Book Review of The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustav Speth
This 2008 book investigates a vast literature on climate change and the environmental crisis. It analyses the problems, discusses what top environmental thinkers have proposed, and lays out a range of options that human beings have if we want to leave a habitable planet for future generations. As such it represents a major accomplishment and deserves careful reading by all who care about the Earth. In the first part of this review, I describe Professor Speth’s analyses and recommendations. In the second part, I raise critical issues about the adequacy of both Speth’s analyses and his recommendations.
Speth’s title is auspicious. We are facing the environmental ruin of our planet and possible human extinction if global warming becomes runaway warming beyond our ability to mitigate and adapt. We need a bridge to a new world system, a model for genuine transformation and transcendence. It cannot be simply a set of economic and environmental adjustments, but must be total and transformative.
In their book Break Through (p. 8), Nordhaus and Shellenberger correctly state that “the problem is so great that before answering What is to be done? we must first ask, What kind of beings are we? and What can we become? I asked these very questions in my 2018 book Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. This essay will consider whether Speth’s “bridge” has adequately addressed these questions.
Speth was Professor and Dean at the School of Environmental Studies at Yale University. He was also founder and President of the World Resources Institute and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advisor to the Carter and Clinton administrations, and the Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Speth’s earlier book, Red Sky at Dawn: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (2004) was a major, deeply scientifically informed, statement of our planetary global crisis that included truly frightening facts of climate change, global desertification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, population growth, loss of freshwater resources, marine environment deterioration, acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxification (the massive poisoning of our planetary environment with tens of thousands of human-made chemicals, many of them known toxins and carcinogens).
This new book, The Bridge at the End of the World, reviews these crises in its first chapter called “Looking into the Abyss.” When Speth worked in the Jimmy Carter Presidency (1977-1981) they produced the Global 2000 Report predicting dire consequences if major changes in the way corporations did business were not immediately forthcoming. Nothing significant was done, and today, he writes, the report’s predications are coming true (p. 18). Every year the world has been getting warmer with record heat temperatures increasing from year to year. Severe and more prolonged droughts continue to occur and are becoming worse. The frequency of heavy precipitation events (storms) have increased everywhere with consequent flooding and major destruction. Coastal areas worldwide are under assault from rising oceans, including superstorms and tidal surges.
The book focuses on the failure of the global economic system (capitalism) and national political systems (government) to deal with these crises. It focuses on what is being done (not nearly enough), what can be done (the many excellent proposals made by major thinkers, economists, and scientists), and what should be done if there is to be a future for human beings on this planet.
The changes that are required worldwide are deep and fundamental. Speth writes: “We must look beyond the world of practical affairs to those who are thinking difficult and unconventional thoughts and proposing transformative change” (p. xiv). He understands the principle, introduced by some environmental economists, that we now live in a “full world” in which the gigantic planetary economy has grown beyond sustainable limits and is now digesting the biosphere itself, the planetary ecosystems that sustain human and all life on Earth (pp. 4-10). Growth capitalism originated in the “empty world” of several centuries ago, a world with seemingly unlimited resources for perpetual growth and unlimited ability to absorb the wastes produced by our ever-increasing industrial output.
He concludes that “most environmental deterioration is a result of systematic failures of the capitalism that we have today and that long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism” (p. 9). We need to transform the market to work for the environment (rather than against it). We must move beyond growth to a “post-growth society.” We must reduce and revision our affluent materialism and consumerism by finding life’s meaning in the quality of living rather than in consumption). We must profoundly change the nature of the capitalist corporation (and place it under democratic controls). We must create a “new consciousness” and a “new politics” that is strongly democratic, egalitarian, cooperative, and community oriented.
The crisis we are now in places us at the cusp of a possible “tipping point” beyond which we will no long be able to stop or significantly mitigate global warming and climate disaster: “The crystalizing scientific story reveals an imminent planetary emergency. We are at a planetary tipping point. We must move into a new energy direction within a decade to have a good chance to avoid setting in motion unstoppable climate change with irreversible effects” (p. 27).
The key factor, of course, is the reduction of the greenhouse gases that the fossil fuel burning, industrial civilization of the world is pouring into the atmosphere of the Earth annually. We must rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels, along with the industrial and consumer demands for this, and limit the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere as quickly and radically as possible: “The worst impacts can still be averted, but action must be taken with swiftness and determination or a ruined planet is the likely outcome” (p. 29).
