Book World: 'The Bridge at the Edge of the World'

James Gustave Speth
Author and Environmentalist
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; 3:00 PM

"Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. That is the core message of The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by J. "Gus" Speth, a prominent environmentalist who, in this book, has turned sharply critical of the U.S. environmental movement."

James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was online Tuesday, April 29 to discuss his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, which was reviewed in Book World.

Speth has long been prominent in the environmental movement. He is a former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and was a founder of both the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A transcript follows.


James Gustave Speth: Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to questions from you. I'm actually at the Washington Post's office for this exchange.


Freising, Germany: What do you think is the current role of NGOs in terms of global governance and the environment? Are NGOs as effective now as they have been in the past?

James Gustave Speth: NGO's are unfortunately allowed only at the edges of international negotiations. We need to open up treaty processes to NGO participation, including enforcement. NGO's are getting stronger and more sophisticated, but the environment continues to go downhill. That's the paradox that led me to write the book.


Washington, D.C.: Gus, congratulations on the book. I'm curious what you have to say about the Worldwatch Institute's 2008 edition of State of the World, which carries the tagline "Innovations for a Sustainable Economy." One of your colleagues, Dan Esty, spoke at their launch event here in DC, emphasizing the fact that we need to work with business and embrace capitalism. Are their messages in line with yours? State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy (Worldwatch Institute)

James Gustave Speth: Well, not exactly. I believe my colleague Dan is of the view that we can address our environmental challenges successfully working within the system. I've got nothing against that insofar as it goes, but I've come to the conclusion after 40 years of agreeing with that view, that working within the system will in the end not suffice. We'll just keep losing ground (and water and climate). I think we're going to have to change the system in important and difficult ways.


Portland, Ore.: The leaders of mainstream environmental groups are often judged solely on their ability to advance environmental legislation. In addition to encouraging single-issue focus and relatively short-term planning, this leads to strategies for change based on "insider politics."

I'm concerned by the complete absence of grassroots organizing in the mainstream environmental movement -- and most other progressive movements. Are grassroots organizing and democratic organizations necessary to achieve the changes you advocate?

James Gustave Speth: You are right, I think, on both points. Another factor shaping the approaches of the mainstream environmental groups is that these approaches were enormously successful in the early years. Huge omissions on the environmental front have been the failure to build a true grassroots movement and to commit heavily to electoral politics. I talk about both in the book.


Medford, Mass.: Dr. Speth,

Gelbspan writes in his review, "He implies that a more highly regulated and democratized form of capitalism could be compatible with environmental salvation if it were accompanied by a profound change in personal and collective values."

Considering the pressure Wall Street puts on corporations for economic growth, what measures beyond EPS, earnings and market share growth would you suggest for post-growth capitalism?

James Gustave Speth: Gelbspan is right about the importance of changing the values that dominate in our culture. Materialism is toxic to happiness, and we are losing our connection to the natural world. Park visitation is off, for example.

Value change can change our pathetic capitulation to consumerism, which will help us psychologically as well as environmentally.

In the book, I discuss ideas that have been put forward to change profoundly the behavior of the corporation.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Speth, I greatly look forward to reading your book. I have a comment and a question. It appears that, as a veteran of the environmental movement, you have a greater appreciation now for what economists were saying in the 1970s and 1980s about the importance of market incentives for attaining environmental goals. As a business person, I hope that in your book you expand on how you think that should be structured so it becomes integral to individual business planning. I would also argue that it is because of fundamental corruption that government has abdicated its responsibility for the common good in favor of narrow industrial interests. Therefore I hope your book discusses which "sticks" need to be employed as well.

Does your book provide a reasonably detailed road map for how we should proceed, or is it weighted toward your diagnosis of the problem?

James Gustave Speth: The review of my book might have given the impression that the book is more about diagnosis than cure, but the reverse is true.

And yes, the book focuses a lot on what is needed to make the market work for the environment, rather than the against it. But of course, the key is government action to correct market failure. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that we must drive government, but we have mostly failed at that because our politics are so enfeebled and corporate influence is so strong. Corporations today are not just the main economic actors; they are the main political actors.


