Off the Capitalist Path: A Second Look at Speth’s “Bridge”

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This is a review of James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the Edge of the World, intended as a supplement to the short review given of this book in the Monthly Review.  Speth is a prominent environmentalist who has worked with the Democratic Presidential administrations of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.  His words, then, deserve our attention for their connections to political effectiveness.

(crossposted at Big Orange)

This diary is prompted by an online discussion I had some time ago here on DKos on the question of whether working people in America would regard abrupt climate change as an important issue.  Here’s my reasoning it its simplest form:

  1. Abrupt climate change is “in the cards” in the future.
  2. Those who have children care about the future.
  3. Thus, those who have children should care about abrupt climate change.

Or at least this is the hope.  But do we see politics working this way in real life?  Political discourse in real life seems to be divided up into “issues,” on which politicians are to take “positions.”  This is not conducive to effective solutions to abrupt climate change, as abrupt climate change is not the sort of issue which can seriously be considered in isolation from other issues.  Once you start venturing into the world of global climate disaster, all of the other issues tend to merge into a big mega-issue.  Of what use are rational policies on health care or immigration when crop failure has induced global famine and world society is collapsing?

Of course, the world of discourse that is neatly chopped up into “issues” and “positions” offers the political class the mechanism through which We The People are done in by our politicians.  The whole process by which political rhetoric becomes the raw material for political confidence schemes is described in great detail in Murray Edelman’s (1988) classic Constructing the Political Spectacle.  Here’s the process in a nutshell: politicians create political narratives, and within each narrative the politician has been cast in her/his role as a “leader” who can solve “political problems” despite being hindered by “political enemies.”  In fact, however, “political problems” are ideological constructions; “political enemies” are tools for social control; and leaders?  Well, leaders are “potent symbols for diverting public concern from well-being to constructed happenings.” (42)  In short, nothing in a political narrative has to have anything to do with reality.  Political narratives are inventions, and any politician who wants to get elected will invent a political narrative to advance her/his political career.  As Edelman emphasizes, political narratives can do a great deal of harm.  Mary Lee Smith et al.’s Political Spectacle and the Fate of American Schools offers an example of how this works, in the case of the American school system: that book tells us how political narratives were invented to give American schools vouchers, “choice” programs, the No Child Left Behind Act, and other acts of foolishness.

At any rate, we need to see abrupt climate change through to the construction of our political narrative.  We’ll need a political narrative of our own, one which will focus the public imagination upon abrupt climate change (among a dozen other global environmental crises) and would bring about effective solutions (and not just some ineffective PR gesture).

In constructing our political narrative, we will have to avoid the fashionable cynicism that proclaims the iron law of conformity to “their” political narrative (e.g. “I don’t want to appear soft on crime” and other cavings to Republicanism) and the fashionable cynicism that proclaims politics to be one big con job (thus it’s “OK” if our candidates accept the Bush agenda because “that’s what it takes to win.”)

Some hope in this regard may have sailed our way, with James Gustave Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World.  This book, which came out on on March 28th of this year, was brought to my attention by an article in the most recent issue of the Monthly Review.  In the article, Speth is described as the “ultimate insider” who has publicly called for a global alternative to the capitalist system:

A case in point is James Gustave Speth. Speth has been called the “ultimate insider” within the environmental movement. He served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, founded the World Resources Institute, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a senior adviser in Bill Clinton’s transition team, and administered the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999. At present he is dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Speth is a winner of Japan’s Blue Planet Prize.

That such a mainstream Democrat has adopted the position given in this book should attract the notice of regular visitors to this weblog.

Speth, in turn, has called for an end to capitalist growth and for capitalism’s replacement by a market society which will undergo the “Environmental Revolution of the twenty-first century” and create a sustainable world society.  His book moves from the notion that “more and more people sense that at some level there’s a great misdirection of life’s energy,” (161) and in response he advocates an “environmentalism” that brings people into the equation rather than delegating solutions to experts.

Heads-up to readers: read the Monthly Review piece before you read my review: this is a SECOND look at Speth’s book, intended to supplement the first one.  Primarily, this review attempts to continue the discussion by answering the question: “how can we appreciate the virtues of Speth’s political narrative while suggesting effective additions?”

The introduction to this book lays out its thesis: the economy is killing the planet – “crashing against the Earth” as it says in the book – without having achieved many of the things we might have expected of it.  So there has to be some sort of profound economic transformation to square economics with ecology.  This, indeed, is what most of the environmental movement has avoided: no real safety is guaranteed for planet Earth as long as capitalism roams around, appropriating resources from resource sinks for the greater glory of accumulation zones.

Chapter 1 is titled “looking into the abyss,” and its format seems somewhat adopted from an article in the September 2005 Monthly Review.  The world’s environmental disasters are listed in good order, and a series of “possible worlds” are spelled out as ways of dealing with the environmental crisis as it has proceeded so far.  The “problem” portion of this chapter deserves close attention: since things are far further along the path to total disintegration than we are usually told, we can’t continue to think that this is merely the specialist domain of “environmentalists.”

As for solutions, Speth, for his part, opts to endorse the “Social Greens world”:

Social greens argue that the true questions have to do with power within society and with inequitable resource access and distribution.  They look at the social and political contexts in which resource decisions are taken and focus on redistributive policies – including power redistribution – to address environmental questions.  (44)

This narrative is at the heart of ecological post-capitalism.  Speth also endorses a “New Sustainability World” that moves “away from ever-increasing material consumption and toward close community and personal relationships, social solidarity, and a strong commitment to nature,” though I would argue that the effectiveness of this narrative is limited under capitalism by “what the market can bear.”  If you bought a house at the peak of the housing bubble, well, good luck with simple living.

