosing leaders. A lot of people seem to want the leader they can have a beer with or feel is a friend, but actually, we should have leaders that can help solve problems by understanding them and can build coalitions that can help solve the problems.

M-M: Do you have anyone in mind?

Sachs: Well, because I'm a senior official at the United Nations, I don't take any direct positions on the candidates.

M-M: Who is your target audience for Common Wealth?

Sachs: The broad-interested public and, of course, students as well. I think a specialist can read it with benefit because a specialist in ecology or energy may like to see an economist's approach to this. Or an economist who will often work on issues of climate or disease or poverty might want to look at this. But the book is not written in a technical jargon. It's written for a broad public and also written for a broad student readership, which I think is extremely important because they're the leaders of the future and actually the leaders of today in many things. I'm very, very keen about a broad readership among students because I respect them enormously and think that they have a tremendous need to be on top of these issues and to help solve them.

M-M: What can individuals do to make a difference to see that positive changes happen?

Sachs: I think the key is to take the issues seriously. First, it means to understand them; second, it means to continue to learn about them; and then third, it means to act upon them. And there are many ways to act upon them. It can be through personal choices or the kind of car one drives or lifestyle. It can be through political action, who one votes for or is an activist for. It can be through the organization of a church or synagogue or a community group or a business. It can be through the choice of study. And I encourage people to travel because at least in my own life experiences, I've never understood anything until I've seen it with my own eyes. It's just one of the hardest things in the world to imagine the circumstances of others. But I think it's very important to do that.

M-M: What's next for you?

Sachs: For the moment, I'm focusing not only on the release of this book but on the midpoint of the Millennium Development Goals. This, 2008, is a very important year because it's halfway between the start in 2000 and the endpoint in 2015. So, we have lots of things cooking right now. And there will be a summit meeting in September that I'm very much involved in, and, of course, I have a number of book ideas that I'm thinking about — several things with various authors or collections I'm working on as well. I try to stay busy. It's an exciting and opportune time and also worrisome in some ways, and that keeps me going. But I am an optimist, and I believe that we can solve these problems. But the problems keep coming.

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