The Bridge at the Edge of the World

2009-05-26

in Books and literature, Economics, Law, Politics, The environment, Writing

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), near the Ottawa River

The basic contention of James Gustave Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability is that dealing with climate change – and environmental crises more generally – requires a major project of societal reform. This includes rejecting economic growth as a major objective, and focusing instead on improving the non-material factors that determine happiness. It also involves major economic and political reforms: severely curtailing the autonomy of corporations and sharply altering the relationships between business and government. While Speth’s vision is a coherent one, I don’t think he makes the case convincingly that it is the only alternative to ecological collapse. Indeed, implementing elements of his broader social program may well involve political battles that delay effective action on climate change.

One basic idea that Speth expresses well is a two-phased understanding of human civilization. In the first stage, exponential growth occurs and the proper mentality is that of the frontier or entrepreneurship. The second phase, basically the death of libertarianism, is when population and ecological strain become so significant that society and world level planning become necessary. It is clear that we are moving from the first to the second, as a civilization, though it remains unclear whether we will be able to manage that transition well, and avoid most of the damage and suffering that would result from getting it wrong.

Speth’s chapters on government and corporations seem like they were taken directly from AdBusters or Naomi Klein. That is not to say their analysis is wholly incorrect, but I do think it seriously overstates the power of corporations. Ultimately, they are subject to the will of governments. Of course, they have a strong ability to influence governments: both directly and by manipulating voters. Nonetheless, the authority and capability necessary to solve the world’s most pressing environmental problems lies with governments, and the process of achieving that will be all about altering their internal thinking and incentives. Speth’s analysis is also almost entirely focused on political and economic reform, in the sense of corporate governance. He pays relatively little attention to technological development and deployment, or to the economic instruments through which both can be advanced.

Speth is clearly well-read on the subject of the environmental movement. Indeed, his book is so riddled with quotations that his own voice and perspective are sometimes obscured. It isn’t always clear whether he is wholeheartedly endorsing someone’s idea, or introducing it as a partial contrast to his own point. Despite that, Speth’s writing is concise, clear, and often compelling. While readers may not find themselves in total agreement at all points, Speth at least provides some solid concepts and arguments to respond to.

Ultimately, the approach described in The Bridge at the Edge of the World comes across as somewhat unfocused. The author presents a package of reforms as through each is integral to all the others, but doesn’t make a strong enough case for why that is so. Indeed, the book also fails to present a coherent path from the present forward into a reformed world, indicating which elements are better primed to emerge soon. It may be sensible to argue for more progressive taxation, banning advertising to children, supporting sports and hobbies, providing free child care, etc, but some of these things are clearly secondary to the process of reconciling human civilization with the physical and biological limits of the planet.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that climate change will only be truly solved when it becomes post-ideological: when all the major political ideologies in states with serious greenhouse gas emissions come to accept the fact that they must be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Without that consensus, it seems unreasonable to expect the process of mitigation to continue for decade after decade. By tying the need to mitigate into an overly specific political framework, Speth puts forward a proposal that could obstruct that process, or lead to it sputtering out with the political ascendacy of a group with different perspectives and priorities.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan May 26, 2009 at 10:47 am

What does “post-ideological” mean?

tristan May 26, 2009 at 10:53 am

“The second phase, basically the death of libertarianism, is when population and ecological strain become so significant that society and world level planning become necessary”

“It may be sensible to argue for more progressive taxation, banning advertising to children, supporting sports and hobbies, providing free child care,”

“By tying the need to mitigate into an overly specific political framework, Speth puts forward a proposal that could obstruct that process,”

Your review has a distopic ring about it. Of course climate change could be solved with various political results. When the issue is coherent world planning – that is something that could happen either through turning states into functioning democracies (remember, the majority of the people who voted for bush in 2001 thought Bush was pro-Kyoto), or by further turning modern states into democratic simulations. There is a strong case to be made that democracy can’t exist without some for of egalitarianism, especially when libertarianism is over. Calling this kind of proposal an “obstruction” to solving climate change might seem perverse retrospectively if the elites are able to use climate change to effectively revert the world to a kind of pre-french revolution Aristocracy.

Peter May 26, 2009 at 11:31 am

“Quick draw” Tristan beat me to the punch.