An essential feature of capitalism as the world has known it to date has been growth. The system is designed so that growth in input, output, and surplus product (profits) are necessary features of success within this system. Speth reviews the expanding economic literature concerning the problems with this growth system. The “growth fetish” disregards ecosystem limits, limits in our natural resource base, and limits in the ability of the environment to absorb our waste products. Hence, it ignores the “carrying capacity” of the Earth. It encourages “externalities,” that is, shifting waste products and other negatives of production costs to the environment or to society at large. Marginal economic costs begin to exceed marginal benefits and everywhere growth is becoming “uneconomic growth,” causing more loses than benefits to the planet and future generations (Chapter 5).
In Chapter 6, Professor Speth reviews the extensive work that has been done to move beyond the commonly accepted standard of economic health called “growth in GDP” (Gross Domestic Product). Economists and environmentalists have developed such alternatives to GDP as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), and the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The new conception of economic health involves how well genuine human needs are satisfied (such as education, healthcare, social security, and human rights), and how meaningful and fruitful human lives become. Growth in human welfare must become the new standard, not GDP. Sustainability requires an economy that does not grow in input and output but that is directed toward genuine human welfare (which necessarily would include the welfare of other living forms, future generations, and the environment that sustains us all).
One key to transforming the economy to a sustainable, non-growth set of institutions involves changing the legal characteristics of corporations (Chapter 8). By law, corporate management is required to “maximize the interests of the shareholders,” which means in practice maximizing profits and growth, both often at the expense of the environment and society at large. Under the U.S. political system, the laws also allow corporations to have immense political influence through campaign contributions to politicians, lobbying on behalf of corporate interests, and other means.
Yet with the process of globalization the situation has grown even worse. Big corporations have become multinational:
The multinationals have a huge impact on the global environment, generating, for example, half the gases responsible for global warming. They also control half of the world’s oil, gas, and coal mining and refining…. It is the globalization of market failures…. When unfettered by national or international laws, ecological understanding, or social responsibility, this freedom can lead to enormously destructive acts…. They are engineering a power shift of stunning proportions, moving real economic and political power away from national, state, and local governments and communities toward unprecedented centralization of power for global corporations, bankers, and global bureaucracies. (pp. 170-172).
I will comment further on these developments below. Speth makes recommendations for government (and now he is focusing on the U.S. government). Government needs to revoke corporate charters, exclude or expel unwanted corporations, roll back limited liability (which shields managers and shareholders from the consequences of corporate actions), eliminate corporate personhood (which gives these artificial legal constructs the same human rights as living persons, yet without the responsibilities of living persons), get corporations out of politics, and reform corporate lobbying (pp. 178-79).
In this very comprehensive book, Professor Speth reviews the significant literature on all these topics, including the absolute need for “A New Consciousness” (Chapter 10) and “A New Politics” (Chapter 11). What is required is a new way of thinking for humanity, for the old way of thinking (behind capitalism and with its endless growth fetish and unmitigated self-interest orientation) is almost certainly leading us rapidly into the ruination of our planet. He writes:
Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness. For some, it is a spiritual awakening—a transformation of the human heart. For others, it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethics of the environment and the old ethic of love thy neighbor as thyself. (pp. 199-200)
Speth reviews many thinkers who have called for a new quality of respect for the Earth and for human solidarity, or who have called for a new consciousness of holism, awareness of the interdependent ecosystem of the Earth and human life. Still others have called for an “intergenerational consciousness” and a renewal of our values, religion, and spirituality. Psychologists such as Erich Fromm have called for “a radical change in the human heart” as a condition for “the sheer survival of the human race” (pp. 200-202). “Today’s dominant worldview,” he writes, “is simply too biased toward anthropocentrism, materialism, egocentrism, contempocentrism, reductionism, rationalism, and nationalism to sustain the changes needed” (p. 204).
Similarly, the new politics must be radically different from what has hitherto dominated governments. It must be participatory, localized, and based on human solidarity rather than competition and narrow self-interests. Hence, both the local and the global level must be transformed and energized for environmental sustainability. Speth quotes with approval some thinkers who argue that global environmental protection “must be centered elsewhere than in the state system, international conferences, agencies, bureaucracies, and centers of corporate capital” (p. 220). He also quotes political philosopher David Held who holds that we need to become “cosmopolitan citizens” who begin building levels of effective governance beyond the nation-state (p. 223).
