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Carol NackenoffOctober 04, 2004
Red Sky at Morningby By James Gustave SpethYale Univ.Press. 304p $24

James Gustave Speth, dean and professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has written a lively, conversational and yet very substantial examination of the failures of global environmental governance to date and an exploration of prospects for the future of the global environment. The author’s experiences as founder and president of the World Resources Institute, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, chief executive officer of the United Nations Development Programme, his roles as environmental policy adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton, and his voice (I love my Toyota Prius) figure prominently in Red Sky at Morning.

Speth is to be commended for asking very hard questions and for presenting a sober assessment of current environmental problems. The book’s title invokes an old nursery rhyme: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning./ Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.

Read from nature’s signs, the warning of inclement weather and rough water for sailing serves as a metaphor for the looming global environmental shipwreck. Speth argues that while scientists have been alerting governments and populations to spreading environmental degradation for several decades, attempts to slow or eliminate destructive patterns have largely failed. The two megatrends in environmental deterioration, the author argues, are increasing pollution and biological impoverishment.

Amid a great deal of crisis talk that sometimes sounds apocalyptic, this book is both surprisingly upbeat and rich in proposals to turn the tide. Speth argues that many of the tools and policies to solve environmental problems are currently available, if we have the will to change our collective patterns of behavior and address our problems.

Red Sky at Morning integrates a good deal of scholarly work to construct its case, but is not itself based on original research. While the book could sometimes be more analytical, it surpasses by far the rigor of general-interest or journalistic treatments of environmental issues. Where statistical evidence is presented, it is done with great clarity and simplicity. The book is likely to be read by many young environmental activists either in the classroom or independently, and it is written in a style suited to an educated general audience.

Speth holds the United States squarely responsible for failure to make progress on international environmental issues and for its failure to ratify a long list of important environmental treaties. At the root of America’s negative role is what he terms a persistent American exceptionalism, at times tinged with arrogance alongside a frequent contempt for the public realm. While embracing some market mechanisms, Speth vigorously argues that those who believe that the world can simply grow out of its environmental problems are seriously misguided.

Important and intriguing issues include recognition that required actions will sometimes intrude on domestic sovereignty. While governments have been willing to cede sovereign autonomy to achieve international trade liberalization and economic expansion, they have not been willing to do so to protect the environment. Another provocative discussion involves downsides and liabilities in the adoption of what Speth terms the international environmental law approach, with negotiation of conventions and protocols, as the primary means of attack for environmental problems.

There are, to be sure, some difficulties with a project as wide-ranging and ambitious as is presented here. Speth’s program for sustainability requires a major infusion of time and money, including a shift in budgetary priorities at a time when many social expenditures are being scaled back and the fight against terrorism is drawing more resources. His agenda also requires genuine partnership between richer and developing countries, while the United States has been tending to act unilaterally and restrict aid monies. As a liberal and with a liberal’s optimism, Speth tends to assume there is common ground and not a Huntingtonesque clash of civilizations with starkly competing values and worldviews. I see a problem squaring Speth’s advocacy of full-cost pricingincorporating full environmental costs of pollution into priceswith reduction of poverty, another of his goals. It is not clear where Speth stands on creating property rights as a means to provide better protection for current common-pool resources, one proposal he mentions.

Recent popular books like Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke (2002), and the movie Thirst (2004) follow popular mobilizations around the world to stop privatization of the global commons in the case of water. Speth’s tool kit is eclectic, containing proposalsharmonious and reconcilable in his viewover which people have been fighting for the past generation. Included are tradable emission permits, pollution taxes, legal liability for pollution and a polluter-pays principle, subsidies, command and control, and even bans.

Speth suggests that problems cannot be solved from within the mind-set in which they were created. At one point he asks whether an international system based on national sovereignty and an economic system based upon free market capitalism might pose obstacles to the kinds of transformations needed; his answer, at least in part, is yes. However, he believes important steps can be taken even within these frameworks. Speth’s dynamic for change is clearly ground-up: 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.

One of the author’s goals is to find the spark that can set off a period of rapid change in environmental policymaking. Speth coins the term glocalization to refer to citizenship action that shifts from the traditional nation-state to both global and local levels. If the frameworks and institutions within which we currently deal with environmental issues are fundamentally flawed, Speth’s optimism sometimes seems unwarranted. And yet, his belief in what activism can accomplish is infectious and energizing.

Red Sky at Morning includes a useful prose guide to Resources for Citizens: organizations, Web sites, books and reports. Part of this guide is organized around Speth’s eight steps to sustainability: stabilizing or decreasing population; ending mass poverty; environmentally benign technologies; environmentally honest prices; sustainable consumption; knowledge and learning; taking good governance seriously; and transition in culture and consciousness. This is a fine book, if often a disturbing one, and is likely to attract a large audience.

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