The Washington Post
The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainabilityby James Gustave Speth
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 levelsthey are accelerating,/i>
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 levelsthey are accelerating, dramaticallyand 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.
The Washington Post
“The Bridge at the Edge of the World may be the most concise analysis of the current state of the natural world and what might be done about it."—Brooke Williams, Planet News
"What is needed, Speth argues, is a radical change in the economic sysytem that takes into account the environmental costs of doing buisiness and refocuses society on building more sustainable ways of living."—David Funkhouser, Hartford Courant
"Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. . . . This book is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress."—Ross Gelbspan, Washington Post Book World
"With candor, cadence and clarity, Speth presents a compelling case for prompt action, making this book a must-read. . . . Like an evangelist, Speth draws not just on facts, but anecdotes, quotes, even poetry to make his point."—Le-Min Lim, Chicago Tribune
"In his severe indictment of our stewardship of the planet, Speth says all we need to do to destroy the Earth is to continue what we're doing now: overproduce and overconsume. He presents a scary compendium of all the damage we have inflicted. . . . But he's smart enough to know that if the market economy is a big part of the problem, it has to be a big part of the solution. . . . The book is a wide-ranging synthesis of many ideas in the realms of economics, politics, and ecology, and calls for some profound changes in the way the economy and political institutions are governed."—Peter Hadekel, Montreal Gazette
Selected as a Top 5 Environment Book in New England by the Boston Globe
Top 5 Environment Book in New England
"Speth lays out the scientific consensus about climate change and ecological stress with authority. Global warming, he notes, has a terrible momentum. . . . [This book] is an excellent quick survey of global climate and ecological management at present. . . . [Speth's] aim is to improve the quality of life, foster social solidarity, and restore our connectedness to nature by making corporations accountable to society at large."—Brian Thomas, New Leader
"James Gustave Speth, wrote the book The Bridge at the Edge of the World because he's worried about our future and he's right. We should all be very worried. . . . This book, both for it's brilliant articulation of the worlds' current system and, as Speth calls it, the 'crisis of capitalism,' is an important addition to your bookshelf. And it's sufficiently easy to read and accessible that it's a great gift for just about anybody!"—Thom Hartmann, buzzflash.com
"Speth pulls no punches. He offers a sharp, sometimes lacerating critique of the movement he helped establish, saying it has become swamped under 'environmental impact statements' and 'total maximum daily load' regulations. . . . His solution is to forge a new 'environmental political movement,' in which initiatives in human rights, social justice, politics, and the enviroment all work toward the same goal: a healthy planet that can fulfill the needs of all humanity. . . . [Speth says] 'the environmental community needs to become a political reform group.' It's a call we're hearing with increasing frequency, but this time it comes from a uniquely authoritative voice."—Molly Webster, onearth Magazine (NRDC)
"Speth has emerged as a devastating critic of capitalism's destruction of the environment. In this radical rethinking, he has chosen to confront the full perils brought on by the present economic system, with its pursuit of growth and accumulation at any cost. . . . The crucial problem from an environmental perspective, he believes, is exponential economic growth."—John J. Simon, Monthly Review
John J. Simon
"Speth's well-reasoned call for a new environmental movement, for a new movement in which environmental issues are central, is a welcome and much-needed contribution, particularly for the climate and environmental movements. . . . Speth writes approvingly of a govenment-regulated market economy, one in which environmental impacts and the 'polluter pays' principle would be paramount, essentially a form of environmental social democracy. . . . And we are fortunate that 'ultimate insider' Gus Speth will continue to help lead us as we build towards the Environmental Revolution which must occur."—Ted Glick, Gristmill
"Speth laments the tortuously slow pace of environmental activism in the face of the near-calamitous decline of species, soils, forests and oceans, and the dangerous advance of global warming. . . . But the challenges are too grave to wait for a new president. Speth's book makes it abundantly clear: Start ourselves, while (hopefully) there's still time."—Neal Peirce, The Washington Post Writers Group
A 2008 Top Seller in Environmental Sciences as compiled by YBP Library Services
"A highly respected environmental leader, Speth has come to the conclusion that our capitalist market economy depends on growth in material production at levels that cannot continue without destroying the earth's natural support system. His book makes a strong case for redefining the aims of the economy; but the path forward, especially as developing nations aspire to Western standards of living, is far from clear. He believes the environmental movement as well as the government is failing to lead the way to essential change."—Leslie Carothers, Wall Street Journal
