2008 | Volume 4 | Issue 2
Book Review Perspectives
James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
Yale University Press, 2008, 320pp, ISBN: 9780300136111
Philip J. Vergragt & Halina S. Brown, Tellus Institute, USA
Edward Sanders, Ecotourism International, USA
John D. Peine, University of Tennessee, USA
Rejoinder from the author: James Gustave Speth, Yale University, USA
Published online August 20, 2008
Philip J. Vergragt1 & Halina S. Brown2
1Tellus Institute, 11 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116 USA (email: email@example.com)
2Department of International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE), Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610 USA (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Out-of-control capitalism is the root cause of the enormous environmental threats facing humanity; the great environmental movements of the twentieth century have been unable to reverse the inevitable slide toward the environmental abyss. This is the opening message in Gus Speth’s new book, Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. A powerful message it is, coming from a leader of modern environmentalism in the United States whose arena has been very much tied to the existing economic system, power relations, and dominant institutions. It suggests that nothing short of a fundamental shift in economics, politics, lifestyles, technology, and culture is needed. It also promises to show the reader the trajectory for this shift. But it falls short on delivering.
Speth is at his best analyzing the nature and the complexity of the problem, and displaying the debates among various academic disciplines and in multiple circles: scholars, policy analysts, activists, opinion leaders, and policy makers. His prodigious knowledge of these debates and his ability to render them in a crisp, clear prose, densely sprinkled with great quotes from great minds, make the book a fine read and a valuable resource. It should be standard reading for students who care about sustainability, regardless of their area of study and future career plans.
Part 1, the best in the book, brilliantly explains what is wrong with the system. For one, the American form of capitalism, with its imperative of continuous growth, and driven by profits, competition, short-termism, externalization of costs, and discounting of the future, is the root cause of environmental unsustainability. Secondly, today’s environmentalism is profoundly ineffective in reversing this trend. The strategies that worked in its early decades—pragmatism, incremental policy reforms, enforcement actions (often through litigation), and narrow focus (often on a single environmental problem)—are no match for the magnitude and complexity of today’s challenges. Furthermore, these strategies target the symptoms rather than the systemic root causes. Speth’s conclusion for Part 1 is that “working only within the system will, in the end, not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”
The discussion of the transformative changes—their nature, triggers, and agents—is meant to be the stuff of Part 2. This central section is a compilation of six stand-alone essays under the sweeping title “Great Transformation.” The first two are the most familiar, as they simply re-enact well-travelled discussions on how to improve environmental policies by harnessing markets and the need to move to the post-economic-growth society. Here, we meet all the usual suspects: getting the values of pollution caps and resource harvests right, taxing undesirable activities, eliminating perverse subsidies, implementing the polluter pays principle and cap-and-trade systems, and changing how we calculate gross domestic product (GDP) to account for human welfare, good jobs, health services, education, and the like. This is the twentieth- century environmentalist speaking; the agenda is sensible, well researched, neatly fits into the existing capitalist system, and is definitely not transformative. Speth’s answer to how to shift to a post-growth society is to take us to the next two essays, on human well-being and on harnessing consumption. These essays are aspirational, based on recent critiques of out-of-control consumerism and personal wealth accumulation in the United States and advocating for simpler, less cluttered, less hurried, more spiritual and leisurely lifestyles.
The last two essays of Part 2 return to the topic of capitalism, specifically the corporation and ways to advance beyond the current system. The corporation, the author proclaims in an opening sentence, is the principal agent of capitalism, the executor of the bad deeds that collectively comprise the unsustainable system of production and consumption. The corporation is politically and economically extremely powerful and is intent on growing that power and on resisting systemic change. What is the remedy? The answers are tentative and at times internally contradictory. For example, Speth hopes for corporate voluntary “greening” (under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility), driven by pressure from civil society, consumers, and financial markets, while also acknowledging that voluntary initiatives do not produce transformative changes. He talks about limiting corporate political influence through various policy reforms, but does not address the fact that, precisely owing to that power, corporations have been able to shape, through policy processes, the capitalist system to what it is today. The author notes one interesting initiative to fundamentally reframe the function of a corporation and to rewrite the corporate charter, but provides no critical analysis of its viability. Examples of different models of company ownerships are interesting but underdeveloped.
