20 Oct 2008: Opinion

Environmental Failure:
A Case for a New Green Politics

The U.S. environmental movement is failing – by any measure, the state of the earth has never been more dire. What’s needed, a leading environmentalist writes, is a new, inclusive green politics that challenges basic assumptions about consumerism and unlimited growth.

by james gustave speth

A specter is haunting American environmentalism – the specter of failure.

All of us who have been part of the environmental movement in the United States must now face up to a deeply troubling paradox: Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill, to the point that the prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. How could this have happened?

Before addressing this question and what can be done to correct it, two points must be made. First, one shudders to think what the world would look like today without the efforts of environmental groups and their hard-won victories in recent decades.
Listen: James Gustave Speth talks with Yale e360 about building a new environmentalism. (27 min.)
However serious our environmental challenges, they would be much more so had not these people taken a stand in countless ways. And second, despite their limitations, the approaches of modern-day environmentalism remain essential: Right now, they are the tools readily at hand with which to address many pressing problems, including global warming and climate disruption. Despite the critique of American environmentalism that follows, these points remain valid.

Lost Ground

The need for appraisal would not be so urgent if environmental conditions were not so dire. The mounting threats point to an emerging environmental tragedy of unprecedented proportions.

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second, and has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half of the corals are gone or are seriously threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in 65 million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year globally. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

The earth’s stratospheric ozone layer was severely depleted before its loss was discovered. Human activities have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by more than a third and have started in earnest the most dangerous change of all — planetary warming and climate disruption. Everywhere, earth’s ice fields are melting. Industrial processes are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a rate equal to nature’s; one result is the development of hundreds of documented dead zones in the oceans due to overfertilization. Freshwater withdrawals are now over half of accessible runoff, and water shortages are multiplying here and abroad.

The United States, of course, is deeply complicit in these global trends, including our responsibility for about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide added thus far to the atmosphere. But even within the United States itself, four decades of environmental effort have not stemmed the tide of environmental decline. The country is losing 6,000 acres of open space every day, and 100,000 acres of wetlands every year. About a third of U.S. plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983. And we have done little to curb our wasteful energy habits or our huge population growth.

Here is one measure of the problem: All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels – they are accelerating, dramatically.

The size of the world economy has more than quadrupled since 1960 and is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. It took all of human history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by that amount in a decade.

The escalating processes of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification, which continue despite decades of warnings and earnest effort, constitute a severe indictment of the system of political economy in which we live and work. The pillars of today’s capitalism, as they are now constituted, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive environmentally. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at any cost;
All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today.
powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit (including profit from avoiding the environmental costs their companies create, amassing deep subsidies and benefits from government, and continued deployment of technologies originally designed with little or no regard for the environment); markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by sophisticated advertising and marketing; economic activity now so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet — all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the ability of the earth to sustain life.

Are Environmentalists To Blame?

In assigning responsibility for environmental failure, there are many places to lay blame: the rise of the modern, anti-government right in American politics; a negligent media; the deadening complexity of today’s environmental issues and programs, to mention the most notable. But a number of observers have placed much of the blame for failure on the leading environmental organizations themselves.

For example, Mark Dowie in his 1995 book Losing Ground notes that the national environmental organizations crafted an agenda and pursued a strategy based on the civil authority and good faith of the federal government. “Therein,” he believes, “lies the inherent weakness and vulnerability of the environmental movement. Civil authority and good faith regarding the environment have proven to be chimeras in Washington.” Dowie argues that the national environmental groups also “misread and underestimate[d] the fury of their antagonists.”

The mainstream environmental organizations were challenged again in 2004 in the now-famous The Death of Environmentalism. In it, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write that America’s mainstream environmentalists are
Today’s environmentalism accepts compromises as part of the process. It takes what it can get.
not “articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards — proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.” Shellenberger and Nordhaus believe environmentalists don’t recognize that they are in a culture war — a war over core values and a vision for the future.

These criticisms and others stem from the fundamental decision of today’s environmentalism to work within the system. This core decision grew out of the successes of the environmental community in the 1970s, which seemed to confirm the correctness of that approach. Our failure to execute a dramatic mid-course correction when circumstances changed can be seen in hindsight as a major blunder.