"Speth's passion for the environment and his unyielding desire to save our planet from destruction leads him to a conclusion that is slowly becoming more prevalent in the mainstream movement . . . a citizen-led movement that reimagines our current economy and state of mind in favor of environmental sustainability."—Chelsey Perkins, Utne Reader
"Speth provides both specifics of what is wrong and a strong argument for change and then suggests some mechanisms to begin to get there."—Paul R. Cooley, Science Books & Films
Paul R. Cooley
"A passionate and incisive call for the environmental movement to deepen its critique and enlarge its politics. . . . The resulting work is nothing short of pathbreaking. . . . This book should strike a resonant chord in a public growing increasingly apprehensive, and merits inclusion in the canon of environmental literature alongside the works of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Gro Harlen Bruntland."—Paul Raskin, Environment
"James Gustav Speth...leads us to a bridge at the edge of the world--an epic transformation of the way we live, produce, and consume. This is a fantastic, highly topical and potentially important book. It should widely be read, and translated into other languages."--Udo E. Simonis, Environmental Information + Environmental Policy
Udo E. Simonis
"When someone as well placed as James Gustave Speth speaks out, you have to listen. . . . A masterly, uncompromising analysis and critique of where we are right now, a must-read."—Liz Elise, New Scientist
"Speth delivers a bracing critique of the environmental movement."—Melinda Tuhus, E Magazine
"For its sources alone, this is a book you might want to keep handy as we did, in the old days, a copy of the desk encyclopedia, this one a rather stark chronicle of the planet's vital signs that [Speth] calls 'looking into the abyss.' It is also an ordered intellectual climb, assembled in the manner of a people's brief, that makes a daring case."—Oliver Houck, The Environmental Forum
"An important message from such an influential and mainstream figure in the environmental movement. . . . Speth's importance is to bring the relationship between capitalism and climate change into mainstream debate, where it should stay."—Paul Gillespie, Irish Times
“Powerful. . . . The writing is deeply humane, witty, uplifting, and modest rather than pretentious. . . . A superb synthesis of the great economic questions of our time.”—Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect
"Speth has given us a fresh look at the question of reconciling economy with ecology. . . . This is a book of hope and inspiraton. . . . What Speth has done, like a good Zen master, is to open our minds to the possibilities of aspiring to human self-realization, societal transformation, and a livable planet without setting limits on economic growth."—Sheldon Krimsky, Issues in Science and Technology
"Speth clearly demonstrates his mastery of the subject in this publication, which is well researched and written, providing a wealth of relevant references. It makes highly recommended and compelling reading for all those with a serious interest in the environment and the future of planet Earth, especially for existing and potential chartered environmentalists."—Alan Stainer, Materials World
"The Bridge at the End of the World . . . [is] required spiritual reading for our time." —David Hilfiker, Sojourners Magazine
"In this book, Speth masterfully synthesizes a wealth of empirical scientific studies and social science theory. . . . Ultimately, Speth offers a hopeful message that the creativity, incentives, and energy of today's youth can achieve the fundamental transformation of modern capitalist democracy that is necessary to resolve pressing issues of environmental stewardship, and human solidarity within and among generations." —Christopher B. Barrett, Quarterly Review of Biology
Christopher B. Barrett
Click here to listen to an interview with the author on the Yale Press Podcast.
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The Bridge At The Edge Of The WorldCapitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
By James Gustave Speth
Yale University PressCopyright © 2008 James Gustave Speth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLooking into the Abyss
If you take an honest look at today's destructive environmental trends, it is impossible not to conclude that they profoundly threaten human prospects and life as we know it on the planet. That is the abyss ahead. Robert Jay Lifton has said, "If one does not look into the abyss, one is being wishful by simply not confronting the truth.... On the other hand, it is imperative that one not get stuck in the abyss." Confronting the truth about environmental conditions and trends is the first step.
I remember looking into another abyss, when I was a sophomore at Yale in 1961, one closer to Lifton's main subjects. It was the prospect of thermonuclear war. My guide was a wonderful professor, Brad Westerfield, who taught Yale's principal course on the Cold War at the time. He took it upon himself to inform us that we had to take seriously the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I tried to absorb that, but it was in some way unimaginable. And then one day in 1962, there was President Kennedy on television informing us of the Cuban missile crisis. And at that moment it became all too easy to imagine nuclear war.
I feel now a little like Westerfield must have felt at that moment. I have been sounding off, Dr. Doom-like, about the risks of climate change and other large-scale environmental threats since 1980, when I was in President Carter's White House and we released the Global 2000 Report. And, now, sad to say, Global 2000's forecasts are coming true. Those forecasts were issued as warnings, but like many others, they went largely unheeded.
