Reviewed by Ross Gelbspan
Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. That is the core message of The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by J. “Gus” Speth, a prominent environmentalist who, in this book, has turned sharply critical of the U.S. environmental movement.
Speth is dean of environmental studies at Yale, a founder of two major environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute), former chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (under Jimmy Carter) and a former head of the U.N. Development Program. So part of his thesis is expected: Climate change is only the leading edge of a potential cascade of ecological disasters.
“Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are gone,” he writes. “About half the wetlands . . . are gone. An estimated 90 percent of large predator fish are gone. . . . Twenty percent of the corals are gone. . . . Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. . . . Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in . . . every one of us.”
One might assume, given this setup, that Speth would argue for a revitalization of the environmental movement. He does not. Environmentalism, in his view, is almost as compromised as the planet itself. Speth faults the movement for using market incentives to achieve environmental ends and for the deception that sufficient change can come from engaging the corporate sector and working “within the system” and not enlisting the support of other activist constituencies.
Environmentalism today is “pragmatic and incrementalist,” he notes, “awash in good proposals for sensible environmental action” — and he does not mean it as a compliment. “Working only within the system will . . . not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”
In Speth’s view, the accelerating degradation of the Earth is not simply the result of flawed or inattentive national policies. It is “a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today,” which aims for perpetual economic growth and has brought us, simultaneously, to the threshold of abundance and the brink of ruination. He identifies the major driver of environmental destruction as the 60,000 multinational corporations that have emerged in the last few decades and that continually strive to increase their size and profitability while, at the same time, deflecting efforts to rein in their most destructive impacts.
“The system of modern capitalism . . . will generate ever-larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to manage them,” Speth writes. What’s more, “It is unimaginable that American politics as we know it will deliver the transformative changes needed” to save us from environmental catastrophe. “Weak, shallow, dangerous, and corrupted,” he says, “it is the best democracy that money can buy.”
Above all, Speth faults environmentalists for assuming they alone hold the key to arresting the deterioration of the planet. That task, he emphasizes, will require the involvement of activists working on campaign finance reform, corporate accountability, labor, human rights and environmental justice, to name a few. (Full disclosure: He also approvingly cites some of this reviewer’s criticisms of media coverage of environmental issues.)
Speth, of course, is hardly the first person to issue a sweeping indictment of capitalism and predict that it contains the seeds of its own demise. But he dismisses a socialist alternative, and, at its core, his prescription is more reformist than revolutionary. He implies that a more highly regulated and democratized form of capitalism could be compatible with environmental salvation if it were accompanied by a profound change in personal and collective values. Instead of seeking ever more consumption, we need a “post-growth society” with a more rounded definition of well-being. Rather than using gross domestic product as the primary measure of a country’s economic health, we should turn to the new field of ecological accounting, which tries to factor in the costs of resource depletion and pollution.
This book is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress. But short of a cataclysmic event — like the Great Depression or some equally profound social breakdown — Speth does not suggest how we might achieve the change in values and structural reform necessary for long-term sustainability. “People have conversion experiences and epiphanies,” he notes, asking, “Can an entire society have a conversion experience?”
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
“‘Speth is a maestro – conducting a mighty chorus of voices from a dozen disciplines all of which are calling for transformative change before it is too late. The result is the most compelling plea we have for changing our lives and our politics. And it is a compelling case indeed.’ Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.”