Here is what I mean by working within the system. When today’s environmentalism recognizes a problem, it believes it can solve that problem by calling public attention to it, framing policy and program responses for government and industry, lobbying for those actions, and litigating for their enforcement. It believes in the efficacy of environmental advocacy and government action. It believes that good-faith compliance with the law will be the norm, and that corporations can be made to behave and will increasingly weave environmental objectives into their business strategies.

Today’s environmentalism tends to be pragmatic and incrementalist — its actions are aimed at solving problems and often doing so one at a time. It is more comfortable proposing innovative policy solutions than framing inspirational messages. These characteristics are closely allied to a tendency to deal with effects rather than underlying causes. Most of our major environmental laws and treaties, for example, address the resulting environmental ills much more than their causes. In the end, environmentalism accepts compromises as part of the process. It takes what it can get.

Today’s environmentalism also believes that problems can be solved at acceptable economic costs — and often with net economic benefit — without significant lifestyle changes or threats to economic growth. It will not hesitate to strike out at an environmentally damaging facility or development, but it sees itself, on balance, as a positive economic force.

Environmentalists see solutions coming largely from within the environmental sector. They may worry about the flaws in and corruption of our politics, for example, but that is not their professional concern. That’s what Common Cause or other groups do. Similarly, environmentalists know that the prices for many things need to be higher, and they are aware that environmentally honest prices would create a huge burden on the half of American families that just get by. But universal health care and other government action needed to address America’s gaping economic injustices are not seen as part of the environmental agenda.

Today’s environmentalism is also not focused strongly on political activity or organizing a grassroots movement. Electoral politics and mobilizing a green political movement have played second fiddle to lobbying, litigating, and working with government agencies and corporations.

A central precept, in short, is that the system can be made to work for the environment. In this frame of action, scant attention is paid to the corporate dominance of economic and political life, to transcending our growth fetish, to promoting major lifestyle changes and challenging the materialistic values that dominate our society, to addressing the constraints on environmental action stemming from America’s vast social insecurity and hobbled democracy, to framing a new American story, or to building a new environmental politics.

Not everything, of course, fits within these patterns. There have been exceptions from the start, and recent trends reflect a broadening in approaches. Greenpeace has certainly worked outside the system,
Organizations built to litigate and lobby are not necessarily the best ones to mobilize a grassroots movement.
the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have had a sustained political presence, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund have developed effective networks of activists around the country, the World Resources Institute has augmented its policy work with on-the-ground sustainable development projects, and environmental justice concerns and the emerging climate crisis have spurred the proliferation of grassroots efforts, student organizing, and community and state initiatives.

But organizations that were built to litigate and lobby for environmental causes or to do sophisticated policy studies are not necessarily the best ones to mobilize a grassroots movement or build a force for electoral politics or motivate the public with social marketing campaigns. These things need to be done, and to get them done it may be necessary to launch new organizations and initiatives with special strengths in these areas.

The methods and style of today’s environmentalism are not wrongheaded, just far, far too restricted as an overall approach. The problem has been the absence of a huge, complementary investment of time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change. And here, the leading environmental organizations must be faulted for not doing nearly enough to ensure these investments were made.

America has run a 40-year experiment on whether this mainstream environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in. The full burden of managing accumulating environmental threats has fallen to the environmental community, both those in government and outside. But that burden is too great. The system of modern capitalism as it operates today will continue to grow in size and complexity and will generate ever-larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to cope with them. Indeed, the system will seek to undermine those efforts and constrain them within narrow limits. Working only within the system will, in the end, not succeed — what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.

A New Environmental Politics

Environmental protection requires a new politics.

This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate.

Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America’s social fabric and undermining its democracy. It is a crisis of soaring executive pay, huge incomes, and increasingly concentrated wealth for a small minority, occurring simultaneously with poverty near a 30-year high, stagnant wages despite rising productivity, declining social mobility and opportunity, record levels of people without health insurance, failing schools, increased job insecurity, swelling jails, shrinking safety nets, and the longest work hours among the rich countries. In an America with such vast social insecurity, economic arguments, even misleading ones, will routinely trump environmental goals.