Speth’s final chapter is called “The Bridge at the End of the World.” We face the abyss—the ruination of our planet for most life and for future generations. But there is a bridge over this abyss. That bridge includes adopting very quickly and with great urgency all the prescriptions described in this book, from voluntary corporate transformations toward sustainability, to government incentives and regulations on all economic activities, to new legal definitions of corporations and their responsibilities, to a new economy beyond capitalism that is non-growth and dedicated to human welfare, to a new consciousness of reverence for nature and intergenerational human dignity, to a new, localized participatory democracy in solidarity with global institutions for coordinating the planetary effort.
However, this bridge at the end of the world leads nowhere. Speth’s thinking fails to be truly transformative and liberating. His bridge does not lead humanity over the abyss of planetary ruin. For all the vast literature that Speth reviews in this book, he omits a significant important literature critical of the system of sovereign nation-states itself. This system, more than three and a half centuries old and utterly outdated and outmoded, does not appear in any significant way in Speth’s analyses.
It looms in the background, unspoken, all the more destructive for being unacknowledged. How is it possible to ignore this immense historic record of militarism, inter-state competition, domination, and exploitation, rabid nationalism, imperialism, genocides, repeated treaty violations, national-security ideologies, and, in the case of some nations like mid-twentieth century Germany or the United States, a mythology of exceptionalism, superiority, exclusivism, and collective self-adoration? How is it possible to ignore that these “imagined communities” (Anderson 2006) cannot achieve the unity and solidarity necessary for transforming the entire world system to sustainability?
Like so many “main-stream” environmentalists, Speth simply does not wish to go there. If he went into this critical dimension, he could not have been an advisor to the Carter or Clinton administrations. Nation-state “sovereignty,” exceptionalism, and imperialism are built into the unspoken framework of everything that goes on in Washington, DC. At one place in the book he briefly mentions Immanuel Wallerstein as a founder of “world systems theory.” However, he does not follow through on Wallerstein’s analysis of the world system as dominated by the global economic and military hegemony of the U.S., a hegemony in which cheap labor and resources from “peripheral” nations remain fundamental to U.S. wealth and power.
Nor does Speth mention the work of such thinkers as Chalmers Johnson (Sorrows of Empire), Michael Parenti (The Face of Imperialism), Greg Grandin (Empire’s Workshop), F. William Engdahl (Full Spectrum Dominance: Totalitarian Democracy in the New World Order), William F. Blum (Rogue State. A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower.), Petras and Veltmeyer (Empire with Imperialism), Noam Chomsky (Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.), Pepe Escobar (Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War), Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine and the Rise of Disaster Capitalism), Ellen Hodgson Brown (Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth about Our Money System), Douglas Valentine (The CIA as Organized Crime), Christopher Chase-Dunn (Global Formation: Structures of the World Economy), Errol E. Harris (Earth Federation Now! Tomorrow is Too Late), or my own Millennium Dawn: The Philosophy of Planetary Crisis and Human Liberation.
Professor Speth ignores this immense river of scholarship about our world system (some of which post-dates his book but all of which draws on a major conceptual analysis of the world system going back well before Immanuel Wallerstein and World Systems Theory). To absorb this literature and act in terms of its meaning would likely make Speth unfit not only for employment by the US government but also for a Deanship at Yale University. (And perhaps also to be head of the United Nations Development Program: at the UN you have to pretend there is no imperialism and global hegemony by the United States.) The deep transformation of the world system (if we want a sustainable future) requires not only everything that Speth reviews in this informative book. It also requires that we transcend the horrific, ungovernable, and omnicidal system of militarized sovereign nation-states.
I quoted him above regarding multinational corporations that have transcended nation-state governance and at the same time wield immense political power within both rich and poor nations. How are we going to govern these behemoths? Speth has no credible answer. The world military expenditure grew to 1.8 trillion dollars in 2018, nearly half of that from the USA alone. It continues to grow every year as nations not only war, spy upon, and manipulate one another, but also as the world’s resources become ever more scarce and people in many countries ever more desperate and without resources to live.
Speth tells us that global capitalism must transform itself into a non-growth, human welfare economic system. However, he never mentions that capitalism has always required militarism to extend and protect its markets and access to cheap labor and resources. He never mentions that all this wasted 1.8 trillion dollars per year could easily transform the world system to sustainability. However, no military establishment in the world intends to shrink to a minimalist form, and none of them intend to convert from fossil fuels (since military naval, land, and air power all depend directly on these fuels) (Sanders and Davis 2009). Who is going to transform the transnational corporations, many of whom feed this global military monster?