The minimal attention devoted to other economic systems is striking here. Socialism is rightly dismissed, based on its dismal environmental record in Soviet-dominated Europe. But the European social-democratic forms of capitalism, which have much lower per-capita energy consumption and exercise more control over corporate power, are mentioned only in passing, never to be revisited again. One exits the “Great Transformation” section of the book with a better understanding of what is wrong with the system, why incremental reforms do not work, and what alternative models are being entertained out there in the realm of ideas. But the reader comes away without any clear sense of the shape, trajectory, or drivers of the great transformation.
Partly, Speth takes up this unfinished business in the third, and last, part of the book entitled “Seedbeds of Transformation.” He calls for a new consciousness, a new world view. Tellus Institute’s Great Transition Initiative and the Earth Charter are featured as examples of the expression of such new consciousness. New social movements, education, and a “new narrative” are seen as the seedbeds of change. We clearly also need new democratic politics. Speth rightly points out that the environmental movement should broaden, to include human rights, social justice, social well-being, and political reform. An international movement of citizens and scientists, coalescing from a wide array of existing organizations, is needed to advance a transition to sustainability. Examples of such nascent movements in America are noted. The book ends with the double metaphor of the bridge across the abyss, which can only be reached after we take the right path at the crossroads that we are approaching fast. But here again, few conceptual or practical proposals are included on how to go from here.
If the root of the crisis is in American-style capitalism, kept afloat by greed, hyper-competitiveness, and the ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of individual interests, we should take a harder look at alternatives that deliver different results. We should bring together the social psychology of consumption and consumerism, new ecological economics, new business models, new theories of technological innovation, and new political theories in an attempt to further conceptualize deep change. The European SCORE! Project on sustainable production and consumption, funded by the European Union, is an example of one such forward-looking effort. Moreover, we should study and learn from small-scale experiments with alternative lifestyles, business models, and technologies: why and how they emerge, the anatomy of their success and failure, the role of leadership, and their potential for becoming agents of systemic change. It is not enough to call for broad citizens’ movements; we need to reflect on the kind of leadership that might mobilize such movements and to critically evaluate their potential to change mainstream social values and lifestyle choices, including the more or less affluent Americans, the working class, professionals and intellectuals, progressives, and conservatives.
We also have a lot to learn from traditions and recent experiments in Africa, India, and other parts of the developing world. Let’s face it, our Western rationalist modernization paradigm, which has been dominant for four hundred years, has brought us into this mess, and it is hard to see how the same paradigm can get us out of it. New voices need to be heard. Speth’s book is a step in the right direction, but when it comes to building the bridge at the edge of the world it only provides us with an unsorted heap of building materials.
Gus Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World is an important contribution to the growing body of visionary literature dealing with the challenges of sustainability. In addition to his own thought-provoking observations, Speth’s extensive references offer an excellent introduction to many other authors who address our daunting global environmental problems, capitalism’s role in exacerbating them, and the core sufficiency principles that many observers believe will be required to deal with them. The book provides a smorgasbord for future readings by those who want to dig deeper into the issues of sustainability.
Ecotourism International, 555 13th Street, Boulder, CO 80302 USA (email: email@example.com)
The book’s basic theme is that today’s mainstream environmentalism (incremental and problem solving) is no longer up to the task of dealing with current resource depletion and pollution problems. In essence, Speth asserts that capitalism as we know it is incapable of sustaining the environment and that aggregate consumption levels in the richer countries are beyond the point where we should have stopped. As a result, he argues that the modern capitalist system has to be radically transformed and that a post-growth society must forgo increased production and consumption.
Speth explicitly proposes “an assault on the citadel of consumption” and suggests a variety of measures (e.g., public participation in corporate rechartering, legal liability for shareholders) that would fundamentally alter the economy’s “operating system,” thereby forcing corporations to devote resources to a variety of social objectives beyond profit maximization (albeit probably with a variety of likely unanticipated consequences, which he might or might not approve of). A book of this nature will, therefore, appeal primarily to readers already disposed to sweeping social change rather than to those more concerned with near-term policies to move a few steps closer to environmental sustainability (while recognizing the need to address a number of other social problems at the same time).
