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When it comes to problem-solving on a global scale, we remain weighed down by cynicism, defeatism and outdated institutions. A world of untrammeled market forces and competing nation-states offers no automatic solutions to these challenges. The key will lie in developing new sustainable technologies and ensuring that they rapidly reach all those who need them. If the trillions of dollars that the U.S. is squandering in Iraq was instead being invested in clean energy, disease control and new, ecologically sound ways of growing food, we wouldn't be facing the cusp of a rapidly weakening dollar, soaring food and energy prices and the threats of much worse to come.
Here are four bold but achievable goals for the U.S. and the rest of the world:
Sustainable systems of energy, land and resource use that avert the most dangerous trends of climate change, species extinction and destruction of ecosystems
Stabilization of the world population at 8 billion or below by 2050, through a voluntary reduction of fertility rates, rather than the current trajectory of more than 9 billion by midcentury
The end of extreme poverty by 2025, and improved economic security within the rich countries as well
A new approach to global problem-solving based on cooperation among nations and the dynamism and creativity of the nongovernmental sector.
What will it take to attain these goals? The greatest successes in global cooperation combine four elements: a clear objective, an effective technology, a clear implementation strategy and a source of financing.
Smallpox eradication, for example, started with a clear objective (the eradication of the disease) and an effective vaccine. It built on a clear implementation strategy, in which smallpox vaccines were given for free on a mass basis, and local outbreaks were quickly isolated through careful surveillance and response. The effort was funded on a sustained basis by several donor governments, including the U.S.'s. Similarly, the Green Revolution in Asia, which lifted China and India out of chronic hunger, built on a clear objective (raising food yields), an effective technology (a combination of high-yield seeds, fertilizer and irrigation), a clear implementation strategy (mass distribution of the input package at below market cost) and large-scale funding (from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations and the U.S. government, in addition to local financing).
Other examples abound of measurable progress against once daunting challenges: the rapid, if incomplete, expansion of primary schooling and literacy around the world; the systematic control of many killer diseases, including guinea worm disease, leprosy and African river blindness; and the voluntary decline of high fertility rates through access to family planning in almost all parts of the world, with sub-Saharan Africa the last remaining region awaiting a "demographic transition."
We live in a time of cynicism about achieving global public goals, yet whenever we have made the effort to mobilize our powerful technologies, we have succeeded. Measles deaths in Africa are down more than 90% in the past seven years, at a time when many people mistakenly believe that nothing can be accomplished in large parts of Africa. Polio is nearly eradicated. Food production is soaring in Ethiopia and Malawi because modern farming techniques have been brought to peasant communities. Children have filled the schools wherever school meal programs are introduced and school fees are dropped. There is no shortage of examples of how we can attain our goals, only a shortage of will and stamina so far to carry these successes to scale, and to other vital arenas.
Our generation's great environmental challenges can be met with similar resolve and technological focus. Climate change threatens our food supplies, coastlines, health and the survival of countless species. Yet powerful technological solutions are within reach. Coal-fired power plants can capture and store the carbon dioxide that they produce, rather than releasing the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.