Similarly, environmentalists must join with those seeking to reform politics and strengthen democracy. What we are seeing in the United States is the emergence of a vicious circle: Income disparities shift political access and
The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a challenge to consumerism and commercialism.
influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the growing income disparities. Corporations have been the principal economic actors for a long time; now they are the principal political actors as well. Neither environment nor society fares well under corporatocracy. Environmentalists need to embrace public financing of elections, regulation of lobbying, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting, and other political reform measures as core to their agenda. Today’s politics will never deliver environmental sustainability.

The current financial crisis and, at this writing, the response to it, reveal a system of political economy that is profoundly committed to profits and growth and profoundly indifferent to people and society. This system is at least as indifferent to its impacts on nature. Left uncorrected, it is inherently ruthless and rapacious, and it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject values of fairness and sustainability into the system. But this effort commonly fails because progressive politics are too enfeebled and Washington is increasingly in the hands of powerful corporate interests and concentrations of great wealth. The best hope for real change in America is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force.

The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals — indeed, writing a new American story, as Bill Moyers has urged. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.

The final watchword of the new environmental politics must be, “Build the movement.” We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of “the environmental movement.” We need a real one — networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.

Can one see the beginnings of a new social movement in America? Perhaps I am letting my hopes get the better of me, but I think we can. Its green side is visible, I think, in the surge of campus organizing and student mobilization occurring today, much of it coordinated by the student-led Energy Action Coalition and by Power Vote.
If there is a model within American memory of what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
It’s visible also in the increasing activism of religious organizations, including many evangelical groups under the banner of Creation Care, and in the rapid proliferation of community-based environmental initiatives. It’s there in the joining together of organized labor, environmental groups, and progressive businesses in the Apollo Alliance and there in the Sierra Club’s collaboration with the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in the United States. It’s visible too in the outpouring of effort to build on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and in the grassroots organizing of 1Sky and others around climate change. It is visible in the green consumer movement and in the consumer support for the efforts of the Rainforest Action Network to green the policies of the major U.S. banks. It’s there in the increasing number of teach-ins, demonstrations, marches, and protests, including the 1,400 events across the United States in 2007 inspired by Bill McKibben’s “Step It Up!” campaign to stop global warming. It is there in the constituency-building work of minority environmental leaders and in the efforts of groups like Green for All to link social and environmental goals. It’s just beginning, but it’s there, and it will grow.

The welcome news is that the environmental community writ large is moving in some of these directions. Local and state environmental groups have grown in strength and number. There is more political engagement through the League of Conservation Voters and a few other groups, and more work to reach out to voters with overtly political messages. The major national organizations have strengthened their links to local and state groups and established activist networks to support their lobbying activities. Still, there is a long, long way to go to build a new and vital environmental politics in America.

American politics today is failing not only the environment but also the American people and the world. As Richard Falk reminds us, only an unremitting struggle will drive the changes that can sustain people and nature. If there is a model within American memory for what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It had grievances, it knew what was causing them, and it also knew that the existing order had no legitimacy and that, acting together, people could redress those grievances. It was confrontational and disobedient, but it was nonviolent. It had a dream. And it had Martin Luther King Jr.

It is amazing what can be accomplished if citizens are ready to march, in the footsteps of Dr. King. It is again time to give the world a sense of hope.

POSTED ON 20 Oct 2008 IN Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability North America North America 

COMMENTS


Wow. Extremely well said James Gustave Speth!

If you liked this article, then you'll like this too:

http://wakeupfreakout.org/film/tipping.html
Posted by Leo Murray on 22 Oct 2008


I am continually amazed at the basic lack of understanding surrounding the mechanics of how the planet operates. "All we have to do destroy the planet's climate and biota is to continue to do exactly what we're doing today"? The biota thrive on increased CO2 concentrations. Optimal CO2 concentrations are in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 2,000 ppm. It is not even shown that we're the source of the CO2 increases.

If anyone has been paying attention for the past decade, one would notice that the entire modest warming of the past century has been erased, gone. Further, due to the shrinking heliosphere of the sun and the current negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a large number of credible scientists actually predict very cool temperatures over the next 30 to 50 years. Our world has been slowly warming over the past 200 years as it pulls out of the last little ice age. The increased temperatures are a boon to civilization and the increased CO2 (we provide) is welcome by plants due to the increased atmospheric fertilization.

