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The Bridge at the Edge of the World

The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

James Gustave Speth
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Bridge at the Edge of the World
    Book Description:

    How serious are the threats to our environment? Here is one measure of the problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, withnogrowth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. Of course human activities are not holding at current levels-they are accelerating, dramatically-and so, too, is the pace of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification. In this book Gus Speth, author ofRed Sky at Morningand a widely respected environmentalist, begins with the observation that the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to decline, to the point that we are now at the edge of catastrophe.

    Speth contends that this situation is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. Our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today's destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14530-4
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xviii-xix)
    J. G. S.
  5. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xx-xxii)
  6. Introduction: Between Two Worlds
    (pp. 1-14)

    The remarkable charts that introduce this book reveal the story of humanity’s impact on the natural earth.¹ The pattern is clear: if we could speed up time, it would seem as if the global economy is crashing against the earth—the Great Collision. And like the crash of an asteroid, the damage is enormous. For all the material blessings economic progress has provided, for all the disease and destitution avoided, for all the glories that shine in the best of our civilization, the costs to the natural world, the costs to the glories of nature, have been huge and must...

  7. Part One System Failure

    • 1 Looking into the Abyss
      (pp. 17-45)

      If you take an honest look at today’s destructive environmental trends, it is impossible not to conclude that they profoundly threaten human prospects and life as we know it on the planet. That is the abyss ahead. Robert Jay Lifton has said, “If one does not look into the abyss, one is being wishful by simply not confronting the truth. . . . On the other hand, it is imperative that one not get stuck in the abyss.”¹ Confronting the truth about environmental conditions and trends is the first step.

      I remember looking into another abyss, when I was a...

    • 2 Modern Capitalism: Out of Control
      (pp. 46-66)

      Is anything in our society more faithfully followed than economic growth? Its movements are constantly watched, measured to the decimal place, deplored or praised, diagnosed as weak or judged healthy and vigorous. Newspapers, magazines, and cable channels report endlessly on it. It is examined at all levels—global, national, and corporate. In just a tiny sample of business news stories appearing in the summer of 2006, theFinancial Timesreported, “The world is set to enjoy a fifth record year of high growth next year”;Business Weeknoted, “If oil keeps flowing, [U.S.] growth will, too”; and theWall Street...

    • 3 The Limits of Today’s Environmentalism
      (pp. 67-86)

      There are a hundred shades of green. There are the insiders lobbying and litigating for environmental causes in Washington and grassroots organizers fighting for environmental justice in their communities. There are corporate greens and antiglobalization activists,Vanity Fairgreens and consumption-avoiding downshifters, crunchy cons and ecosocialists (at least in Europe). There are environmentalists who work for government and those who wouldn’t think of it.

      One shudders to think what the world would look like today without this “environmental community” and all their efforts and hard-won victories in recent decades. However serious the environmental challenges, they would be even more critical...

  8. Part Two The Great Transformation

    • 4 The Market: Making It Work for the Environment
      (pp. 89-106)

      We live in Market World—in supermarkets, stock markets, labor markets, housing markets, to mention a few. Competitive markets are central to capitalism. They are the arena where buyers and sellers exchange goods and services at a price determined by supply and demand. For many, many purposes the market and the price mechanism work well, for example, in manufacturing, retail sales, and other areas. No better system of allocating scarce resources has yet been invented, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future.

      Democratic government has been and remains the principal counterbalance to the market. All but the...

    • 5 Economic Growth: Moving to a Post-Growth Society
      (pp. 107-125)

      Economic growth is modern capitalism’s principal and most prized product. The idea that there are or should be limits to growth is typically met with derision. Yet not all economists have been dismissive. John Maynard Keynes writing eighty years ago looked forward to the day when the “economic problem” would be a thing of the past. His writing is itself priceless: “Suppose that a hundred years hence we are eight times better off than today. Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, theeconomic problemmay be solved. This means that the economic problem is not—if...

