We sat down (over the phone) with James Gustave Speth, a patriarch of the eco-world and dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, to chat about how the economic crisis could in fact help rescue the environment and to discuss his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.
MNN: This book originated from your own concern about the world's environmental situation. Should people be worried?
Speth: I think it's easy to miss how seriously in jeopardy we are. The real situation is that there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than in the last 650,000 years and so we are approaching a tipping point on the climate issue that could be disastrous. We are also extracting half of the world's fresh water from streams and rivers, depleting tropical forests at a rate of an acre per second, and eliminating 6,000 acres of open space per day in the U.S. About 30 percent of our word's species are threatened by extinction and 90 percent of the ocean's predator species are gone. In other words, we are living way beyond our means.
What are some of the forces driving the problem?
The problem is we're operating in a system with an enormous imperative for ever more growth. At the same time, corporations are trying to keep the cost of their activities off the books and so we get price signals that are environmentally dishonest.
Let's take oil, for example. It's vastly underpriced for its true environmental and military cost. Therefore, the oil companies earn a huge profit and we get a system that can grow at enormously high rates, because the prices are all wrong and the corporations have the political clout to influence the system. That is the capitalism we have today. It's not sustainable. Hopefully we're going to get a lucky break with the new president.
Is there a silver lining to the crisis?
Yes, I believe so. The first is President Obama's effort to "green" the economic stimulus package and invest in green energy and public transportation. For the last three decades we've lived with an anti-regulatory philosophy and ascendancy. One has to hope that the crisis will drive home the importance of government regulation, not just in the financial sector but also the consumer and environment sector. Public interest has been eroded in Washington and that has to be rebuilt.
It would also be wonderful if the crisis could lead us to think about politics more deeply. And I think the recent deplorable political conditions and success of the last election will lead to a new period of pro-democracy political reform. We really need good legislation on campaign finance and lobbying
Finally, people need to move away from mindless consumerism. The studies coming out of popular psychology show that materialism as an orientation is absolutely toxic to happiness. We get happiness mainly from people — our family, friends and community. So hopefully people will begin focusing on the things that really matter as we adjust to more modest circumstances generated by today's economy.
What could prevent this sea change in consciousness?
I think it's very hard in this deepening recession to talk about living with less growth, because everybody is focused on the need for more growth. But I think this crisis is an opportunity to not just prime the pump for greater GDP growth, especially since wages, health care, public transportation haven't increased along with GDP, but to choose the exact areas of society we want to advance.
As people try to consume more responsibly, why are they finding "green" products to be more expensive?
The truth is it can be cheaper to pollute. However, these days every product is being labeled "green." There is a lot of misinformation out there. I think there is a kind of green-chic line of products where people feel better about buying them and are therefore willing to pay higher prices for these often luxury-type products. While people would like to find ways to consume more responsibly, the best things to do are cut back on consumption and examine their energy use.
How are people not supposed to become resigned to an "all is lost" attitude when considering the amount of change needed to save the environment?
The hope really comes from seeing people becoming increasingly politically active in social and environmental issues, and realizing that these are one cause.
What is your emotional state looking into the future of our planet?
I think the challenge we face is pretty daunting. But I believe the reality of the situation will force change. The question is: How much damage can we tolerate before we get to that point?