One 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.
“A second would be a transformation to a postgrowth society where what you really want is to grow very specific things that are desperately needed in a very targeted way—you know, care for the mentally ill, health-care accessibility, high-tech green-collar industries.
“A third would be a move to a wider variety of ownership patterns in the private sector. More co-ops, more employee ownership plans, and less rigid lines between the profit and the not-for-profit sectors.”
To get there, though, requires more than just policy orchestrated by the people on the top. Beyond his call for a serious bottom-up grassroots effort that “shakes up people’s consciousness and forces us to rethink what’s really important,” Speth also believes that a fundamental shift both in environmental groups’ focus and in our society’s values are crucial to saving the planet.
“I think that the environmental community needs to see political reform as central to its agenda, and it doesn’t now…the other thing that needs to happen is that there needs to be some fundamental challenge to our dominant values. It’s been addressed by religious organizations and psychologists and philosophers and countless others for a long time. But until we reconnect in a more profound way with ourselves and our communities and the natural world, it seems unlikely that we will deal successfully with our problems.”