Capitalism as we know it today is incapable of sustaining the environment.

— James Gustave (Gus) Speth, in The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

The Bridge at the End of the World, by James Gustave (Gus) Speth

The Bridge at the End of the World, by James Gustave Speth

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In the late 1980s, Tony was arguing that global warming might force us to fundamentally alter capitalism. He believed that the struggle against nature was the irreconcilable contradiction that would force systemic change.

— Les Leopold, in The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi

I don’t know if Gus Speth and Tony Mazzocchi knew each other personally. Speth’s career has been as a co-founder and senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, with President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, as founder and president of the World Resources Institute, as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and, since 1999, as Dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The late Tony Mazzocchi, on the other hand, following service in the army during World War II, was completely immersed in the world of the U.S. labor movement. He rose from the ranks to become a national leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, and he was the founder and leader of the Labor Party.

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But as these two fascinating books make clear, their distinct life experiences led them both to believe that the capitalist system which now dominates most of the world is the ultimate problem humanity must face up to and deal with if we are to survive and if, in Tony Mazzocchi’s words …

people are [to be] able to enjoy the arts, relaxation, interaction with other people, free time … You know, there’s an awful lot of wealth out there. If it was distributed appropriately, everyone could have a fairly decent life — I think globally. And people could be happy transforming the way we live. Not everyone has to live in a mansion, but everyone can live in a decent environment. It’s all possible. (pps. 480-481)

Tony Mazzocchi died in 2002. As Les Leopold’s well-researched book makes clear, Mazzocchi was not your typical U.S. labor leader. He was a visionary, while being practical and “close to the ground” in his political sensibilities. He was a radical in his political beliefs, for sure, in the best sense of radicalism: getting at the root of things.

His brush with heavy manual labor convinced him that the good life required something beyond traditional work. Slowly, that sense would crystallize into a stinging critique of the left’s obsession with ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ Mazzocchi would later apply his version of radicalism to anticipate a different kind of contradiction of capitalism: He believed the clash of capital against nature (as in global warming or environmental health) — not just a clash over economic resources — would force systemic change. (pps. 76-77)

Mazzocchi was likely the first labor leader, if not one of the first labor activists, to get it on global warming. 20 years ago, in 1988, he organized the first U.S. union conference on global warming, and he was responsible for the publication and circulation of Global Warming Watch, by the Labor Institute’s Mike Merrill, “certainly the first publication on the implications of climate change for American workers.” (p. 433)

Mazzocchi’s commitment to linking worker’s rights and environmental issues was deeply-grounded. As the legislative director of OCAW he played a major role in 1973 when 4,000 OCAW members who worked for Shell Oil Company went on strike at eight plants and refineries around the country. In part because of Mazzocchi, the health and safety of the workers, at risk because of high amounts of asbestos in their workplaces, was the primary issue of the strike.

Due to Mazzocchi’s leadership, a blue-green alliance developed around this struggle. Major environmental groups supported the strike and built support for a nationwide boycott of Shell products. Four months after it began, the strike was settled. Historian Robert Gordon, writing 25 years later, wrote of OCAW’s …

… remarkable progress. Almost all of the union’s contracts with other oil companies were renewed with the strict health and safety clause. . . In addition, OCAW’s efforts heightened public awareness of health hazards confronting millions of American workers. . . Perhaps most importantly, the Shell strike solidified the tentative labor-environmental alliance. (p. 308)

Gus Speth appreciates the importance of such alliances if we are to create a just and sustainable society. In the concluding pages of his book, he says that “perhaps above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate.” (p. 228)

Coming from someone who Time magazine called the “ultimate insider,” 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.

It is no small thing when someone with Speth’s background and connections writes, “my conclusion, after much searching and considerable reluctance, is that most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today and that long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism.” (p. 9) Or this more stark formulation: “Capitalism as we know it today is incapable of sustaining the environment.” (p. 63)

On the other hand, Speth makes clear that he’s no socialist, a difference with Mazzocchi, who liked the basic idea even though he was critical of much of “actually existing socialism” and much of the organized socialist and communist Left in the U.S.