Washington, D.C.: Are the presidential candidates saying anything about their ideas for environmental policy that excites or impresses you?

James Gustave Speth: The Democrats have good positions on paper, and Senator McCain has been a leader in the Senate on the most important issue, climate change. But the questions are (1) will climate change be a top, first hundred days initiative, and (2) when the new president does act, will the Washington process of death by 1000 cuts leave us with far too little?

We are approaching the edge of disaster on global warming and climate disruption. So far neither the public nor our politics is treating this emergency with the attention it deserves.


Alexandria, Va.: In your estimation, when might we expect to see the tipping point that begins to extract us from the idea of continuous consumption? And is it a singular event, or a combination?

James Gustave Speth: Unfortunately a lot of experts think it will take a crisis to wake us up. I have this scenario that I hope will play out soon: an accumulation of well-justified warnings amounting to a virtual crisis, occurring in a time of wise leadership, that helps us frame a new American story and a new American dream, reinforced by a contagious proliferation of small experiments across the landscape that point the way, and driven by a growing social movement for change--one that fuses concerns with environmental sustainability, social justice, and strong democracy and popular control. Young people and religious organizations would be central to this movement, I'd guess.


Alexandria, Va.: Is incrementalism really that bad a strategy for the environmental movement? Given that the average citizen places the environment below economy, Iraq and health care on their personal issue list, can we really expect systemic change to be adopted when only a small passionate minority understand the true damaging costs of our current system?

James Gustave Speth: We've got to move on two parallel tracks. On one--the conventional one--we've got to use the approaches, including incrementalism, we know how to use. An issue like climate change, for example, is too urgent to await the type of new and sweeping changes I advocate in the book.

But simultaneously, we've got to mobilize our spiritual and political energies to challenge our growth fetish, our consumerism, corporate domination of our politics, and more.


Washington, D.C.: A lot of those environmentalists I bump into in D.C. are rich and liberal. Just how can they be rich if they are anti-business and anti-capitalism? They make more than 6 loggers in the Northwest.

James Gustave Speth: My wife and I have purchased two hybrids. We bought a 3 kw photovoltaic unit. We recycle and offset our carbon emissions on the Internet. We turn things off. But we also spend two nice salaries every year, and here's the dirty little secret--our environmental footprint is HUGE, I'm sure. We've all got to do what we can in our individual lives, but we've also got to drive the systemic changes that will make the big differences.


Washington, D.C.: Aside from 'throwing in the towel,' or continuing to 'rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,' what do you propose we -- individuals and governments -- do to avert planetary catastrophe?

James Gustave Speth: Let me try to summarize some of the agenda for change that's better put in the book.

*a shift to environmentally honest prices, including an end to environmentally perverse subsidies

*a shift to a post-growth society where our jobs, our communities, and our environments are no longer sacrificed to push up GDP

*a shift to a post-consumer society which recognizes that endless purchases of what the market has to offer has not led to lasting improvements in our own sense of well-being and happiness; only our relationships can do that

*a shift in corporate focus away from serving shareholders (only) to serving all stakeholders

* a shift in our politics from weak to strong democracy, where popular sovereignty is reasserted

*a shift from seeing environment as an issue unto itself to seeing it as one of a broad array of issues (eg. social justice) that will rise or fall together.


Washington D.C.: Dr. Speth,

Third World countries are just coming out of poverty because of the many positive aspects of globalization. Were we to shut this growth down now, the effects on the global economy could be dire.

What do you have to say to that?

James Gustave Speth: I worked in the UN for six years in international development. Half of the world lives poverty (on less than $2 per person per day), and growth for them is essential.

My book is focused on those of us who are already affluent. Here in the US we may be entering an era of "uneconomic growth" where growth is running up more costs, environmental and social, than benefits.

Keynes, Galbraith, Mill, and others of the great economists foresaw a day when economic growth would experience sharply diminishing and even negative returns.


James Gustave Speth: Thanks so much for all these terrific questions. I enjoyed this!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company