Gus Speth
Gus Speth.

When Gus Speth gets radical, it’s time to start digging bunkers. For more than 30 years, Speth has labored as the consummate environmental insider, having founded an environmental think tank (World Resources Institute), co-founded a major green group (Natural Resources Defense Council), advised a president (Clinton), administered a United Nations agency (U.N. Development Program), and taught in the high echelons of American academia (Georgetown Law School, and now the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies). He’s been a major player in the modern environmental movement — and he says that movement is failing.

In his new book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Speth argues that the progress of the green movement has been no match for the far larger tide of ecological destruction that now threatens to submerge humanity entirely. It’s time to question the political economy that dominates the developed world, time to ask whether it’s providing benefits commensurate with the massive environmental deterioration it generates. It’s time to question capitalism.

I spoke with Speth by phone about his book, his work, and his vision for a more people-friendly economy.

The Bridge at the Edge of the World
The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by James Gustave Speth.

David Roberts: With this latest book, you seem to be slipping over into something a bit more like radicalism. How much of that is response to circumstances, and how much is just frustration after so many years of work?

Gus Speth: Look at the data. Goodness knows we’ve won lots of battles, and we celebrate them in the environmental movement repeatedly, but if you do look at the real long-term trends, and go back and look at the aspirations people had when we started the modern phase of environmentalism in, say, Earth Day 1970, it’s impossible not to conclude that it’s not working. As a result, we’re on the cusp of a tremendous planetary deterioration. I think these prescriptions that might look radical today aren’t going to look very radical tomorrow.

DR: Are there groups out there doing the kind of things that 21st-century environmentalism needs done?

GS: Certain things are very promising. One for example is the work that’s being done by 1Sky. I’m very excited to see what Van Jones is doing at the Ella Baker Center and Green for All. Of course we need to do a lot more of what the League of Conservation Voters is doing. The religious organizations are inspirational in these issues. I think everything Bill McKibben does is leading us in the right direction.

I see a lot of things happening out there. I see young people getting more and more interested in these issues. I think things are beginning to move, and it’s very exciting.

DR: Any thoughts on how people can use alternative media to work around the sclerotic mainstream media establishment?

GS: It is important to use these alternatives. They’re great for communicating among communities of preexisting interests. But we risk having everybody eventually ending up with just the news that suits them. In the end, we really do depend on the so-called mainstream media. It’s very important to win that back.

DR: There’s ecological destruction in China right now, India, Russia. Why focus your book on capitalism?

GS: You may be misjudging those systems. China is a form of state capitalism of the rawest type, I would say. There aren’t really systems of economic management out there today other than capitalism. If there are, they’re minor and fading pretty fast.

Capitalism is a system of political economy. It is not the idealized, theoretical system of a textbook. It’s a system dedicated, overwhelmingly, to the production of profit for reinvestment and growth, and the capitalist economy is most successful at producing very rapid and very large amounts of economic growth. The fabulous expansion of the world economy since World War II has been accompanied by a devastating deterioration of the natural environment. The projection out into the future, with the doubling time of the world economy less than two decades, is not promising.

To maintain the highest possible profit, companies are driven to externalize their environmental costs and seek environmentally destructive subsidies from government. And they basically succeed at keeping costs off their books and keeping subsidies on the government’s books. The result is that the prices that we pay are wildly out of whack. They’re environmentally dishonest, because they don’t include the cost of production, they don’t include the environmental subsidies. This fabulously large economic system is running without the most basic environmental controls.

Add to that enormous power of giant corporations, our pathetic capitulation to consumerism, and government hooked on growth because it can generate more revenues without having to raise tax rates. Environmentalists try to swim against that current and they’re just not strong enough, and so we keep losing.

DR: Some enviros say genuinely free markets are a friend of the environment. As opposed to rejecting capitalism, they advocate taking capitalism seriously.

GS: A lot of environmental economists think that all you have to do is get prices right by internalizing environmental costs and doing away with environmental subsidies. But that’s a dream world. I go through the whole environmental microeconomics picture in some detail [in my book]. And if you could do all the things that I talk about, well, we’d have this problem more or less solved.

We need to challenge consumerism. We need to challenge the way corporations are chartered and the structures within which they operate today. We need to challenge growth itself and ask, is it really benefiting us at this stage in our economic development? Or is growth imposing more costs on us than it is creating real benefits?

DR: There are people who say economic growth can be decoupled from greenhouse-gas emissions. I take it you’re saying something stronger?

GS: I’m saying something very different. If you’ve got a really wasteful economy and you need to dematerialize it to increase eco-efficiency, and you adopt policies to force very rapid technological change, you could have a certain amount of growth and a certain amount of environmental improvement occurring simultaneously. But if you’ve got what we’ve got now, it doesn’t look that way; the growth remains the enemy. Then you have to ask, if growth is the enemy and it’s going to be part of the environmental problem for affluent countries, is it really creating the benefits people automatically assume it brings?

We’ve had tremendous amounts of jobless growth in this country. If you look at whether people are getting happier in their lives and feeling a stronger sense of personal satisfaction, it’s flat-lined for decades. It doesn’t go up with all that GDP per capita.

So what you have to ask is, is it really worth it? We have a serious social problem. It’s gotten bad in the teeth of tremendous amounts of economic growth and large increases in per-capita GDP. And more of that is not going to make these problems go away. If you want to deal with these issues of social justice in our country, let’s just do it. Let’s not pretend that we’re solving these problems by growing, or even that growth provides the means to solve those problems, which is a traditional formula. Make a list of all the things you would do with all the extra money growth is going to produce. And then … let’s just do them!

DR: A growing number of people are trying to make happiness or well-being a first-order goal of public policy rather than a hoped-for side effect. That involves trying to measure it. What are some promising methods along those lines?

GS: The first thing to do is to have a good system of national indicators of subjective well-being. We know that losing one’s job, getting laid off, is terribly destructive to a sense of well-being, so you want to have policies with job retention and job-sharing and other things that keep people employed. We know that people’s sense of well-being stems heavily from their associations with other people in their communities, their families, their churches and synagogues and mosques, so you want to have policies which give people the time and incentives to invest in those areas. We need to be investing heavily in social capital, in building up social connectedness.

DR: The typical response is that if you try to make happiness part of policy, you just end up imposing your values on people.

GS: I feel like somebody’s trying to impose a lot of values on me right now. [Laughs.] They’re just not my values. That’s kind of a strange way of looking at it. Of course we can get better at measuring things that go into long-term social and environmental well-being. To deal with social issues is not something foreign from politics; it should be what our politics is all about, and when our politics is at its best, that’s what it’s trying to do.

DR: The reforms you advocate would sap corporations of a lot of that power, yet the only mechanisms through which you could possibly implement reforms are already heavily influenced by them.

GS: Exactly right. But to give up on these things is even worse. There’s no reason to think we can’t make major change. It’s just going to take a struggle. People have to see how serious the environmental and social conditions are.

I hope we don’t have to have a breakdown, a collapse. What we need to do and what we’re not doing is get the environmentally concerned people and the socially concerned people and the politically concerned people together, because that’s just one movement, in the end. Those communities are not talking much to each other today, but they’re communities of shared faith. Each is trying to inject a sense of values into this valueless economic machine.