The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer declared: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
Reading the most recent book by James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, brings these words repeatedly to mind.
As one of America’s leading environmentalists, Speth’s writings attract great attention — especially given his other roles as founder of the World Resources Institute and co-founder of the the Natural Resources Defense Council, two of Washington’s most respected environmental organizations.
Speth was also chair of the Council on Environmental Quality under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, headed the U.N. Development Programme, and received the Asahi Glass Blue Planet Prize in 2002.
His most recent work — described by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as “the most compelling plea we have for changing our lives and our politics” — is titled “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability” (2008, CQ Press). There, Speth spells out the great challenges humanity faces and his thoughts on how to overcome them. The Japanese translation is due out this fall.
“All of us who have been part of the environmental movement in the United States must now face up to a deeply troubling paradox: Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill, to the point that the prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. How could this have happened?” Speth said in an article last autumn — asking a question that also applies to environmentalism worldwide.
The situation, he declares, is bad.
“Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the Tropics continues at about an acre a second, and has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half the corals are gone or seriously threatened.
“Species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal. Desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year globally [an area only 15 percent smaller than the size of Honshu].
“Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us,” he writes.
Most people have heard such facts and figures before, but Speth is as well aware of our successes as our failures. Indeed, it is this objectivity that makes him such a thoughtful voice for change.
“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 exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at 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 human activities are not holding at current levels — they are accelerating, dramatically. The size of the world economy has more than quadrupled since 1960, and is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. It took all of human history to grow the $7-trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by that amount in a decade,” he explains.
The problem is clear, according to Speth: Modern capitalism is out of control. We have come to believe that, given enough time and space, continuous economic growth will make all 6.5 billion of us better off materially, socially, politically and spiritually.
But, as he notes in “The Bridge at the Edge of the World,” our planet remains finite. Both time and space conspire against our pursuit of unlimited growth.
Indeed, growth has become the overarching belief system of humanity.
“Communism aspired to become the universal creed of the 20th century, but a more flexible and seductive religion succeeded where communism failed: the quest for economic growth. Capitalists, nationalists — indeed almost everyone, communists included — worshipped at this same altar because economic growth disguised a multitude of sins,” notes historian J.R. McNeill, one of dozens of authorities Speth enlists in this work.
Thinking back to Schopenhauer, those who worship free-hand capitalism and laissez-faire government will ridicule and oppose Speth. But for those seeking an even-handed look at the shortcomings of the status quo, “The Bridge at the End of the World” offers a cogent and well- documented journey through our past, present and future(s).
Speth peels back the many layers of our global societal onion: the workings of the market and contemporary environmentalism; our addiction to growth, consumption and corporations; studies confirming that even as a nation’s Gross Domestic Product rises, life satisfaction remains level; and the seeds for transformation we already possess — but must take up and plant — including new ways of doing business and new politics.
The last time I spoke with Speth was at Yale in 2004, just after his book “Red Sky at Morning” was published. This time we talked by e-mail, and I asked if any of his observations in the new book have been altered by the recent financial meltdown.
“The economic collapse serves to further delegitimize the current order, and opens the door further to fundamental challenges. For decades, anti-regulation market fundamentalists have argued with increasing success against government interference in the economy. As a result, investor, consumer and environmental protection have all been weakened far past the danger point. Thanks to the crisis, we may be able to say goodbye to that era,” he replied.
Asked what role he would like to see Japan play in the coming decade, Speth offered several suggestions.
“I would like to see Japan pioneer in becoming a post-growth society, as described in the book. The world also needs Japanese leadership in three upcoming areas: in negotiating a post-Kyoto climate agreement; in making the Biodiversity Convention succeed in protecting biodiversity (the upcoming meeting of convention members will be in Japan, hosted by the government); and in seeking to reform the process of global environmental governance, which today is deplorably weak, much weaker than global economic governance. I describe this last need in ‘Red Sky at Morning,’ ” he said.
China is a different story.
“Like the United States, China is a huge problem for the global environment. The good news is that the Chinese authorities now know this, I believe, and understand that their domestic environmental challenges are intimately linked to their global ones, and that there are new industries and products to be built solving both,” Speth noted.
I suspect he would agree with Schopenhauer’s progression of truth, but in his book he chooses the greater optimism of Mahatma Gandhi: “First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win,” quotes Speth.
Speth is one of this generation’s keenest observers and potential reformers. He sees “we’re headed toward a ruined planet” — but he is also committed to finding solutions, to finding another path, one that “leads to a bridge across the abyss.”
“The Bridge at the Edge of the World” offers no promises, but as Speth develops his case against status-quo capitalism, growth at all costs, and misguided governance, he maintains guarded optimism that we can change direction.
To do so, though, will require a concerted change in our priorities and practices. If we don’t, we are very likely to end up where we are headed.
Stephen Hesse can be contacted at: email@example.com