Although somewhat repetitive, I’ll try to add some distinction between two various problems with your post-ideological proposition.

The idea of two distinctive eras is a proposition rife with political implications. Incidentally, you also could have used the S-curve from Changing Images of Man, which was one of their better conceptual investigations. (What do you know – the book wasn’t completely worthless) It might be true that scale, globalization, integration, specialization and technical ability has produced a situation that requires a different approach from previous political doctrines. Unfortunately, surpassing or undermining the doctrines (predicting the death of libertarianism) doesn’t make you post-political, or idealogically neutral, it makes you politically engaged against many of the old orthodoxies. You are trying to change values, and objectives, and perspectives (at a very core level, since you are trying to change the very modalities through which we view and engage the world.) Anytime there is a disagreement about the proper ordering of society, salient objectives, or identity, you’ve engaged with the political.

The second issue is that you’ve taken an increasingly shorted sighted and myopic view of the problem when you call for local action “when all the major political ideologies in states with serious greenhouse gas emissions come to accept the fact that they must be reduced and ultimately eliminated.” This quote not only admits a modification of the dominate political ideologies of states, which as previously pointed out, should be considered as a tactic acceptance of entering the political forum, but you’ve limited the problem to “developed” states (although I am sure you are aware of the larger problem), and taken a position on international relations, and sovereignty.

Simply targeting the current big polluters will not achieve an emission free planet, because the majority of the population resides in “developing” states. You might target “developing” states as they progress, however, you have to answer fundamental questions of justice in order to secure emission reductions. We industrialized with emissions, why can’t they? How will they be compensated? What technology does that entitle them to? Are emission allotments national or per capita? How do we secure cooperation? Can we, and how can we force compliance? The answers to those questions are political. The answers to the last questions, will probably necessarily involve a position on state sovereignty. Your current position, either posits a rational self-realization of states involved in competitive behaviour, or some sort of bizarre attitude towards sovereignty where action will be state based (endorsing sovereignty) but compliance is required (undermining sovereignty). Finally, by singling out states, you’ve also selected a political modality, which denies the need for a global political structure to address global problems, in favour of state based actions directed by universal consensus. Even if you manage to side step your multifront war with just about every political ideology that currently exists, you must still take a position on the global question, and settle many issues of distributive justice.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 12:56 pm

What does “post-ideological” mean?

An issue becomes post-ideological when no significant political ideology considers it an inappropriate subject for policy-making. Right now, there are still significant political parties and entities around the world who deny that climate change is an appropriate subject for policy-making, either because they deny its existence, its human causes, or the consequences of leaving it unregulated.

Eventually, it must be hoped that nobody who takes this position will be taken seriously politically,

Milan May 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Incidentally, you also could have used the S-curve from Changing Images of Man, which was one of their better conceptual investigations.

I agree that the same basic idea was expressed in both Speth and CIOM, and it is among the stronger concepts and images in both.

. August 18, 2009 at 10:33 am

Should We Seek to Save Industrial Civilisation?
Posted August 18, 2009
A debate with Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot

“Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in ‘progress’, as lazily defined by Western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace ’sustainable development’ rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra three billion people who will shortly be joining us on this already-gasping planet.”

Milan August 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Gus Speth got arrested today outside the White House, along with Bill McKibben and many others.

They were protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s oil sands.

. August 28, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Washington’s burly SWAT team, with every imaginable crime fighting gizmo dripping from their 35 pound belts, are an odd deployment of force, when you think about it, to send in to arrest the likes of us.

On my right, as we stood in suits and ties, in front of the White House refusing to move on that hot sunny day in August, was Gus Speth. Gus, now in his seventies, had headed up the President’s Council on Environmental Quality under Carter, and from there ran the UN’s Development Agency and later Yale’s School of Forestry and the Environment. On my left was Rev. Jim Anthol, who is the equivalent to a bishop in the United Church of Christ.

Myself, and the 65 others who stood with them that first day, came in answer to Bill McKibben’s call a month earlier. With lobbying on Capitol Hill hitting a brick wall, Bill’s thrust was to open a new front in the form of civil disobedience against the proposed 1,700 mile Keystone pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries at Port Arthur, Texas. A pipeline that would result in massive increases of carbon into the atmosphere, crippling any chance to stabilize the planet’s climate.

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