To highlight the basic options for moving ahead, Speth summarizes five worldviews suggested by Paul Raskin for responding to global environmental challenges: Fortress World, Market World, Policy Reform World, New Sustainability World, and Social Greens World. As both the narrative and the selection of quotes and citations from other authors make clear, Speth basically dismisses the Market World and Policy Reform World models as inadequate to force the underlying structural and social changes that he sees as necessary. Instead, he comes down firmly on the side of the New Sustainability model, with overtones of the Social Greens World.
Throughout the book, Speth highlights the deep-seated changes that will be needed to sustain natural and human communities—changes in public policy, in individual and social behavior, and in the very nature of contemporary capitalism. He recognizes that none of these changes will be easy and many would require radical alterations in consumer and voter behavior. In an illuminating passage, he acknowledges that
[t]hey are not next steps. The next steps involve urgent efforts to apply the approaches of today’s environmentalism to address climate change and other challenges where serious action is long overdue.
Instead, the book’s prescriptions deal with the “next, next steps.” With this passage, he admits that the radical transformation in social consciousness, economic organization, and politics that are the focus of the book will not be achievable until some “next, next” time in the future.
From this reviewer’s perspective, the willingness to skip past near-term steps required to deal with today’s environmental concerns points to an essential weakness in the book. Specifically, if today’s environmentalism can successfully overcome the phenomenally complex problem of climate change (aptly elsewhere characterized as “the mother of all market failures”), as well as the other challenges where serious action is long overdue, then today’s environmental establishment will have demonstrated the ability to deal with major environmental issues. If this is the case, it is not clear why the fundamental and (many would argue) utopian and risky changes that Speth advocates would be required.
The reality is that our democratic, market-oriented capitalistic system will continue to dominate domestic (and much of global) production for the foreseeable future. Further, it seems most unlikely that human nature will change sufficiently for significant portions of society to willingly embrace the concept (admittedly winsome) of voluntary simplicity and substantially reduce its consumption. Finally, Speth’s legitimate charge that governments are obsessed with throughput growth rather than real development disregards the fact that many of the policies he advocates (adequate retirement income, good quality child care, shorter working hours, universal heath care, support for the arts, companionship for the chronically ill, foreign aid) require considerable financial resources. A growing economy will help facilitate public support for funding these other needs. A shrinking economy, requiring a dramatic redistribution of wealth and curtailment of private consumption, would make reallocating funds to meet these other priorities vastly more difficult.
The unaddressed question is whether environmental and political leaders can persuade the voting public to accept tough enough policies to actually curb greenhouse-gas emissions, curtail toxic releases, and preserve ecosystems functions. This would require fundamental tax reform and other actions to raise the cost of polluting activities to fully reflect environmental, intergenerational, and other externalities. The jury is still out whether this can happen, but the book actually gives some reason for hope. For example, Speth cites European actions to tax energy and reward work, as well as noting the scope for reducing the US$850 billion in counterproductive worldwide subsidies to environmentally and socially destructive activities. The fact that Germany is the world’s leader in solar applications, even though it has meager solar resources, is a testament to the power of strong government policies and economic incentives.
Furthermore, the book notes that the modern capitalist system is evolving in ways that are giving greater voice to public interests and environmental considerations (e.g., employee-stock ownership programs and pension plans, public sector and socially responsible investment funds). More importantly, the excellent chapter on real growth highlights the fact that personal happiness on a national level is not highly correlated with income, although most studies find that, due to social positioning and habituation, richer people are happier than poorer people in individual countries. This weak relationship between income and happiness gives some hope that the ideas of voluntary simplicity and environmental responsibility are falling on increasingly receptive ears (e.g., the not-so-big house, the slow food movement, relocalization initiatives, green certification schemes).
Given these positive trends, it is disappointing that the book does not attempt a more balanced assessment of the likely success of incremental and policy-oriented solutions to today’s pressing environmental problems. Of particular concern to this reviewer is the limited discussion of strong versus weak sustainability. Under strong sustainability, all forms of natural capital are statically preserved at current levels. Under weak sustainability, natural capital can be consumed in a dynamic system as long as it is at least replaced by substitutes, such as new technologies and human-made capital. As Speth notes, this distinction is fundamental.
