Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Bridge at the End of the World

Heating System - washingtonpost.com

James Gustave Speth is the dean of environmental studies at Yale, a founder of two major environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute), former chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (under Jimmy Carter) and a former head of the U.N. Development Program.

I have only just begun to read reviews of his most recent book "The Bridge at the End of the World". At first glance, he seems to be addressing what I view as a serious conundrum in current thought on responding to the threat of human induced climate change.

On the one hand we hear the strong cry that it is only by using the market to properly price carbon (capturing the cost of environmental externalities), that we can change human behaviour. But then, there are those who believe that it was the slavish promotion of overconsumption of material goods by our growth driven capitalist system that created the problem in the first place. How can we expect a system that depends on perpetual growth to cut off the hand that feeds it?

It is for this reason that Speth lays the blame of our current crisis on "a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today". In the Washington Post, reviewer Ross Gelbspan describes this goal of perpetual economic growth as one that "has brought us, simultaneously, to the threshold of abundance and the brink of ruination."

I have been convinced that capitalism has brought us to this brink. However, I am in a distinct minority who hold this view. To re-state the now oft-used Upton Sinclair quote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it." Most of us don't know when "enough is enough", thinking instead that if enough is good, then more must be better. Our society firmly believes that our wellbeing is absolutely dependent on perpetual economic growth. To think otherwise is usually viewed as bordering on heretical. Mainstream pundits are virtually unanimous in the view that the projected slowing in growth of the North American economy is bad. Is it any wonder that everyone believes that only the market can save us? But, is this a problem that we can consume our way out of?

Clearly, I want to be part of convincing more people that in this instance continually clamouring for more is actually ensuring that we will have less. I want more of us to understand that, in fact, we have enough, and that fueling our aspirations for more is making things worse, not better. The fundamental problem is the distribution of the incredible wealth that is available. It is concentrated in the hands of the few. They have the power and they don't want to let go. This, however, is a very tough argument to make across large segments of our society. How do we reach the tipping point on this?

Unfortunately, although the market has provided us with untold riches, it could also be responsible for our ultimate downfall. How do we unpack that conundrum? This is what Speth is attempting to do.

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