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The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainabilityby James Gustave Speth
Synopses & Reviews
How serious are the threats to our environment? Here is one measure of the problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. Of course human activities are not holding at current levels: they are accelerating, dramatically and so, too, is the pace of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification. In this book Gus Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning and a widely respected environmentalist, begins with the observation that the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to decline, to the point that we are now at the edge of catastrophe.
Speth contends that this situation is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. Our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today’s destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that.
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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?' Ross Gelbspan is author of 'The Heat Is On' and 'Boiling Point.' He maintains the Web site www.heatisonline.org." Reviewed by Ross Gelbspan, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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The author of Red Sky at Morning would be the first to agree that we are in deep environmental trouble, but he offers hope that there is still time to avert global catastrophe. Gus Speth explores a wide variety of promising and even radical ideas for transforming modern capitalism so as to protect and restore the natural world.
Today we know what no previous generation knew: the history of the universe and of the unfolding of life on Earth. Through the astonishing combined achievements of natural scientists worldwide, we now have a detailed account of how galaxies and stars, planets and living organisms, human beings and human consciousness came to be. And yet . . . we thirst for answers to questions that have haunted humanity from the very beginning. What is our place in the 14-billion-year history of the universe? What roles do we play in Earth's history? How do we connect with the intricate web of life on Earth?
In Journey of the Universe Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker tell the epic story of the universe from an inspired new perspective, weaving the findings of modern science together with enduring wisdom found in the humanistic traditions of the West, China, India, and indigenous peoples. The authors explore cosmic evolution as a profoundly wondrous process based on creativity, connection, and interdependence, and they envision an unprecedented opportunity for the world's people to address the daunting ecological and social challenges of our times.
Journey of the Universe transforms how we understand our origins and envision our future. Though a little book, it tells a big storyone that inspires hope for a way in which Earth and its human civilizations could flourish together.
This book is part of a larger project that includes a documentary film, an educational DVD series, and a website. The film and the DVD series will be released in 2011. For more information, please consult the website, journeyoftheuniverse.org.
About the Author
James Gustave Speth, a distinguished leader and founder of environmental institutions over the past four decades, is dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He was awarded Japans Blue Planet Prize for a lifetime of creative and visionary leadership in the search for science-based solutions to global environmental problems.” He lives in New Haven, CT.
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