The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

By James Gustave Speth
Yale University Press, New Haven (2008), 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-13611-1 (hardcover)

One measure of our destruction of our natural habitat is the abundance of good books devoted to stopping that destruction. Humankind is deeply pondering its relations with the rest of nature.

Now comes a new entry into the field, one destined to change the terms of the discussion.

James Gustave (Gus) Speth is a long-time environmental leader. A Rhodes scholar at Oxford and graduate of Yale Law School, he co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and served as its senior attorney from 1970 to 1977, chaired the U.S. Office of Environmental Quality under President Carter, founded the World Resources Institute, and is now dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Speth’s 2004 book Red Sky at Morning argued that the environmental movement is losing the battle to preserve the planet, outlined the essential pathways to sustainability, and broadened environmentalism’s traditional concern for nature to include connections with society. In his new book The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Speth goes much further in this direction, noting again that the planet’s destruction continues without letup and finding the roots of the problem in several of our culture’s sacred cows including corporate capitalism, the growth ethic, and the environmental movement itself.

The book is partly a compendium of environmental thinking, a sort of anthology of environmentalism. For example, Chapter 5, subtitled “moving to a post-growth society,” quotes twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes at length. Keynes foresaw an eventual end to humankind’s struggle for subsistence and thus an end to the need for growth. Speth declares that the developed nations are reaching that point and hence it’s time to question the priority of economic growth.

Speth notes that, although scientists have long known that humans are causing the wholesale collapse of the natural world, the environmental movement’s efforts to prevent that collapse have failed. Declaring modern capitalism “out of control,” he calls economic growth “the secular religion of the advancing industrial societies.” Historian J. R. McNeil is quoted at length, including this: “The overarching priority of economic growth was easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.” In the United States this has led, says Speth, to growth at any cost, to a “ruthless economy,” to ignoring laid-off workers, bankrupt firms, and crumbling cities.

The book provides many examples of the incrementalist and compromising nature of environmentalism over the past four decades. Environmentalists have dealt with effects rather than underlying causes. It has focused too much on environmental destruction and too little on the political, social, and economic causes of that destruction. He quotes from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ famous essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” that mainstream environmentalists are not “articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes …that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.”

Much of the book discusses the nature of modern capitalism, and the corporation in particular. Speth believes we cannot prevent the collapse of nature without an overhaul of corporate structure. He’s not proposing to overthrow capitalism, but rather to radically humanize the way it works. Current corporate operating principles such as separation of ownership from management, limited liability, the maximization of stockholder wealth, externalization of social and environmental costs, and excessive corporate political power, need changing.

Modern capitalism faces those who hope for a better world with a disheartening quandary: economic growth is declared the primary virtue, and profit-maximizing corporations dominate our economy. The only obvious counterweight is government, yet government is dominated by these same corporations.

The solution to this quandary turns out to be similar to the solution proposed by Bill McKibben in Deep Economy, another good recent book. Act locally. Political consciousness must begin in the neighborhood. It must be highly participatory, favoring national citizen initiatives and referendums. Beginning locally, citizens must organize at regional, national, and global levels.

A program to get there from here should involve transformation in three major dimensions: First, environmentalism must be broadened to the full range of relevant issues, including politics and “the democratization of wealth.” Second, environmentalists must embrace a program to address the nation’s social problems directly and generously. America’s crisis of high poverty rates and concentrated wealth for a tiny minority poses a threat to our democracy and the environment alike. Third, campaign finance, elections, lobbying, and other aspects of the political process must be reformed, including revitalization of unions and other large membership organizations that give citizens more leverage in the political process.

If the first watchword of the new environmental politics is “broaden the agenda,” says Speth, the second is “get political.” American politics today is failing not only the environment but also the American people and the world. The transition to sustainability demands a broad and unified political movement that will come to be seen as the Environmental Revolution of the twenty-first century. According to Speth, “only such a response is likely to avert huge and even catastrophic environmental losses.”

This call for an environmental revolution will seem quixotic to many. “The impossible,” notes Speth, “takes a little longer.” He quotes Mahatma Gandhi: “First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win.” And he quotes writer Arundhati Roy:

Another world is not only possible.
She is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Art Hobson
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.