I reviewed The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustave "Gus" Speth in the latest issue of The New Atlantis. It's an important book, if for no other reason than Speth's influence on contemporary environmental thought. But it fails to offer a viable agenda for environmental reform, let alone a roadmap to ecological sustainability.
Speth is the consummate environmental insider, former CEQ and UN official, founder of the World Resources Institute and now the Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In his book, Speth argues that the environmental movement has failed to prevent continuing ecological deterioration. Now the world faces a global environmental crisis that requires remaking modern civilization. In his view, ecological sustainability requires abandoning modern democratic capitalism, adopting European-style social reforms, and transforming human consciousness. It's a radical agenda, to be sure, but it won't save the environment or ensure a sustainable future.
Here's a taste of the review.
Speth’s call for radicalism is inspired, in part, by his belief that the environmental movement has failed to adopt and enact a sufficiently forward-looking agenda. The environmental movement is, in his view, overly “pragmatic and incrementalist” and too willing to accept compromises, naïvely believing that “the system can be made to work for the environment.” Insofar as Speth means that environmentalists are overly enamored of the regulatory state and the ability of expert bureaucracies to plan our way to a greener future, he’s onto something. But he means much more. Environmentalism, in his view, is too narrow and insufficiently radical. “Today’s environmentalism believes that problems can be solved at acceptable economic costs,” he laments, as if seeking to impose “unacceptable” costs on society would be worth doing.The full review is here.
Rather than acknowledging the inherent limitations of political institutions to manage economic and ecological concerns, he suggests it is the private sector’s fault that the public sector fails. Ecological central planning is a vastly more complex enterprise than economic central planning ever was, and that much more prone to failure. Thus it is to be expected that contemporary environmental protection efforts “have spawned a huge and impenetrable regulatory and management apparatus” and current regulations “are quite literally beyond comprehension.” Speth offers no reason why still more radical governmental efforts to restructure and reorient economic activity will not produce even greater problems, but he sees such controls as absolutely indispensable. In his view, the only environmentally sound corporation “is one that is required to be green by law.” . . .
To say I am skeptical of Speth’s agenda is an understatement. What begins as a well-intentioned (if blinkered) examination of sustainability transforms into a connect-the-dots radical jeremiad. While it is important to acknowledge the limits of existing institutions, one must also reflect on institutional successes. The relative vices of capitalism, or any other system, cannot be judged in isolation from its virtues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking dramatic political change, but it seems disingenuous to wrap the entire progressive, social-democratic agenda in the mantle of environmental sustainability. Environmental policy should be about the environment, not income redistribution or the length of the workweek. Speth should put aside his elite ideological preferences for a European-style social welfare state if he truly wants to build a lasting “bridge” to environmental sustainability. As constructed, his bridge is not structurally sound—and it leads someplace nobody would really want to go.