It was not always this bleak. Both in the final days of the Carter administration and in the years that immediately followed, many of us undertook to do the policy analysis that could be the springboard to tackling global-scale environmental challenges. The hopefulness of that era is reflected, for example, in Robert Repetto's volume The Global Possible (1985). In my foreword to Repetto's book, I wrote: "This book gives grounds for informed optimism about how the world's governments, businesses and citizens can make headway against an array of difficult environmental challenges.... [The book's recommendations] have taken an important step in proposing initiatives for public and private action, thus allaying the restive pessimism that stands between the world we have and the world we want." Now one can see, more than two decades later, that the road to sustainability was the road not taken. The disturbing trends set out in Global 2000 continued, and we find ourselves where we are today.
The World We Live In
To assess environmental performance to date, it is useful to distinguish two sets of environmental challenges. A set of predominantly local and regional concerns drove the first Earth Day in 1970. The insults then were acute and obvious: air pollution; water pollution; strip mining; clearcutting; dam building and river channelization; nuclear power; loss of wetlands, farmland, and natural areas; massive highway building programs; urban sprawl; destructive mining and grazing practices; toxic dumps and pesticides; and so on. On a portion of these first-generation Earth Day issues, the United States has made progress. Some see the part of the glass that is filled. Others, including our leading environmental groups, point to the continuation of these problems, the still unmet promises of the far-reaching legislation of the 1970s, and the emergence of serious new threats. Environmental deterioration in the United States remains surprisingly severe (see Chapter 3).
A different agenda emerged a decade later in the Global 2000 Report of 1980 and elsewhere. The issues on this newer agenda are more global, more insidious, and more threatening (see table 1).
On these "global change" issues, as they are sometimes called, progress has been dismal. As I noted in Red Sky at Morning, my generation is a generation of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. We have analyzed, debated, discussed, and negotiated these global issues almost endlessly. But on action, we have fallen far short.
As a result-with the notable exception of international efforts to protect the stratospheric ozone layer and the partial exception of progress on acid rain-the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter century ago continue to this day and have become more serious and more intractable. It is now an understatement to say we are running out of time. For such crucial issues as climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity, we ran out of time quite a while ago. Appropriate action is long overdue.
Let us review where we stand with the eight major global-scale challenges where progress has been seriously lacking. The presentation of conditions and trends in these eight areas does not always make for easy reading, but understanding what's happening to the planet is the backdrop to concern and action.
Of all the issues, global warming is the most threatening. The possibilities here are so disturbing that some-like Sir David King, the chief scientist in the British government-believe that climate change is the most severe problem the world faces, bar none.
Scientists know that the "greenhouse effect" is a reality: without the naturally occurring heat-trapping gases in the earth's atmosphere, the planet would be about 30°C cooler on average-an ice ball rather than a life-support system. The problem arises because human activities have now sharply increased the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases prevent the escape of earth's infrared radiation into space. In general, the more gases that accumulate, the more heat the atmosphere traps.
The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas contributed by human actions, has increased by more than a third over the preindustrial level due mainly to the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and to large-scale deforestation. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in at least 650,000 years. The concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, is about 150 percent above preindustrial levels. Methane accumulates from the use of fossil fuels, cattle raising, rice growing, and landfill emissions. Atmospheric concentrations of still another gas, nitrous oxide, are also up due to fertilizer use, cattle feedlots, and the chemical industry, and it is also an infrared trapping gas. A number of specialty chemicals in the halocarbon family, including the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) of ozone-depletion notoriety, are also potent greenhouse gases.
The major international scientific effort to understand climate change and what can be done about it is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The fourth of its periodic reports, released in 2007, underscores the reality that human activities are already changing the planet in major ways:
"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level."
"Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850)." "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns." "Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both hemispheres. Widespread decreases in glaciers and ice caps have contributed to sea level rise. New data ... now show that losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have very likely contributed to sea level rise over 1993 to 2003."
"More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics. Increased drying linked with higher temperatures and decreased precipitation has contributed to changes in drought."
"The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas, consistent with warming and observed increases of atmospheric water vapor."
The IPCC's Fourth Assessment also identifies the likely future impacts of climate change in a variety of contexts-the larger the buildup of greenhouse gases, the more severe these impacts will become. Here are some of the IPCC's projections:
The availability of fresh water will shift. Some areas will get much wetter, others much dryer. Both drought and flooding will likely increase. Water stored in glaciers and snowpack will decline, reducing water supplies to more than a billion people.