Speth appears to adopt strong sustainability as the guiding policy objective, although he does not say so explicitly. As a result, the potential for policy and technological change to overcome environmental problems is not directly addressed. Yet, when high priority environmental problems have been identified and targeted, they have usually been ameliorated through appropriate technologies and policies (e.g., ozone depletion, sulfur-dioxide emissions, local air pollution). If the regulatory and market incentives are strong enough, corporations and consumers act accordingly. Thus, with the right policies, technologies and productivity increases could presumably allow both increased consumption and preservation of vital ecosystems, not just those that generate direct ecosystem benefits (raw materials, crop pollination, nutrient recycling, recreation venues, water purification, storage and flow control), but also those that are inherently important (e.g., existence values).
The underlying issue, therefore, is whether mainstream environmentalists can persuade the broader public to support the tough policy changes necessary to deal with the current environmental challenges, especially those whose solution entails real economic costs. On the latter, such as global climate change, it is too soon to tell. Yet, by the same token, it is not self-evident that the changes recommended in the book—restructured capitalism and voluntary consumer restraint—would necessarily result in a political decision to reallocate resources to reduce greenhouse gases rather than to meet competing priorities.
Although these comments focus on the book’s shortcomings rather than its strengths, the reviewer certainly agrees that it is vitally important to address the more fundamental systemic changes that would be required if the Market and Policy Reform World approach fails to meet the next-step environmental challenges. If this incremental approach is not up to the task, a more radical path such as that outlined by Speth in this farsighted and provocative book will more than likely be needed.
John D. Peine
United States Geological Survey Southern Appalachian Field Branch, The University of Tennessee, 311 Conference Center Building, Knoxville, TN 37996 USA (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
James Speth’s new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, was an epiphany for me. As a scientist with the United States Department of the Interior for over 35 years, serving seven administrations, I have been shocked and saddened by the rapid degradation of the environment since the first Earth Day observance. This book has helped me by sorting out the primary drivers of this decline and identifying the fundamental changes that are required to turn things around. It is an optimistic view of the future, which is an oddity in itself.
The core premise is that traditional capitalism, dominated by global corporations, is driving the rate of environmental change. The conundrum is figuring out what will replace traditional capitalism. The recommended concepts for change are fundamental and daunting. Transformative change is driven by evolving social values and institutional dynamics and explored in many dimensions. Speth considers environmental threats to be of universal social concern and cites several authors who suggest that the inability of capitalism as we know it to sustain the environment is one of the biggest threats to its future. He extensively discusses the platforms to coalesce this change, with a focus on the exploding information age universally facilitated via the Internet. We are witnessing its impacts today in the United States, with increasing democratization of national politics and growing awareness of the inefficiency and imbalance of governance. The now cliché slogan “think globally, act locally” remains a central tenet to build momentum. The book cites numerous examples and calls for a revolution in personal consciousness evolving into a new worldview. The following quote encapsulates Speth’s call for refocusing our social values.
The values shift of cultural turning leads us to redefine wealth—to measure it by the health of our families, communities, and natural environment. It leads us from policies that raise those at the top to policies that raise those at the bottom, from hoarding to sharing, from concentrated to distributed ownership, and from the rights of ownership to the responsibilities of stewardship (Korten, 2006).
The most important of Speth’s messages is how to navigate moving forward. He notes forces of change by synthesizing literature that focuses more on a collection of theories rather than on specific case examples and I found this tendency to be a weakness throughout. He observes that these forces are complementary and contribute to a new worldview. In the section “Getting There from Here,” Speth advocates moving environmental concerns into the broader context of social issues and demonstrating their connectivity. He advocates a new environmental political strategy that encompasses other issues. This worldview implies that somehow environmental conditions need to become a precondition of a global sustainable society. New signs of change are recognized, but no magic bullet is offered to drive a drastic shift in perspective. Corporate greening is a hopeful sign of a changing customer base as documented in the book. This trend of designing green helps the corporate image, serves a growing customer base, and appropriately is driven by enhancing the bottom line. This process is being emulated in the financial sector as well. The catch phrase “corporate social responsibility” is now widely accepted. Speth documents the skepticism that some commentators express regarding such commitments and the sense that motivation derives primarily from government action rather than new forms of corporate consciousness. Several suggestions are offered to transform corporations of the future, the most fundamental/radical of which is to transition away from the premise of focusing on self- interest and maximizing stakeholder wealth. This is the heart of the radical change proposed, which presents the theory that environmental problems are the central driver of corporate change and that we are entering an era of systematic crisis. This is the jaw dropper in the book for me!