There are environmental issues to deal with (rain forest depletion is a good example), but by making everything a crisis even when it is not does not serve your goals or anyone elses.
Posted by Drew Thatcher on 22 Oct 2008


Well said Drew, I thought after reading James Speth's article the environmental community would be better served to strive to regain the credibility they have squandered over the years.

They should argue from an asthetics and quality of life stance, this "we are all going to die" is bunk.
Posted by Ray on 22 Oct 2008


I highly recommend Leo Murray's little video (link above). He's taken the science and turned it into a work of art that carries the message with humour and inspiration.

Also change is already happening because of the Obama campaign - people now have hope that their voice counts, and the movement is building.
Posted by Kathy on 22 Oct 2008


Drew, I'm amazed that you speak so confidently when it is clear that you do not understand the issues you are writing about. I am a scientist who has studied the relationships between the worlds biota, CO2 levels and climate change over many years. And I can say with genuine confidence that you are oversimplifying a very complex picture - like so many others in this debate you are choosing a narrow set of ideas that suit your viewpoint while ignoring the larger picture. Yes, plants grow at accelerated rates in an atmosphere with higher CO2. But, no, this is not a good thing for the world's biodiversity. The small number of species able to utilise the higher CO2 will do well at the expense of a great number of species who will be outcompeted in this environment. The climate fluctuations and changes caused by increased CO2 are predicted by the vast majority of scientists (in the order of 99% of those surveyed) to cause major species extinctions (around one quarter of all species on earth). This is clearly a very serious situation.

You are just plain wrong about the source of CO2 emissions. There has been a great deal of work worldwide to quantify the volume of our CO2 emissions and we know, without any doubt, that humanity is the cause of the current elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Drew, I would urge you to consider the consequences of posting to forums such as this when you do not have the information or training to comment in a sensible or informed way.
Posted by Beth on 22 Oct 2008


Beth:

It is possible I'm out of my element. Let me make sure I understand your statement. You content that CO2 increases alone, decoupled from any increase in temperature, will cause ~25% extinction of all species on earth?


Posted by Drew Thatcher on 22 Oct 2008


I loved the first part that seem to invite something unexpected in its simplicity and ability to change minds. Maybe I’m just a dilettante, but all this community-organizing work advocated leaves me unconvinced. Marching in the street (The Civil Rights Movement), attacked by dogs and firehoses…not terribly appealing. But I agree with the need to rethink America – which is tantamount to rethinking the world. And I would also say that this is an aesthetic and lifestyle issue primarily. Before reading this, I had been musing on the need for a simplified, holistic paradigm for governance that I think can be achieved. I’m working on it. Today’s draft introduction goes as follows:

We can start with Brazil. The greatest travesty of environmentalism is to destroy the Amazon Rainforest that helps the planet breath in order to produce ethanol fuel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. The loss of carbon sequestering rainforests accounts for much of the greenhouse gasses gathering in the atmosphere. But there being relatively little money to be made in preserving them, they are being destroyed apace. What’s wrong with this picture?

Posted by TRB on 22 Oct 2008


I'll second the notion that Drew lacks the basic understanding of "the mechanics of how the planet operates" that he accuses the rest of us of lacking. Empirical evidence from a wide range of observational approaches support the view that the rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases over the last 150 years is attributable to the burning of fossil fuels by industrial activities and that at least one half of the observed warming over the past century is attributable to that rise in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, were Drew truly paying attention to the surface temperature record of Earth he would find that far from "erased" the planet remains nearly 1 deg. C warmer today than it was 100 years ago. Only the rate of warming has slowed in the current decade owing, probably, to internal variability of climate.
Posted by Eric on 23 Oct 2008


I applaud Mr. Speth for his refreshing honesty. I always knew environmentalism was simply an elaborate trojan horse for socialism, so I am very happy to hear a respected environmentalist explicitly state the goal of the movement: the end of capitalism. I have often been ridiculed for telling people this, but having a leader of the environmental movement write this article serves as confirmation of the watermelon theory: Environmentalists are green on the outside but red on the inside.
Posted by Brooks on 23 Oct 2008


Dr. Speth should be commended for taking a hard look at our movement -- one that he helped to start.

In essence, environmentalism cannot and should not be divorced from economics. We learned this in the 70's -- when the economy slides downhill, companies engage in "environmental blackmail." Jobs and family needs will always take precedence. We lose politically. ("Drill baby Drill").

