However, author Gus Speth of Yale thinks capitalism can be reformed.  Now
there's a novel idea, sure to bring about the radical change needed.

*Heating System*
Why the environmental movement cannot prevent catastrophe.

Reviewed by Ross Gelbspan
Sunday, April 27, 2008; BW04


*Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing **From Crisis to Sustainability*

*By James Gustave Speth*

*Yale Univ. 295 pp. $28*

Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. That is the
core message of *The Bridge at the Edge of the World*, by J. "Gus" Speth, a
prominent environmentalist who, in this book, has turned sharply critical of
the U.S. environmental movement.

Speth is dean of environmental studies at
a founder of two major environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense
the World Resources Institute), former chairman of the President's
Council on Environmental Quality (under Jimmy
and a former head of the U.N. Development
So part of his thesis is expected: Climate change is only the leading edge
of a potential cascade of ecological disasters.

"Half the world's tropical and temperate forests are gone," he writes.
"About half the wetlands . . . are gone. An estimated 90 percent of large
predator fish are gone. . . . Twenty percent of the corals are gone. . . .
Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal.
. . . Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in . . .
every one of us."

One might assume, given this setup, that Speth would argue for a
revitalization of the environmental movement. He does not. Environmentalism,
in his view, is almost as compromised as the planet itself. Speth faults the
movement for using market incentives to achieve environmental ends and for
the deception that sufficient change can come from engaging the corporate
sector and working "within the system" and not enlisting the support of
other activist constituencies.

Environmentalism today is "pragmatic and incrementalist," he notes, "awash
in good proposals for sensible environmental action" -- and he does not mean
it as a compliment. "Working only within the system will . . . not succeed
when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself."

In Speth's view, the accelerating degradation of the Earth is not simply the
result of flawed or inattentive national policies. It is "a result of
systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today," which aims for
perpetual economic growth and has brought us, simultaneously, to the
threshold of abundance and the brink of ruination. He identifies the major
driver of environmental destruction as the 60,000 multinational corporations
that have emerged in the last few decades and that continually strive to
increase their size and profitability while, at the same time, deflecting
efforts to rein in their most destructive impacts.

"The system of modern capitalism . . . will generate ever-larger
environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to manage them," Speth
writes. What's more, "It is unimaginable that American politics as we know
it will deliver the transformative changes needed" to save us from
environmental catastrophe. "Weak, shallow, dangerous, and corrupted," he
says, "it is the best democracy that money can buy."

Above all, Speth faults environmentalists for assuming they alone hold the
key to arresting the deterioration of the planet. That task, he emphasizes,
will require the involvement of activists working on campaign finance
reform, corporate accountability, labor, human rights and environmental
justice, to name a few. (Full disclosure: He also approvingly cites some of
this reviewer's criticisms of media coverage of environmental issues.)

Speth, of course, is hardly the first person to issue a sweeping indictment
of capitalism and predict that it contains the seeds of its own demise. But
he dismisses a socialist alternative, and, at its core, his prescription is
more reformist than revolutionary. He implies that a more highly regulated
and democratized form of capitalism could be compatible with environmental
salvation if it were accompanied by a profound change in personal and
collective values. Instead of seeking ever more consumption, we need a
"post-growth society" with a more rounded definition of well-being. Rather
than using gross domestic product as the primary measure of a country's
economic health, we should turn to the new field of ecological accounting,
which tries to factor in the costs of resource depletion and pollution.

This book is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root
causes of planetary distress. But short of a cataclysmic event -- like the
Great Depression or some equally profound social breakdown -- Speth does not
suggest how we might achieve the change in values and structural reform
necessary for long-term sustainability. "People have conversion experiences
and epiphanies," he notes, asking, "Can an entire society have a conversion

*Ross Gelbspan is author of "The Heat Is On" and "Boiling Point." He
maintains the Web site*