Who is going to create global disarmament, global environmental laws, equitable global sustainable economic relationships and institutions? Who is going to pursue the capitalist enterprises that avoid environmental laws in developed countries in order to maximize profit in poor countries? Who is going to educate the global public about sustainable and equitable ways of living, trading, and interacting? Who is going to educate the global public to become world citizens rather than nationalistic fanatics? Who is going to foster on a planetary scale the new consciousness and the new politics?
Speth quotes from the Earth Charter at some length as embodying the values that we need to embrace globally. The Charter states that “we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny” (p. 208). But the Earth Charter gives us a mere set of beautiful ideals, not an effective document for making the transformation happen. If we truly embrace a “new consciousness” recognizing this truth, what are we doing in a world of some 193 militarized nation-states with absolute territorial borders recognizing no effective laws about themselves?
How is this sovereign nation-state system a “common destiny”? We need an effective global legal instrument for making the transformation to sustainability happen efficiently, equitably, and compassionately. As we saw Nordhaus and Shellenberger declare, we need a positive vision of who we are and what we can become. The answer to all these questions is that we need democratic world government if we are going to have a credible future on this planet.
We are capable of genuine human solidarity and mutual concern for the common good of all persons, living creatures, and future generations. As human beings, we are so much greater than mere denizens of national self-interest. We can indeed actualize our true human potential for planetary justice, peace, freedom and sustainability. This can happen only if we ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
The Preamble to the Earth Constitution makes the same declaration of the Earth Charter, but from the point of view of genuine human solidarity and the sovereignty of the people of Earth: “Conscious that humanity is One despite the existence of diverse nations, races, creeds, ideologies and cultures and that the principle of unity in diversity is the basis for a new age when war shall be outlawed and peace prevail; when the Earth’s total resources shall be equitably used for human welfare; and when basic human rights and responsibilities shall be shared by all without discrimination.” The answers to all the above questions are built directly into the Earth Constitution and do not require endless debate about how to make them happen on a planetary scale. True unity in diversity requires democratic world law.
The Earth Federation Government has the authority and legitimacy to end war and disarm the nations of the world, surely a necessary condition of a sustainable future for our planet. The Earth Federation Government also has authority over all multinational corporations as well as the 193 existing nations. It embodies a new economics of sustainability and equitability. The nations will no longer be able to economically exploit and compete with one another for wealth, power, and resources. They will no longer need to be “national security states” spending billions on spying, secrecy, and propaganda manipulation.
Only this democratic authority, creating enforceable world laws, can control this plethora of “independent” nations and the gigantic multinational corporations. The requirement to achieve global sustainability on an equitable basis for all peoples (hence, without war) is built directly into the Earth Constitution. It is the transformative document par excellence. Only through such an instrument can the world unite in time to transform economics, politics, and planetary consciousness to sustainability. The coming ecological ruin of our planet can only be mitigated through a fundamental actualization of our highest human potential, in true human solidarity.
Only a truly united world can effectively deal with the greatest threat to human existence that humanity has ever faced. Yet Professor Speth says very little, almost nothing, about uniting the world. He focuses on the United States as if transforming a mere 5% of the world’s population and their institutions could somehow transform the world. It is a strange paradox. Every environmental thinker believes that we must transform the world system, yet nearly every one of them thinks that this must be done one nation at a time, eventually totaling all 193 of them. Nevertheless, the “deep state” in the United States is intent, not on sustainability, but on planetary military domination. They famously see China and Russia as global impediments and rivals in this quest to rule the world (Escobar 2006, Engdahl 2009).
How is all this incorporated into Speth’s bridge at the edge of the world? The answer is that it is not. The bridge leads nowhere because it leaves off the necessary transformation of half the present world order. It is not only capitalism that must be transformed but the system of militarized sovereign nation-states as well. We need to unite the world under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Our highest human potential to create a truly global civilization must be actualized.
This alone makes a truly new consciousness and new politics possible. It alone empowers the grassroots of the world and local cooperative communities globally. Under the Earth Constitution, the global transformation integrates and interfaces with local empowerment, achieved equitably around a demilitarized world, now truly united to create a sustainable and free civilization in which human welfare and the welfare of nature and future generations takes precedence over nationalism, militarism, corporate greed, and egoistic self-interest.
Here is the true bridge at the end of the world. It is called the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. It holistically, equitably, and non-violently transforms the world system to one directed toward peace, justice, freedom, and sustainability. All these values go together. None can be achieved piecemeal without the others. We need to ratify the Earth Constitution. It is truly our bridge to a new world system and a new planetary consciousness.
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