The Bridge at the Edge of the World:
Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
By James Gustave Speth Yale University Press 2008 237 pages
Thesis: “The planet cannot sustain capitalism as we know it.”
This is a brave and brilliant book. Not only does Speth cover the broadest consequences of environmental destruction, he attacks consumer capitalism as the culprit. Then he goes on to specifics about its successor, “post-growth society.” In addition, he has woven into each of his arguments the points of other authors, bolstering his thrust with their input. The result is a compendium of dozens of great minds. It’s an exciting, uplifting, in your face experience for any grateful reader who cares about the future.
The twelve chapters and three parts are heavily weighted in favor of solutions. He’s not kind to current environmental groups, which he deems too timid and too limited. “Working within the system will not succeed when what is needed is transformative change of the system itself.” What he’s after is a change of consciousness, and he details the steps required.
“The capitalist economy is inherently a growth economy,” Speth points out, and “growth is the enemy of environment.” But, he argues, we can make the market work for the environment. Among forces for this are: shifting taxes, incorporating environmental cost in product price, dismantling damaging subsidies, and using a true measure for economic welfare. He favors “ecological economics,” wherein “sustainability is defined in terms of not exceeding assimilative and regenerative capacities.” He calls for recognizing “the real sources of human well-being,” including more leisure time, job security, health and retirement benefits, consumer protection, progressive taxation, and a huge investment in education.
Further, Speth contends, it’s essential to abandon our “growth fetish” and our addiction to consumption, and to completely transform the corporation. “Corporations are capitalism’s most important institutions,” he says, and “profoundly dangerous.” For one thing, they are “unaccountable”—there are no restrictions on them. He sees “corporate greening” as a solution, requiring government action. Most important is changing the legal mandate requiring corporations to pursue their own self interest and shareholder primacy. Corporations need a “public purpose.”
Speth wants to see capitalism evolving, to “recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies.”
Yes, Speth wants nothing less than “a new consciousness,” a “new politics,” and “a reorientation of values.”
A real and effective environmental movement will expand its agenda to fight the consumer commercial lifestyle, challenge corporations, stress human rights, and oppose inequality—via grassroots politics. Let’s, says Speth, have an Environmental Revolution!
I find this book so exciting because it charts a course through what I’ve been feeling, thinking, and experiencing over some years. My only reservation comes from the question: how can a movement that touts as its major principle the Golden Rule, take on the entrenched interests of corporate capitalism, the “American Way Of Life?” Isn’t such a view just Utopian? Speth’s reply is that business as usual is the real Utopian delusion.