Chapter 2 discusses “capitalism out of control,” the ability of the capitalist system to overwhelm the world with unsustainable growth.

Chapter 3 gets at “the limits of today’s environmentalism,” in which the environmentalists’ bad pragmatism is seen as compromising planet Earth for the sake of “realistic” environmentalism, accommodating itself to a predatory capitalism which nullifies its objectives.

Part two, chapters four through nine, detail Speth’s utopian alternative to capitalism.  Corporations have been made to work for the public interest, “growth” serves people and nature rather than accumulation, and the public has become far less materialistic.  Speth adopts the argument of McKibben’s Deep Economy that (we) consumers would be happier buying less and working less, and that we wouldn’t have to earn as much.

Part Three, covering the last three chapters of the book, detail Speth’s notion of how to get from here to there.  Speth, in my estimation, has a reflex that prefers orderly transitions.  Here is his notion of the agency of the future:

It is time for we the people, as citizens and as consumers, to take charge.  

The best hope we have for this new force is a coalescing of a wide array of civic, scientific, environmental, religious, student, and other organizations with enlightened business leaders, concerned families, and engaged communities, networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life.  (229)

And what if the governments and corporations should ignore us, if the enlightened business leaders should turn out to be “too busy,” if our “steps” should fall short?  The missing word in Speth’s narrative is “defiance.”  Creating a better world will require breaking the rules, ignoring orders to cease and desist, and so on.  World society, as a product of the last two or three centuries, is a product of capitalist discipline; we will have to disrupt its routine and create (not just “demand”) a new one in order to gain traction.  We will have to create a new order regardless of the commands barked at us that we continue the juggernaut.  Martin Luther King Jr. called it “creative maladjustment”:


The future is going to be messy, simply as a matter of the decline in its structural integrity.  If we are not merely to “give in” under the illusion that doing so will preserve the social order, we need to face that squarely.

Kudos are granted to James Gustave Speth, and others, for not adjusting a vision to the political economy of the status quo.


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  1. I’ll be off to do some weeding while it’s still cool — I’ll be back to answer questions soon!

  2. It takes real courage to say we can’t go on with capitalism’s never-ending growth economics (I think Al Gore has said as much too, but then he’s not really into elected politics now is he?), but the Earth is speaking to us that her resources are limited.  

    I think I’ll go out and do a little gardening now too – though I’m more into harvesting mode right now.  It’s been such a fruitful year!  I’m convinced we can get by on less, be happy doing it and get connected to the Earth, which should give us some wisdom to deal with the doubtless hard times ahead.

    Of course green power/alternative energy could give the entire economy a boost – for the public good of course.

  3. I saw this in the NY Times this morning: More Women Than Ever Are Childless, Census Finds.

    Twenty percent of women ages 40 to 44 have no children, double the level of 30 years ago, the report said; and women in that age bracket who do have children have fewer than ever – an average of 1.9 children, compared with the median of 3.1 children in 1976…

    Women with advanced degrees are more likely to be childless, the study found. Of women 40 to 44 with graduate or professional degrees, 27 percent are childless, compared with 18 percent of women who did not continue their education beyond high school, the data show…

    Hispanic women are the only group bucking the trends found in the study, averaging 2.3 children each by their 40s. The number of children a Hispanic woman has decreases sharply, however, depending on how many generations her family has lived in the United States, the data show.

    One in five new mothers in 2006 were foreign-born, the study found, with California having the highest number of foreign-born new mothers.

    I’m still wondering why those who have children care about the future? What I mean is, people will care about the future with or without children. I know people with children who do not care about the future of the planet. One can just look at Rep. Michelle Bachmann for evidence of a person with children who doesn’t care about the future regarding climate change.

    A growing percentage of educated women in the U.S. are choosing not to have children. I suspect a great many of them care about our changing climate too.

    My point is, while having a child could make you care more, it does not necessarily make it so.

  4. it addresses more then just the environmental and economic aspects at the heart of our political mess but at least for me the crux of the problem. When reality and issues get this shattered into separate components and interests the whole political process losses meaning. It becomes the road block to sustainable change.  

    I saw a great show on PBS last night about FDR’s efforts to tie awareness and the need for action in regards to the rural environmental and social disasters which started before the economic collapse hit the urban centers. He used photographers to chronicle the human face of the crisis. The photographers involved in this project did not idealize the rural poor as the socialists in Russia did but showed them as they with dignity and humanity intact. People then as now feared socialism and lived in their own bubbles where prosperity was just around every corner. I did not realize that the majority of the people at the start of the depression where so resistant to FDR’s New Deal.

    FDR talked of how his job was not completed when the economy started to revive, as he saw the biggest danger was not the crisis economic we were pulling out of but the long term necessity of tying economics to the social good. We face another crisis one which is critical and won’t go away without people connecting the economics of capitalism with the welfare of the planet.            

  5. I agree that there is only one issue.  Everything boils down to this orientation.  It’s a philosophy, an over-arching vision, a way of seeing the world.

    Speth’s ideas show the right direction.  Capitalism, allowed to run rampant as we have seen, becomes  destructive of life and the environment.

    And thanks for including MLK Jr’s “creative maladjustment.”

    There is no salvation in adjusting to a society which is insane.

    Thanks cass!

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