Facing the Environmental Crisis

Largely triggered by the benign influence on me of Mary Evelyn Tucker, the co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, at a 2003 conference for my book, Globalization and Catholic Social Thought, I have tried, for the last five years, to stay abreast of the literature on global warming and other ecological threats. Until recently, I would have said that at least three books were indispensable reading for anyone engaging the topic: Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature; James Gustave Speth’s Red Sky at Morning; and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers.  Now I have to add a new book to that short list: James Speth’s, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability ( Yale, 2008).


I also have been forced to re-assess my own earlier optimism about confronting global warming and ecological degradation. Like many in the environmental movement, I had fairly consistently supported what Speth now calls “ weak sustainability”, i.e.: sustainability yes, but work within the system, look for technological break-throughs which will help reduce wasted energy but with an equal commitment to sustaining economic growth as we have known it. I agreed strongly with Speth’s contention that “the achievement of global environmental accords is impossible if important economic sectors are unified in opposition.” I envisioned, therefore system maintenance changes which included working with and through corporations.

But as Speth, a long-time environmental policy analyst, both in the Carter administration and, later, at the U.N. and now the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, notes in his new book, main-stream environmental policies have been too little and too late. “The environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication but the environment has continued to deteriorate.” Environmentalists have been winning battles but losing the war.

We need to embrace a larger transformative vision, Speth contends, to alter the current dastardly trajectory. The modern industrial project, as we have known it, has depended on ever increasing growth in wealth (heavily by making things) yet we are now at a point where “the global ecological footprint has exceeded the earth’s biocapacity, as of 2003, by about 25%”.

We will need to confront both economic and political obstacles. The current economic system does not work when it comes to protecting environmental resources.  Polluters, still, do not pay. Considering the environment as an ‘externality’ allows false prices to be sustained on ever depleting resources. Governments maintain environmentally damaging perverse subsidies (for oil; for agriculture; favoring automobiles over public transportation) and are not adequately forthcoming on environmentally helpful subsidies The market has never been much good at creating or preserving ‘public goods’. The ‘Free-Rider’ dilemma has bedeviled global environmental attempts at treaties or cap and trade schemes.

Speth asks us to consider deeply what represents good growth as opposed to ruthless or irresponsible economic growth. Good growth means growth with equity, employment, care for the environment and empowerment. But present day capitalism (which needs to be distinguished, as Pope John Paul II did in his encyclical, Centessimus Annus, from a ‘market economy’) is both destructive of the environment and no longer really enhancing human well being. Speth, who was once considered a careful, moderate environmentalist, now turns more ‘radical’, supporting moves to revoke corporate charters which undermine the common good; to roll back ‘ limited liability’ for corporations; to re-examine the concept of corporate personhood; to get corporations out of politics.

Because he pays extraordinary attention to the empirical data, Speth’s new ‘radicalism’ which calls for both a transformation in consciousness and a transformation in politics (since, at present, the political system, largely dominated by corporate interests, does not work when it comes to correcting the economic system) is compelling. Speth, coming to see the limits in the currently regnant environmentalism, argues now that “working only within the system will, in the end, not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”  

I leave it to readers to harvest for themselves the rich analysis in this new book. Two of Speth’s contentions strongly recommend themselves. He defines getting the environment right in the following terms: full protection of human health, no harvesting of resources beyond long-term sustainable yields, no release of waste products beyond assimilative capacities and full protection of ecosystem structure and function. 

To guarantee that these goals might, minimally, be achieved in the narrow time-lines before global warming becomes irreversibly destructive, “ the environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialization and the lifestyles they offer; a healthy skepticism of growthamania and a sharp focus on what society should actually be striving to grow; a challenge to corporate domination and a re-definition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to building  what the economist Gar Alperavitz calls “ the democratization of wealth”. Suffused as it is with notions of genuine human welfare, the common good, subsidiarity, concern for deliberative democracy and the right of citizens to participative voice, devotees of Catholic Social Teaching will find in this new Speth book rich data for their own social policy proposals.

John Coleman, S.J.

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