Hummer capitalismOne of the most influential actors in the mainstream environmental movement has taken a radical turn in his views on the subject. James Gustave “Gus” Speth—whose contributions to environmental causes include cofounding the Natural Resources Defense Council, serving as a policy advisor to the Carter administration, and founding the environmental think tank World Resources Institute—is now pushing for a take-to-the-streets approach to the environmental crisis.

A dean at Yale University is not the most likely of candidates to call for civic upheaval, but Speth’s passion for the environment and his unyielding desire to save our planet from destruction leads him to a conclusion that is slowly becoming more prevalent in the mainstream movement. In an interview with Jeff Goodell in the Sept.-Oct. Orion (not yet available online), Speth shared his vision for a citizen-led movement that reimagines our current economy and state of mind in favor of environmental sustainability. This vision is spelled out in his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World (Yale University Press, 2008).

“The fundamental thing that’s happened is that our efforts to clean up the environment are being overwhelmed by the sheer increase in the size of the economy,” Speth tells Goodell. “And there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. So we have to ask, what is it about our society that puts such an extraordinary premium on growth? Is it justified? Why is that growth so destructive? And what do we do about it?

“Capitalism is a growth machine. What it really cares about is earning a profit and reinvesting a large share of that and growing continually … . And so all of these things combine to produce a type of capitalism that really doesn’t care about the environment, and doesn’t really care about people much either. What it really cares about is profits and growth, and the rest is more or less incidental. And until we change that system, my conclusion is that it will continue to be fundamentally destructive.”

Speth proposes we look for a “nonsocialist alternative” to capitalism. This revised capitalist system would require a series of transformations:

“The first would be a transformation in the market. There would be a real revolution in pricing. Things that are environmentally destructive would be—if they were really destructive—almost out of reach, prohibitively expensive.

Parker East
10/26/2009 4:08:54 PM

I'm not arguing it's a good thing for a more mainstream environmentalist to be talking about these things. I'm just reminding everyone to remember what came first before we bow at the altar of Speth and begin to fellate.

Parker East
10/26/2009 4:06:12 PM

It's called true cost economics. It doesn't require a move away from capitalism, and it's not a new idea. Way to miss the bus on that one, Speth: Don't worry, that article's only 5 years old, and they've been talking about it here for six:

Dave Gardner
9/4/2008 2:02:01 PM

This is a great conversation to have. Clearly, traditional capitalism's "invisible hand" does not do the trick. Too many price signals don't make it to the behaviors causing the costs. Individual players often take short term selfish gain at the expense of long-term and/or community-wide loss. The tragedy of the commons. Social democracy or democratic socialism may be a good direction to investigate. Worship of growth everlasting is a religion more widespread that Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism combined. So we have our work cut out for us. Let's get busy! Dave Gardner Producer/Director Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity