‘Sobering study’ spells out the global crisis


After more than 30 years of work in national and international environmental policymaking, James Gustave Speth has written an extraordinary book. Even better, it’s now out in Japanese, published by Chuohoki.

Few environmentalists can match Speth’s career in law, advocacy, policy research and public service. Co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and founder of the World Resources Institute — both U.S.-based — Speth was an environmental adviser to presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Additionally, Speth has headed the U.N. Development Programme, and in 2002 he received the Asahi Glass Blue Planet Prize for his lifetime achievement.

Speth, 62, is now dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

His new book, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment” (Yale University Press), was called “a profoundly sobering study” by The New York Review of Books, and Time magazine’s Eugene Linden wrote: “The ultimate insider offers a devastating critique of global environmental efforts.”

Both are right.

“Red Sky” is sobering and devastating, but it is also a balanced and thoughtful clarion call, wide-ranging and lucid — and ultimately inspiring.

Sailors will recognize that the title derives from the centuries-old axiom: “Red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning; red sky at night, sailors’ delight.”

“It’s a warning that goes back thousands of years and can be found in the Bible, in Matthew’s gospel,” Speth explained in an interview last month.

Speth chose the title to convey his own sense of concern and urgency. “The book is intended to be a warning. Unless we all take action urgently to reverse global environmental losses, we face rough seas ahead, the perfect storm of the environment,” he said, paraphrasing from his Preface to the Japanese edition.

“Red Sky” begins with an overview of today’s global environmental problems, in particular pollution, biological impoverishment and the effects of climate change. Speth then explores governmental attempts, and failures, to deal with environmental degradation — and here his years of international experience ensure a concise discussion of an obscure area of law and diplomacy.

Next, “Red Sky” documents “10 drivers of environmental deterioration,” from population to “the growth-at-all-costs imperative” that fuels our economy.

Lastly, Speth outlines eight areas for transformation that he describes as being critical to global environmental protection and sustainability. Of the eight, he dedicates a full chapter to each of the final two: good governance and a transition in culture and consciousness.

“Red Sky” is particularly successful in challenging the outdated mantras that guide many conventional politicians and business leaders — including claims that free enterprise will solve all our environmental problems, and that simply maximizing Gross Domestic Product will maximize societal wellbeing.

Speth is delighted to have the book out in Japanese, and is eager to stress the important role Japan can play in promoting change.

He mentions six areas of special relevance, beginning with the need for advanced environmental technology (he is “the proud owner” of a Toyota Prius), followed by the need for momentum on the Kyoto Protocol.

“Thirdly, Japan needs to look hard at the issue of declining global fisheries. One study has found that we have decimated all of the large predator fish in the ocean, that we are down to about a 10 percent remnant of fish like swordfish and tuna,” Speth said.

“I also urge Japan to do more in the area of sustainable development in the developing world. A ranking done annually by the Carnegie Endowment of all the industrial countries on how supportive they are of developing countries has found that the two countries at the bottom of the list are the United States and Japan,” he explained. Rankings are based on various factors, including trade policies and development aid as a percentage of GDP.

“Fifth, it is time for Japan to exercise some reverse gaiatsu (outside pressure) on the U.S. for a change. As I note in the preface to the Japanese edition, greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the U.S. are twice what they are in Japan,” he said.

Speth is particularly concerned about the effects of climate change, and believes that “climate must be made a priority,” particularly in the U.S., through the reduction of greenhouse gases and dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.

He is disappointed that the Bush administration has shown “no interest in giving positive leadership on the climate-change challenge,” despite overwhelming evidence of changing ocean currents, precipitation levels and plant and animal populations.

“Lastly, I would pose to the Japanese the same question that I pose in the book: Is it possible for very rich countries with fairly low unemployment, low income-inequality and a high standard of living, is it possible for such countries to consider declaring victory on the economic front? In short, how much is enough?” he queries.

Speth won’t say he’s optimistic. “We are losing ground, though it is still possible to head off the worst,” he says, calling himself “realistic and hopeful.”

In the U.S., he is encouraged to see increasing innovation at the state level, as well as innovative corporate initiatives to cut pollution and energy use. But Speth is adamant that “swift and deep change is needed” — and he believes that citizen action is essential. For this reason, “Red Sky” includes an extensive, annotated list of organizations and Web addresses, as well as a listing of suggested readings.

Despite the urgency he feels, however, Speth does not lose his sense of humor or irony. Discussing the preservation of animal and plant diversity, for example, he notes wryly that, “conservation without money is conversation.”

He then suggests that a good-size global preservation network would cost only about $25 billion more a year than the $6.5 billion now being spent. “How much is $25 billion?” he asks the reader. “It’s about what the wealthy OECD countries spend annually on pet food,” he states.