So long as the global economy embraces the consumer-growth paradigm (extraction, production, consumption, usage with additional energy consumption and disposal, we cannot get where we need to go. We need to replace this with a different kind of investment and growth strategy, based on human need and well being economic security, true entrepreneurism and the concept of resilience. We need a system that has what it takes to absorb purturbation without going haywire -- and one that protects Mother Nature and the wonderful and free services that she provides!

We need to think broadly. In the current debate on climate change -- some environmentalists have begrudgingly accepted nuclear power as part of the solution. However, if we look at the economic and political implications we come up with a different answer. An investment in renewables and energy efficiency is far wiser.
Renewable is basically inflation proof, safe, and nicely dispersed. You don't need huge amounts of capital (and vast regulatory bureaucracies, and waste repositories) to put up solar panels or wind turbines. Such businesses can help to build communities rather than siphonining off their capital. Furthermore what is democratic not only helps to provide for human need but provides checks to unbridled power -- checks and balances provide resilience.

Our current system focues on optimizing production efficiency for specific corporations. The resulting consolidation (as in banks) causes massive instability and increasing distance between communities and capital (hemorrhaging). The system is inherently unstable and leads increasingly to consequences that cascade out of control. To paraphrase Naseem Taleb, author of the Black Swan, If you have a lot of small banks and one of them fails -- thats not so bad. If you have a tiny number of megabanks and one goes down, this creates a massive and spreading problem.

We could learn alot through a greater understanding of the resilience of natural systems (e.g. ecosystems). Nature's economy is about 3.5 billion years old and will continue to do well with or without humans. We need also to understand the vast amount of free services that Mother Nature provides and understand that she is big, but finite in her abilities.

In short both economists and environmentalists (and "deciders") need to learn to better ecologists. The current economic crisis is a golden opportunity for a major paradigm shift in this direction.
Posted by Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. on 23 Oct 2008


Speth seems to miss that the Green Party has already been working hard on the coalescence of issues that he writes about. The Green Party is already linking war, oil, electoral reform, global warming, poverty. It is just old school folks like Speth seem to be missing what is going on, wanting to invent something that we already invented. He should just join the Green Party.
Posted by greg gerritt on 23 Oct 2008


On the subject of extinction of species, a bounding estimate of 15% to 40% species extinction with a mean of 25% is not supported by existing studies (and does not say a lot about the total propagated error of the estimates). To me, it seems like the jump from studies of adaptation and migration (where the species original territory generally appears to have expanded) to computer simulation of future events appears to be missing a beat. I would hope we are in agreement that plant growth increases in response to increases in carbon dioxide and that heat tolerance also increases – almost without exception. There are a huge number of papers that support this assertion. I believe that part of the future estimates of species extinction also hinges on a corresponding increase in temperatures over the next century. It should be clear that after four successive iterations of the IPCC, their model runs cannot accurately predict future temperature trends (and the error terms obviously do not account for all systematic and random uncertainties) and the errors in these GCMs spill over into the modeling for species depletion as well. These GCMs have not been retrospectively calibrated so why should such great faith be placed on future estimates? Until the IPCC begins to seriously consider solar and cosmic influences their estimates will continue to fail, but I digress.
Posted by Drew Thatcher on 24 Oct 2008


Response to H.S. Cole on renewables.
Henry - I'm sure you've done the math, but solar and wind will never add up to more than a few percent of the total energy budget. Without nuclear fission, I cannot see how we can replace the energy supplied by fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion, the holy grail, is at least 40 years away. Even if conservation yielded a further 10% reduction (and recall that we've been continuously working on efficiency improvements for 30+ years), one is still left with a vary large gap in production without fossil fuels that renewables cannot fill.

Eric - the problem with the surface temperature record credibility has been documented. Their utility on a global scale is highly suspect. Better to rely on satellite data.
Posted by Drew Thatcher on 24 Oct 2008


Poets, Preachers, Philosophers... yes, indeed, how I do remember Rabindranath Tagore's work, Red Oleanders. If there is one, this is the epic song that sang so evocatively and eloquently the confluence of socio-enviro-agendas that must be fought together inorder to revolutionalize change... real change for a brave new world. I here do sincerely encourage everyone - the writer and the commentators here - to read this great work of Tagore. I personally relish the thought that his is a long awaited call to collective action to save man from himself! Thanks for your great piece, Mr Speth.
Posted by Joseph Lai on 24 Oct 2008


This piece by Gus Speth is brilliant.

