The Bridge at the Edge of the World book, by James Gustave SpethJames Gustave Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Yale University dean, and a former White House advisor, has written a great book that everyone concerned with the fate of the world must read. Speth takes all of us to task — business, government, NGOs, individuals, and the capitalist system itself — in an urgent appeal to make large scale, fundamental changes to the path we’ve taken. More than most, Speth argues that our incremental approach to change — whether it’s the corporate responsibility movement or the environmental movement — is woefully and dangerously inadequate.

While the book is deeply thoughtful, thoroughly researched, and a pleasure (albeit depressing) to read, my only complaint is that Speth stops short of detailing the best ways to take urgent action.

NPR described the book as a “monumental work of synthesis” and in an interview noted that Speth has, “marshaled formidable evidence that American-style consumer capitalism of the early twenty-first century is incompatible with maintaining quality of life for all of us. It is generating unprecedented environmental risks while failing to advance the happiness and social well-being of Americans.”

Specifically, Speth proposes (and I agree) that:

  • “We must change the very nature of corporations so they become legally accountable to society at large, not just to themselves and their shareholders.
  • “We must challenge the current obsession with GDP growth and focus on growth in the areas that truly enhance human well-being: growth in good jobs, in the availability of health care, in education, in the deployment of green technologies, in the incomes of the poor, in security against illness and disability, in infrastructure, and more.
  • “We must challenge materialism and consumerism as the source of happiness and seek new values about quality of life, social solidarity, and connectedness to nature.
  • “We must transform the market through government action so that it works for the environment, rather than against it
  • “We must transform democracy through deep political reforms that reassert popular control, encouraging locally strong, deliberative democracy and limiting corporate influence.
  • “We must forge a new environmental politics that recognizes links among environmentalism, social liberalism, human and civil rights, the fight against poverty, and other issues.”

Speth’s analysis and recommendations demand a lot from all of us. I am grateful that someone is willing to say, “We’re in deep trouble.” If we aren’t willing to do the hard work now, there will be dire consequences for us all. It is NOT going to be easy being green, let alone ensure the viability of most of the human race.

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