So are we approaching a tipping point in which our global society has concluded that the sacrifice needed to achieve environmental sustainability is worth it? Can Aldo Leopold, as quoted in the book, again be an icon for inspiration and change? Certainly there is a growing sensitivity to weather events and climatic trends leading to extensive environmental and infrastructure destruction. Contemporary climatic conditions and extreme weather events in the United States, for instance, have lead to drought and thousands of related wildfires in the Western states and extensive flooding and numerous tornadoes in the Midwest. The North Pole may be ice free for the first time in recorded history. A just-announced US$1.75 billion purchase of 187,000 acres of a sugar plantation north of the Everglades National Park is hailed as a triumph for the environment even though some climate-change models predict that sea-level rise will inundate it in the future. Until carbon-dioxide emissions are dramatically reduced globally, this Florida deal has not been closed. Did I mention a pending potable water shortage? That will make high gas prices look like child’s play.
One of the book’s most compelling features is that it serves as a guide to key literature; hundreds of citations are included for those of us inclined to explore further the issues raised. Some may find this book full of radical ideas, but I see it as a guide for moving toward cultural, social, and environmental equity that could in turn lead to balanced sustainability in the planet’s future. Speth did the impossible; he made me an optimist! Thank you, sir!
Looking for a holistic perspective on global environmental conditions, insights into the factors driving drastic degradation, and samples of the key building blocks for achieving sustainability? Read this book! I am making sure all my graduate students read my copy. They represent a generation of optimists determined to correct my baby-boomer generation’s numerous mistakes. They will be among those leading in the walk over Speth’s “bridge at the edge of the world.” That makes me feel a bit ashamed, but also warm and fuzzy inside.
Korten, D. 2006. The great turning: from empire to earth community. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures. 38(Summer):12–18. http://www.yesmagazine.org/pdf/gt.pdf.
Rejoinder from the author:
James Gustave Speth
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale UniverŽsity, 205 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511 USA (email: email@example.com)
I am deeply grateful for the three constructive and generally sympathetic reviews of The Bridge at the Edge of the World. They span a spectrum from “this porridge is too hot” (Sanders) to “this porridge is too cold” (Vergragt & Brown) and include one where the porridge is “just right” (Peine), or almost so.
Several months of discussing the book with various audiences have underscored that while despair in the face of our multiple challenges is certainly not pervasive, it is quite common. I was particularly gratified, therefore, that Peine was impressed by the book’s underlying optimism. We can indeed build a better world, but it will require a level of effort, risk, and sacrifice to which we are not now aspiring. As I mention in the book, we will never do the things needed unless we appreciate the full extent of our current predicament.
Peine has a good point that my book does not dwell on describing real world examples of people actually making changes that point the way. Two excellent books have surveyed that landscape, William Greider’s The Soul of Capitalism and Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism, and I felt that I had little to add to them.
Sanders is also optimistic, but his optimism is more for the present than mine. He still has hope that today’s environmentalism can deliver the changes needed. We have now run a 40-year experiment to test that hypothesis, and the results are in. The environmental community in and out of government has grown larger and more sophisticated, but the environment has continued to go downhill, to the point that we now face environmental risks of unprecedented proportions. The burden of managing accumulating environmental threats, and of addressing the powerful forces of modern capitalism driving them, has fallen to the environmental community. But that burden is too great. The system of modern capitalism as it operates today will grow in size and complexity and will generate ever-larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to cope with them. That has been the pattern to date, and there is no reason to expect it to change.
Sanders’ optimism stems from his view that “when high priority environmental problems have been identified and targeted, they have usually been ameliorated through appropriate technologies and policies.” But a virtual armada of environmental threats has been identified and never targeted, and while there has surely been amelioration on numerous fronts, it is very incomplete and unsatisfactory, and this is true even where our laws are strongest, as with air and water pollution.
Sanders also adheres to the conventional wisdom that a growing economy will facilitate public support for social and environmental needs, whereas “a shrinking economy...would make reallocating funds to meet these and other priorities vastly more difficult.” It is easy to forget that the greatest public support for social reform in America occurred not during a period of great prosperity but during the Great Depression, and that growth has been sought historically not to deal with social challenges but to avoid confronting them. We have often heard it said that growth is the alternative to having to face the distribution issue. And so we have had lots of growth, and we have not faced the distribution issue, with disastrous results.
