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

James Gustave Speth

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From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com

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.

Présentation de l'éditeur

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.

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 2545 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 320 pages
  • Editeur : Yale University Press; Édition : 1st (28 mars 2008)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B001B1HQI6
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Amazon.com: 4.4 étoiles sur 5  29 commentaires
69 internautes sur 72 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A bridge too far...or still within reach? 6 mai 2008
Par David Radcliff - Publié sur Amazon.com
As do other current writers such as Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Korten, James Speth sees us heading for catastrophe in the way we're over-using and over-polluting the earth, but holds out hope that we may yet turn back from the brink of destruction. He attributes our predicament to an economic system based on little more than constant growth, which in turns requires ever more extraction from the earth; weak or nonexistent government leadership; and an environmental movement that has been less "movement" and more an insider operation that down deep believes a) the government can and will eventually do the right thing and b) there won't be need for drastic redirection of our economic and political systems or serious change in our way of living.

Speth calls for a rediscovery of the true meaning of life (relationships, service, enjoyment of leisure, etc.)--and orienting our economic pursuits around this; a new form of participatory democracy that takes back our country from the corporate-led government we currently "enjoy"; ending over $850 billion in annual global subsidies for "perverse" practices such as overfishing the seas; developing an economic model that incorporates environmental care, human rights and worker well-being at its core; and international treaties with "teeth" to enforce environmental protection of critical habitats and endangered species and ecosystems.

This is a depressing book in that it clearly lays out the challenges facing us; it is hopeful in that it does provide a "bridge" to get us from this world to the next. It's up to us to build it and then be ready to walk over it.

Telling quote: "When the crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, and to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."
62 internautes sur 69 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Bridge at the Edge of the World YOUTUBE VIDEO 23 avril 2008
Par Story Clark Resor - Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a quick introduction to the book. The video is on YouTube at [...]. Enjoy!
23 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An Eloquent Call for Transformation to Save Our Planet - Includes a Spiritual Challenge That's Great for Groups to Ponder 29 mars 2008
Par David Crumm - Publié sur Amazon.com
When dozens of major Southern Baptist leaders broke news in the spring of 2008 with a letter to the world about climate change, it was a major milestone in this era of global change. Their letter simply underlined what millions are coming to see, already. We all need to help forge a powerful new linkage between spiritual values and values concerning our natural world. The Southern Baptist leaders wrote, in part, "We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues has often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice."

Coming from this very traditional American center of religious authority, this was an important prophetic voice in the conversation about where we're all heading in the tumbling and turning of cultural and social tidal waves these days.

And, while phrases like these that may sound disturbing, Yale University's Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies James Gustave Speth shows us - loud and clear toward the end of his new book - that this tumbling just might turn out to be good news.

That's because his eloquent book about our environmental crisis begins by outlining "next steps" that we all need to consider in a whole range of sectors in our society: politics, business, education and so on. But then, he comes to his final section: "Seedbeds of Transformation."

He writes: "Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness. For some, it is a spiritual awakening - a transformation of the human heart. For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself. But for all it involves major cultural change and a reorientation of what society values and prizes most highly."

This book is a non-traditional choice for small-group study in congregations, but I think you'll find it a very thought-provoking (and discussion-provoking) choice. Speth is a scholar, but he writes as a gifted teacher. This book, too, is a prophetic challenge. Let's listen, learn and explore our new roles and responses.
66 internautes sur 79 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Passionate, Truthful, and Probably Wrong 3 mai 2009
Par Smith's Rock - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
James Speth, in The Bridge at the Edge of the World, writes a book that lands somewhere between a scholarly treatise on the planetary environmental effects of supporting seven billion humans and an anti-capitalist, anti-growth, anti-multinational corporation rant. One can have the highest of ideals, and the wrongest of approaches, simultaneously. The Bridge at the Edge of the World may be the best example of this since Ralph Nader's run for the presidency in 2000 led, without a doubt, to Bush's victory in Florida. Nader, by getting ideologically sidetracked, led to an eight year stonewalling of any serious attempt to deal with the ongoing environmental catastrophe that Speth so clearly articulates. Speth's distracting focus on the highly debatable hypothesis that capitalism is the root of most environmental evil may deny him the very converts to the cause that are so urgently needed at this tipping point in human history.

Point of view is important, and before any potential flamer turns his/her acetylene torch on this review, consider this: I became sold on the idea of global warming in 1971. I'm a lifetime Sierra Club member, monthly contributor to the Nature Conservancy, drive the most fuel efficient car on the planet (a 2001 Honda Insight that I bought used), am an all weather (neither sleet, nor snow, nor rain, etc.) bicycle commuter on my 18 mile round trip commute to work. Were you to visit my home, you'd sweat in the summer, shiver in the winter, as my heat pump worries about unemployment. I actively campaigned for(including, ugh, canvassing), and voted for, Obama. I eat organic oatmeal for breakfast, and I frickin' listen to NPR. In short, I have some creds. And yet I feel this book is a disappointment.