The health of ecosystems will be damaged by an unprecedented combination of climate change and other drivers of global change such as land use change, pollution, and overexploitation of resources. About 20 to 30 percent of the plant and animal species studied so far will be at increased risk of extinction. As the oceans take up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, shellfish and corals will be harmed. The oceans absorb a large portion of all carbon dioxide emitted, and as the resulting carbonic acid increases in the seawater, the extra acidity hurts the ability of marine organisms to form shells. The impacts could eventually be devastating. On top of that, ocean warming will lead to more frequent coral bleaching and mortality.
Coastal and low-lying areas are expected to be hard-hit. Rising sea levels will increase coastal erosion, flooding, and wetland loss. The IPCC report concludes that "many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s. Those densely-populated and low-lying areas where adaptive capacity is relatively low, and which already face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence, are especially at risk. The numbers affected will be largest in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa while small islands are especially vulnerable." The IPCC ominously notes that "the last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 meters of sea level rise."
Human health will also suffer in various ways. As the IPCC concludes: "Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity, through:
increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for child growth and development; increased deaths, disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased burden of diarrheal disease; the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground level ozone related to climate change; and, the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors."
Other reports besides that of the IPCC have drawn special attention to particular risks. The Arctic is warming at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the globe. Projections see the Arctic icecap continuing to diminish and eventually disappearing altogether in the summer, perhaps as early as 2020. Governments of the circumpolar north have begun positioning themselves strategically to claim sovereign control over new shipping lanes opened up by the disappearing ice. In an ironic twist, they all seek also to exploit the region's large fossil fuel resources. The loss of ice on Greenland more than doubled in the last decade of the twentieth century and may have doubled again by 2005.
On human health, the World Health Organization estimated in 2004 the loss of 150,000 lives each year due to climate change. Its most recent report projects that loss of life caused by climate change could double by 2030 due largely to diarrhea-related disease, malaria, and malnutrition. Most of the casualties would fall in the developing world.
A major area of ongoing climate change impact is in the North American West, where tens of millions of acres of forest are being devastated by bark beetles and other infestations. The pests-which have attacked pine, fir, and spruce trees in the western United States, British Columbia, and Alaska-are normally contained by severe winters. The milder winters in the region have increased their reproduction, abundance, and geographic range.
Natural areas in the United States could be hit hard. Assuming business as usual in greenhouse gas emissions throughout this century, the maple-beech-birch forests in New England could simply disappear, while much of the Southeast could become a vast grassland savanna, too hot and dry to support trees. Meanwhile, other studies project that human-caused climate change is likely to lead to extreme drought throughout the Southwest, starting soon. The Great Lakes also appear to be undergoing disruptive changes due to climate change. Not only are the lakes warming, but water levels are declining and fish disease is increasing.
A major concern is sea level rise, and the greatest fear is a catastrophic rise caused by movement into the oceans of landed ice on Greenland and Antarctica. Disturbing and unpredicted movements of ice have occurred in both places. Ten thousand years ago, when the continental ice sheets melted, sea levels rose more than twenty yards in five hundred years. While the IPCC is projecting somewhat less than a three-foot sea level rise in this century, some scientists believe that a continuation of greenhouse gas emission growth could lead to yards of sea level rise per century.
Even with "modest" sea level rise, we could see the displacement of large numbers of people from small island nations and the low-lying delta areas of Egypt, Bangladesh, Louisiana, and elsewhere. Today, as Alaskan permafrost melts, Inuit villages are being moved inland. Beaches, coastal marshes, and near-coast development in the United States and elsewhere could also be severely affected. Related to this, evidence is accumulating that ocean warming and increased evaporation are contributing to stronger hurricanes.
Sea level rise is only one of the consequences of climate change that could contribute to the forced migrations of large numbers of people. Depletion of water in regions supplied by glacial melt, changes in monsoon patterns, and spreading drought could combine to cause many refugees from climate change. One study has estimated that as many as 850 million people could be displaced in these ways later in this century. Prospects such as these are a reminder that climate change is not only an environmental and economic issue. It is also a profoundly moral and human issue with major implications for social justice and international peace and security.
Although many people assume that the impacts of climate change will unfold gradually, as the earth's temperature slowly rises, the buildup of greenhouse gases may in fact lead to abrupt and sudden, not gradual, changes. A National Academy of Sciences report in 2002 concluded that global climate change could have rapid impacts: "Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed.... [G]reenhouse warming and other human alterations of the earth system may increase the possibility of large, abrupt, and unwelcome regional or global climatic events."
Excerpted from The Bridge At The Edge Of The World by James Gustave Speth Copyright © 2008 by James Gustave Speth. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet 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 Japan’s 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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