As I discuss at some length in the book, the United States has experienced tremendous economic expansion in recent decades, for which we have paid a high environmental price, but today we have poverty rates near a thirty-year high, stagnant wages despite rising productivity, declining social mobility and opportunity, record levels of people without health insurance, failing schools, increased job insecurity, swelling jails, shrinking safety nets, and the longest work hours among the rich countries. I show in the book that America’s growth dividend has not been spent to improve our performance on social or environmental issues, with the result that we rank far down the list of nations on both scores.
Here is what I would say to my fellow liberals who hold to the we-must-sustain-high-rates-of-growth persuasion: make a list of all the positive things you wish to do with the resources generated by growth, and rather than waiting on the growth, let’s just do them. In truth, the resources for these actions are already available, abundantly; they are simply being misallocated.
All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to persist in exactly what we are doing today, even with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.
But human activities are not holding at current levels: They are accelerating dramatically. It took all of history to build the US$7 trillion world economy of 1950. Today, we add that much output every decade. The world economy is on a path to quadruple in size by midcentury. The escalating processes of climate disruption, toxification, and biotic impoverishment, which continue despite decades of warnings and earnest effort, constitute a severe indictment of today’s capitalism.
Vergragt & Brown are complimentary on numerous matters, but fault the book for not saying more about the shape of things to come: “Speth’s book is a step in the right direction, but when it comes to building the bridge at the edge of the world it only provides us with an unsorted heap of building materials.” Ouch, that hurts. It hurts in part because it is not true. The building materials for the bridge we need are actually very carefully sorted. Market failure can be corrected by government, perverse subsidies can be eliminated, and environmentally honest prices can be forged. The laws, incentives, and governance structures under which corporations operate can be transformed to move from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy. The affluent countries can shift to a post-growth society where jobs and economic security, the natural environment, our communities, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed in order to sustain high growth rates—mere gross-domestic-product growth that is consuming natural and social capital, both now in short supply. An ethic of sufficiency can moderate consumption and both government policy and social marketing can help us recover from our affluenza. Each of these new directions are the focus of a chapter.
That said, it is true that the book does not bring these elements together into a holistic vision or detailed blueprint. I would be among the first to agree that much, much more needs to be done—more on analysis, on envisioning, and on strategy. My hope is that the book will help to legitimize a set of issues and ideas barely present in mainstream environmental policy and politics in the United States, to point honestly to the changes needed, and to stimulate a sea change in today’s mainstream environmentalism and its engagement with other communities. I shall be very happy if the book contributes meaningfully to these ends. But it is important to round the bases in the right order.
Vergragt & Brown reflect an academic bent to characterize “getting the values of pollution caps and resource harvests right, taxing undesirable activities, eliminating perverse subsidies, implementing the polluter pays principle and cap-and-trade systems, and changing how we calculate gross domestic product (GDP) to account for human welfare, good jobs, health services, education and the like,” as well as the move to a post-growth society, as “twentieth-century” environmentalism and to conclude that such an agenda “neatly fits into the existing capitalist system.” Only in academia is this path well travelled, and growth gets a free pass even in academia. Were this path truly well travelled as a practical matter in politics and policy, we would not have today’s environmentally dishonest prices and wrongheaded measurements. Moreover, while market corrections can fit (though not always neatly) within the framework of neoclassical economics, that is very different from fitting within the system of political economy we know as American capitalism. There, one finds massive, and successful, resistance to eliminating negative externalities and perverse subsidies. There one also finds, of course, a powerful growth imperative.
Vergragt & Brown give insufficient credit, I believe, to the material on a new consciousness and a new politics in Part III of the book. The chapter on consciousness describes what it will likely take to bring about a large-scale change in dominant cultural values. The chapter on politics begins with the observation that it is unimaginable that American politics as we know it will deliver the transformative changes needed, and it goes on to lay out a program for far-reaching change in environmental politics.
One of the key points in the book is that today’s environmental reality is linked powerfully with other realities, including growing social inequality and neglect and the erosion of democratic governance and popular control. So my conclusion is that we as citizens must now mobilize our spiritual and political resources for transformative change on all three fronts. Our best hope for real change is a fusion of those concerned about environmental sustainability, social justice, and political democracy into one powerful progressive force. The vital political task before us is to build this progressive fusion.
© 2008 Copyright held by author