A World on the Way

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4 minutes of reading

James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Yale University Press, 2008, 293 pages. $28 hardcover; $18 paperback.

James Gustave Speth pulls no punches. In his latest book he takes us to the dangerous, cold heart of our environmental crisis. Like a good doctor, he knows that we must diagnose what ails us before we can undertake an effective treatment. It is truly difficult to stop underlining passages in The Bridge at the Edge of the World. Like this one, for example (Preface, p. x):

How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at the current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels—they are accelerating, dramatically. It took all of history to build the seven-trillion-dollar world economy of 1950; today economic activity grows by that amount every decade.  At current rates of growth the world economy will double in size in a mere fourteen years. We are thus facing the possibility of an enormous increase in environmental deterioration just when we need to move strongly in the opposite direction.

Speth offers no quick technological fixes as are often promoted, for example, by Lester Brown. Nor does Speth suggest, like Jeffrey Sachs does, that a tweak and a tug here and there on the capitalist economic fabric could provide enough growth to cover all the poor and their needs.

Indeed, for Speth, our current economic dogma and technological worship are themselves the foundation of the current environmental crisis. Writing presciently, well before the current economic implosion, he says (p. 54):

When prices reflect environmental values as poorly as today’s prices do, the system is running without essential controls. . . . Today’s market is a strange place indeed. At the core of the economy is a mechanism that does not recognize the most fundamental thing of all, the living, evolving, sustaining natural world in which the economy is operating. Unaided, the market lacks the sensory organs that would allow it to understand and adjust to this natural world. It’s flying blind.

Our political systems instead subsidize environmentally damaging activities. Speth sums up his initial indictments as follows (p. 57):

We live in a world where economic growth is generally seen as both beneficent and necessary—the more the better; where past growth has brought us to a perilous state environmentally; where we are poised for unprecedented increments in growth; where this growth is proceeding with wildly wrong market signals . . . where there is no hidden hand or inherent mechanism adequate to correct the destructive tendencies. So, right now, one can only conclude that growth is the enemy of the environment. Economy and environment remain in collision.

But the slightest deviation from growth, indeed from exponential growth, plunges the capitalist economic system into disarray. To be fair, socialist and communist systems have also proven highly effective in destroying the bountiful ecosystems of the earth.

Even though times are dire, there are no new ideas on the table for discussion. Consumption is the only thing leadership can imagine to restoke the economic furnaces. See, for an especially egregious example, the November 15, 2008, weekend supplement to the Financial Times blithely titled “how to spend it special christmas edition” (no capitals for this version of capitalism). The huge infrastructure restoration project being suggested by the Obama transition team is merely another version of consumption and, unless done in ways not currently being reported in the media, “stimulus” could conceivably accentuate our environmental problem. It would be simply a subsidy for the whole out-of-date economic industry—like subsidizing chariot makers. Thus, whether democrat or despot, neither is inclined or equipped to confront Speth’s terrible dilemma.

Speth diagnoses our troubles for us but he does not pretend to have a cure. He knows that we must restructure our economics and fashion an economic system that sees itself as responsible to earthly realities.”[1] And here are a few pointers that suggest a direction for our efforts (p. 236-7):

In our journey down the path between two worlds, we are fast approaching a place where the path forks. . . . we succeeded in subduing nature and creating wealth far beyond our ancestors’ imaginings. . . . There were warning signs along the way but . . . we paid them no heed. The signs said things like:
being, not having
giving, not getting
need, not wants
better not richer
part of nature, not apart from nature
dependent, not transcendent.

Speth concludes: “Beyond the fork, down either path is the end of the world as we have known it. One path beyond the fork continues us on our current trajectory . . . into the abyss. But there is the other path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss. . . . Of course, where the path forks will be the site of another struggle . . . we are carried forward by a radical hope, that a better world is possible and that we can build it” (p. 237).

Listen, walk, work.

[1]. See P.G. Brown and G. Garver, with K. Helmuth, R. Howell, and S. Szeghi, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), and P.G. Brown, The Commonwealth of Life: Economics for a Flourishing Earth, 2nd ed. (Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Black Rose Books, 2008).

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