As a lifetime political and environmental activist who has worked with and led international, national and local environmental and political organizations, I wholeheartedly agree with Gus' charge to the environmental "movement" that they actually need to rethink what a "movement" really is in this day and age. It is not a coalition. It is not a collection of single issue activists working toward a legislative goal.

This is the deceivingly simple question that needs to be put in front of the national group leaders...again...for examination: what constitutes an environmental "movement," do we need one (yes!), and how does it get built?

But where is that leadership going to come from?

And yes, it's time for fresh thinking, energy, communications and models for action. The social fabric of America is changing and our nation's politics are also changing dramatically.

There are inhibiting factors, like tax deductible contributions which don't allow electoral work, built into organizational structures that limit most groups' ability to be political in the electoral sense. But there is also political in the strategic sense, and tax deductibility doesn't inhibit that kind of action.

"Membership" in a group is typically based on a financial contribution, which isn't how a movement is built - movements are people-powered. Sure, it takes money to fuel the movement, but I believe that groups need to value "shoe leather" equity as much as financial contributions. By valuing action as much as monetary contributions, I believe that organizational memberships will become more diverse. And subsequently, organizational agendas will also become more reflective of the concerns of all Americans.

We need to learn from the few early American "movements" how to direct the activities of a people-powered movement. What do you do with all these volunteers and activated citizens that makes a difference? Let's look back at the civil rights movement, the womens' suffrage movement, the Vietnam war movement, and others to see just how different today's environmental movement is from those earlier, successful models.

But be aware that intensive "movements" burn so brightly they burn themselves out. So we need a new model for the 21st century. One based on new technologies, new challenges, and the new realities of society. The environmental problem will never be finally solved (though we
need to get further down that road), so we need a sustainable movement for sustainability.

Gus, thanks for leading the way on this important discussion. Where do we go from here?
Posted by Deb Callahan on 24 Oct 2008


Deb Callahan: "But be aware that intensive 'movements' burn so brightly they burn themselves out. So we need a new model for the 21st century."

I agree wholeheartedly. Instead, a “cool” approach is needed, a master plan that systematically includes all issues in all places, a spatially oriented vision that calmly knits places together in an ecologically sensible way.

Since geopolitical divisions of space ignore the prerogatives of the natural world (that are the best safeguards against planetary meltdown), it is absolutely essential to hold to the following maxim: Land before people.

Ironically, since a comprehensive world visioning along the advocated lines requires rigorous, responsible, inclusive and cooperative thinking, the benefits of a land-first paradigm should result in immediate and substantial relief of human suffering and injustice (the sine qua non for change). There is no other path to success. The earth made whole again, with the vast store of human knowledge at its disposal, is what we must strive toward.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 25 Oct 2008


Global human population is rising from more than 6.7 billion, having quadrupled in less than a century.

Every 5 minutes 650 more people are added to human population – this equals a million person net gain in just over 4 days and another United States every 3 to 4 years.

If population were a stand-alone issue, reasonable people could honorably disagree about the optimal population density of a state, a region, a nation and the Earth, and perhaps the numbers listed above would not be cause for such great concern.

However, as we witness the Earth giving us clear distress signals -- as are being discussed in this valuable forum, examples being climate change, species extinctions, marine dead-zones and intensifying desertification – we no longer have the luxury to view human populations in isolation from the ecological crisis facing the planet.

Each additional human increases the base of aggregate demand for the Earth’s natural resources and open space. Efficiency and technology can mitigate these demands to some extent, but logic tells us that ever increasing human numbers are an insurmountable obstacle to the urgent need to implement sustainable development strategies for human communities all over the globe.

Cutting per capita carbon emissions does little if the “capita” keeps expanding. Reducing groundwater consumption at the household level does little if the number of households keeps growing. Cutting personal protein consumption in half makes little difference when a net 650 more protein dependent people arrive on the planet every 5 minutes.