Speth's book is strongest when he sites environmental data, and when he hammers away (and the guy does tend to hammer) at the widely accepted assumption that GROWTH is synonymous with GOOD. His discussion of the underlying assumption that economic growth is for the good of mankind, much less the planet, is the best argument for doing a horrified double-take on the growth=good religion in...maybe forever. But Speth is much wobblier when he attempts to interpret economic data, and weakest when he attempts to attribute environmental catastrophe to any one economic system (in this case, exclusively to capitalism).

Speck spends much of his book discussing the role of capitalism and its role in environmental desecration. History would not disagree that captalism has not been kind to the planet, it would simply add that neither has any other system. Point being that HUMANS, and even more importantly, large numbers of humans, regardless of chosen economic/governmental system, run rough shod over fragile Mother Earth. The Mayans who drew up their famous calendar well before capitalism had been articulated, appear to have died out through exhausting of their resources (aided by some climate changes). The buffalo of Oregon (yep, there were), disappeared long before white men settled there. Cause? Indians, using horses that had escaped from the Conquistadores, used this new technology to become more efficient killing machines, wiping out the most western of the buffalo herds. These guys were capitalists? Say what? Ireland's forests (about 5% of the original forests remain) weren't cut down by capitalists many centuries ago. Africa's forests have been cut down for cooking fuel and agricultural replanting, secondary to population pressure, not capitalistic logging companies, not multinational corporations. Let's look at socialism: the biggest environmental disasters in the history of this planet, from Chernobyl to the Aral Sea, to the deforesting and desertification of the sub-Sahara, are not exclusively related to capitalist, nor any other economic system. They are related to man, to there being an awfully large number of us on our fragile home planet, and to the increasingly refined and reproduceable knowledge about the nature of that most dangerous of all primates: homo Sapiens.

Kudos to Speth for his review of environmental data that document the horrendous body blows that we, the most rapacious of the great apes have been delivering to the planet. Kudos for questioning the assumption that material/economic growth is good for humans, much less the planet. Kudos for expressing cogently a sense of terrific urgency, the "fierce urgency of now" (yes, he does quote that speech). Kudos for Speth's adult life of a long, dedicated, and skillful fight to heal my favorite planet. Raspberries for his vague call to a "new level of human consciousness", complete with references to Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3 levels of consciousness. Loud raspberries for drastically narrowing the potential members of an urgently needed audience that will not be able to swallow his attribution of all environmental evils to a single economic system, rather than our primate nature, a virtual lack of incentives to change our behavior, and active opposition to slowing the most malignant type of growth: human population expansion.

Nader had some great stuff to say in 2000 (and before, and since). Too bad that the air he breathes is a bit rarefied for mortals. His rigid focus on certain ideals led directly to eight years of delay in the most influential country on the planet coming to grips with the issues that face us. Speth, in this flawed book, has taken the stage at an exquisitely vital time in our history, and has delivered an analysis that the old bogeymen of capitalism and its bastard children are the root cause of our crumbling ecosphere. Unregulated capitalism and its bastard children really ARE bogeymen, AMONGST MANY OTHERS. This is an "all hands on deck" moment in history, Speth's flawed analyses and language may guarantee that many skillful, energetic, principled people will remain in their berths until the water laps at the portholes to their staterooms.
Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded got some Palin-loving, drill baby drill chanting, Escalade-driving acquaintances of mine to back up and say "What the hey?!? This is serious!!!" The Bridge at the End of the World will unlikely have any such effect.
19 internautes sur 22 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A Book That Must Be Heeded 1 avril 2008
Par Philip Shabecoff - Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a book that must be heeded. It is about the most crucial, portentous issue of our time: the rapid destruction of the natural world by human activity and human institutions. Other issues that now dominate the news and with which we are preoccupied--the war in Iraq, the presidential campaign, the faltering economy, the health care debacle--are from a broad perspective merely transient. They will pass. But The Bridge at the Edge of the World makes us look unflinchingly at a crisis that will not pass--the eroding ability of our planet to support life. Global warming is only one of the megaproblems that threaten our future. Others include the toxification of the environment, the loss of biological diversity, dwindling per capital supplies of water and arable land, too many people consuming too many resources and producing too much waste. Dean Speth is most trenchent in pointing to the underlying causes of our environmental failure: market capitalism that does not value the environment, human health or the future of life; corporations whose only duty is to profit; government that fails to protect us from corporate misdeeds and, of late, has abetted those misdeeds. We are standing before the abyss. Speth warns. But he offers a bridge across that fatal chasm. A better economics that reflects the realities of what is happening to the world. A new politics that recognizes and addresses the real crises facing humanity. And a new consciousness by all of us to end our indifference and lethargy and demand that we do what is needed to protect the future for our children and grandchildren. This is a quiet, beautifully written book, but what it contains is explosive enough to wake us all up.
Philip Shabecoff
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