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.