Speth writes approvingly of a government-regulated market economy, one in which environmental impacts and the “polluter pays” principle would be paramount, essentially a form of environmental social democracy. Included would be …

… policies that promote an environmental revolution in technology … a wholesale transformation in the technologies that today dominate manufacturing, energy, construction, transportation and agriculture. The twentieth-century technologies that have contributed so abundantly to today’s problems should be phased out and replaced with twenty-first-century technologies designed with environmental sustainability and restoration in mind. (p. 113)

Speth calls for a rejection of the necessity of constant economic growth — a central tenet of capitalism. He calls, instead, for policies that “strengthen families and communities,” “measures that guarantee good, well-paying jobs,” “measures that give us more time for leisure, informal education, the arts, music, drama, sports, hobbies, volunteering, community work, outdoor work,” “measures that give everyone a good education,” and more. (p. 145)

He rejects “consumerism and commercialism.” Instead:

Confront consumerism. Practice sufficiency. Work less. Reclaim your time — it’s all you have. Turn off technology. Join No Shopping Day. Buy nothing … Simplify your life. Shed possessions. Downshift. (p. 163)

He is critical of corporations and wants to see the public good come before private profit, with the implications of that for actually existing corporations, especially the huge and powerful ones, left unclear. He supports “ownership by workers, public ownership, and public and private enterprises that do not seek traditional profits. They offer opportunities for greater local control, more sensitivity to employee, public, and consumer interests, and heightened environmental performance. Collectively, they signal the emergence of a new sector — a public or independent sector — that has the potential to be a countervailing center of power to today’s capitalism.” (p. 194) Left unaddressed — a weakness — is how this “countervailing center of power” would relate to the military/industrial/fossil fuel complex that dominates our economy and government.

Speth sees the importance of “a new consciousness” and “a new politics” if the change needed is to take place. He appreciates that “government is the principal means available to citizens to collectively exercise their stewardship responsibility to leave the world a better place.” (p. 217)

He is particularly supportive of the movement-building that is going on among young people and within the World Social Forum process. He concludes by writing:

Our goal should be to find the spark that can set off a period of rapid change, like the flowering of the domestic environmental agenda in the early 1970s. In the end, we need to trigger a response that in historical terms will come to be seen as revolutionary — the Environmental Revolution of the twenty-first century. Only such a response is likely to avert huge and even catastrophic environmental losses.

One weakness of Speth’s book, highlighted by comparison to the one on Mazzocchi, is that while he supports alliance-building and grassroots movement-building, he says nothing about our corporate-dominated, two-party political system. He doesn’t address whether he thinks it will be possible to make the changes necessary through the Democratic Party alone, and how he sees that political animal.

Does he believe that we do — or don’t — need to transform a political system that pretty much restricts voters’ choices to Republicans and Democrats, that makes it extremely difficult for third parties to gain a foothold and grow? What about the role of our propagandistic, corporate-dominated mass media and our 19th-century, winner-take-all, non-proportional electoral system in suppressing popular resistance to capitalism’s negative and destructive impacts?

Tony Mazzocchi, experiencing the relative powerlessness of the working class, understood this in his bones, which is why he devoted the last years of his life to efforts to form a U.S. labor party.

A related weakness is a lack of specificity when it comes to the tactics of struggle in the process of making the urgently-needed “Environmental Revolution.” The role of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience … the centrality of leadership in this new movement from historically disenfranchised constituencies like people of color, working-class people, and women … the building of thoroughly democratic and transparent organizations and alliances that empower grassroots people and new members … how to counter the inevitable efforts to divide and repress a growing movement that threatens the obscene wealth and power of those who currently have it: these are very real issues.

Albert Einstein once said, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” Thanks to Les Leopold, many people who did not know Tony Mazzocchi will have their spirit rekindled when they read about this 20th century hero of our history.

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. May “the spark that can set off a period of rapid change” come soon.

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