    • 6 Real Growth: Promoting the Well-Being of People and Nature
      (pp. 126-146)

      Has America’s pursuit of growth and ever-greater material abundance brought true happiness and satisfaction in life? Happiness is a complicated subject. Almost everyone wants to be happy and lead a life of genuine satisfaction. Yet many major works of art and literature and many of the deepest insights have in fact been products of unhappy, even tormented minds. Moreover, happiness can and does have many meanings. Concepts of happiness range all the way from a shallow, hedonistic pursuit of instant gratification to the Buddhist emphasis on finding happiness in recognizing the futility of striving and in the movement beyond self...

    • 7 Consumption: Living with Enough, Not Always More
      (pp. 147-164)

      Consumerism is a pillar of modern capitalism. It involves a powerful, socially sanctioned commitment to ever-increasing purchase of goods and services on the market. Consumerism in this sense is paired with materialism, an approach to life and social wellbeing that elevates the material conditions of life over the spiritual and social dimensions.

      A consumer society is one in which consumerism and materialism are central aspects of the dominant culture, where goods and services are acquired not only to satisfy common needs but also to secure identity and meaning. A consumer society can also be thought of as one where consumer...

    • 8 The Corporation: Changing the Fundamental Dynamics
      (pp. 165-182)

      Corporations are the principal actors on capitalism’s stage. They are capitalism’s most important institutions, perhaps the most important institutions of our time. If capitalism is a growth machine, corporations are doing the growing. If growth is destroying the environment, then corporations are doing most of the destroying. In the United States, growth and capitalism have few critics. But corporations, in contrast, are fair game. They have been in the crosshairs of social critics for generations, and for good reason.

      Of course, there is a positive side. Corporations also do tremendous good in the world. They made my TiVo, built my...

    • 9 Capitalism’s Core: Advancing beyond Today’s Capitalism
      (pp. 183-196)

      Today’s capitalism seems an impregnable citadel. Marx’s socialism, its tragic offspring, communist totalitarianism, and even the mild evolutionary version of socialism of Eduard Bernstein and others are today in either full defeat or fast retreat. But the challenge to capitalism has a long and rich history, and it is unlikely that we are at the end of history. As Gar Alperovitz puts it inAmerica beyond Capitalism,“Fundamental change—indeed, radical systemic change—is as common as grass in world history.”¹ As it has in the past, capitalism will evolve, and it may evolve into a new species altogether.


  9. Part Three Seedbeds of Transformation

    • 10 A New Consciousness
      (pp. 199-216)

      Throughout this book I have sought to identify the profound changes that will be needed to sustain natural and human communities—changes in public policy and changes in individual and social behavior. Most of these changes are difficult and far-reaching by today’s standards. They are not the next steps. The next steps involve urgent efforts to apply the approaches of today’s environmentalism to address climate change and other challenges where serious action is long overdue. But the prescriptions of previous chapters are the next, next steps. What new circumstances might make these “impossible” prescriptions “inevitable,” as Milton Friedman put it?...

    • 11 A New Politics
      (pp. 217-232)

      The transformation of contemporary capitalism requires farreaching and effective government action. How else can the market be made to work for the environment rather than against it? How else can corporate behavior be altered or programs built that meet real human and social needs? Government is the principal means available to citizens to collectively exercise their stewardship responsibility to leave the world a better place. Inevitably, then, the drive for transformative change leads to the political arena, where a vital, muscular democracy steered by an informed and engaged citizenry is needed.

      Yet, for Americans, merely to state the matter this...

    • 12 The Bridge at the Edge of the World
      (pp. 233-238)

      For those of my generation, the quest for answers to the challenges addressed in this book is nearing its end, but for today’s young people it is just beginning. We do indeed borrow the earth from our children. If only my generation could say that we are returning it to them a better place than we found it. In truth, we have continued to purchase prosperity at an enormous cost to the natural world and to our human solidarity as well.

      But what’s past is past. It cannot be undone or remade. The future, though, is something else entirely. It...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 239-280)
  11. Index
    (pp. 281-295)