Taking Our Own Inventory Gus Speth on Capitalism and the Environmental Community

“The planet cannot sustain capitalism as we know it.” That sentence crops up throughout James Gustave (“Gus”) Speth’s latest book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (Yale University Press). Speth, dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was a cofounder of both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. He also served as top environmental adviser to President Jimmy Carter and as head of the United Nations Development Programme for much of the 1990s.

From his perch as the ultimate insider, Speth delivers a bracing critique of the environmental movement as being too willing to work within a system (“capitalism as we know it”) that is devastating not only to the earth’s environment but to most of its inhabitants as well.

E: Could you explain your main position in writing this book?

Speth: The essence of socialism is public ownership of the means of production, and I don’t think that’s the answer to the problems I’m raising, but neither is capitalism. We need to move beyond today’s capitalism and find a non-socialist alternative. That’s the door I’m trying to open with this book. It grew out of a sense that we’re approaching a calamitous situation on the environmental front. How could we have this paradox in which the environmental community—which I’ve been part of my whole life—gets stronger and more sophisticated, better funded, more members—and the environment continues to go downhill?”

E: What is your message to today’s environmental community?

Speth: Mainstream environmentalism is very incremental, it’s very wonkish in the sense that it’s very technical. But the problem is, it’s like swimming upstream—we get stronger and we think we’re going to master the current and make headway against the current, but the truth is the current is getting stronger faster than we are. The economy is growing very rapidly. The issues have outgrown us and we’re not making headway, and my guess is we never will with the current approach. That is, you won’t succeed working within the system when you need to change the system. So my urging to the environmental community is to step outside the system, to develop a more stinging, more in-depth critique and to begin to do some things which the environmental community hasn’t been willing to take on so far.

E: Such as?

Speth: To suggest that we don’t need to make any serious lifestyle changes, that we can have our cake and eat it, too. I firmly believe that’s the wrong answer now. I believe we are over-consuming, that we need to downshift, to concentrate on sufficiency rather than always more, and to move away from the consumer society and overcome our bad case of “affluenza.”

E: Is the global economy inevitably at odds with environmental conservation?

Speth: When the economy grows very rapidly, environmental impacts tend to increase. The global economy has doubled in less than 20 years, but the environmental community isn’t willing to say growth is the problem. And we haven’t been willing to tell the public the truth about prices. We have this idea in our society that everything has to be really cheap, especially energy. But if we had prices that were honest from the point of view of their impact on society, of national security costs, then we would be paying very high prices for a lot of things that are cheap today. And if we don’t have honest prices in our economy, we will never have a market economy that is steered toward environmental objectives.

E: Especially given our current eco-nomic state, most people don’t want to contemplate paying more for anything. How do you suggest framing that proposition?

Speth: We have to get the markets straightened out and get the prices right. That’s going to take a lot of courage because it means living with higher prices for a lot of things. [But] we ought to be paying for the environmental damage we’re doing. The “polluter pays’ principle is fundamental in international law, for example. Second, we need to rethink the basic charter of the modern corporation, which is aimed heavily at maximizing shareholder wealth, and we need to reorder that so the modern corporation is aimed at serving the long-term interest of all its stakeholders. That means the workers and the communities and future generations and the environment. Third, we need to rethink our own behavior. These changes would lead us beyond the capitalism we have today. I can see people coming together to create a new force for change, and [if that happens] I think there’s real hope for the deep changes that are needed.