Many people who are staunch environmentalists have resisted talking about the ideas of human population stabilization because they don't have a way to talk about them in a human rights framework -- they rightly fear a continuation of north-south colonialism, patriarchal ownership of women's wombs, or some sort central planning of human fertility -- all of which would be abominable disasters. Furthermore, woeful mistakes made in the name of population stabilization in the past, for instance the forced male sterilizations that took place in India in the mid 1970's, continue to paint population stabilization ideas with a dingy brush indeed.

This is a momentous problem that must be rectified, because even in a best case scenario, human population will balloon to 9.1 billion by 2050. Business as usual will result in a population approaching 12 billion. No sustainability advocate can countenance such an increase.

Unless and until population stabilization is seen as a deeply progressive commitment to human rights and reproductive freedom -- one that will serve the urgent need to implement sustainable living across the region, nation and world – the global struggle to attain sustainability will be carrying the tragic millstone of population expansion, and the bright promising future we all wish to see may be lost.

Population stabilization ideas must be central to the core cannon of healthy, lasting and vibrant sustainable development ideas. The world must see that population stabilization is the happy dividend of investing in the reproductive freedom of all human adults, especially women.

Posted by Joe Bish on 25 Oct 2008


"Population stabilization ideas must be central to the core cannon of healthy, lasting and vibrant sustainable development ideas. The world must see that population stabilization is the happy dividend of investing in the reproductive freedom of all human adults, especially women."

But is population increase a cause or an effect of unsustainable-development programs?

Posted by TRB on 25 Oct 2008


It should be easy to do something about population. According to Marie Stopes, one pregnancy in three is unintentional; there are only five condoms per man per year in sub-Saharan Africa; there are two million unsafe abortions annually. The withholding of funds to UNFPA to the tune of $34m annually has resulted in 2m additional births and disabilitiesand 800,000 unsafe abortions with the attendant maternal deaths. Let alone all the politics, simple humanity demands that something should be done about this. As an individual concerned about this, one could at least support Marie Stopes or International Planned Parenthood Federzation
Posted by Roger on 25 Oct 2008


Perhaps to understand why the environmental movement has failed we need to ask what basic value of the early environmental movement has been forgotten or, out of political correctness, pushed aside.

Of course the environmental movement is failing and that harkens directly back to early key environmentalists such as Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a founder of Earth Day. Key to the early years of the movement was the knowledge that population growth is a key driver of environmental degradation at EVERY level. In my lifetime, the planet's population has muchroomed from roughly 2 billion to today's number that approaches 7 billion even as the silence from the environmental community as women all over the planet are denied fundamental access to family planning (except back street abortions) is deafening.

In the United States — a nation that Nelson called part of the population problem — our numbers (despite a replacement-level birth rate since about 1975) have exploded and passed 300 million in 2006, making us today one of just 3 nations with more than 300 million.

If anyone believes we are going to solve global warming, the largest species extinction since the die off of the dinosaurs or any other environmental problem while the population explodes, perhaps that individual needs some reading time on the topic from the environmental movement's founders.
Posted by Kathleene Parker on 25 Oct 2008


The Erlichs at least factored in overconsumption (lifestyle) along with the population explosion as the cause of environmental degradation. To uncouple these two issues (as well as a host of others…like sustainable, just community development) is to get exactly nowhere.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 25 Oct 2008


My initial post serves as an assertion that out of the many narrative strands that will come to define a successful "new environmentalism," one of those strands will be a stabilized human population practicing sustainable living scenarios.

To over-simplify, over-consumption needs to evolve to sustainable living; and, a population in overshoot needs to be stabilized.

Removing barriers to fertility regulation across the Earth is no more or no less urgent than cutting carbon emissions -- they are, along with the myriad other obstacles to an authentic sustainability, all urgent.

We should all follow our passions and skill sets to address whatever sustainability thread most appeals to us, while supporting each other and not letting our egos make us believe our own issue is THE issue.

We don't have time for that.
Posted by Joe Bish on 26 Oct 2008


The environmental movement has compromised itself to the point of almost irrelevancy and is effectively impotent. The baby boomers were the last generation that either remember living on a farm or had parents and grandparents that lived on a farm. This gave them a connection with the land even after they moved to the big cities. Up until the end of the 1970s, most city dwellers could drive less than 20 miles to enjoy high quality fishing and hunting opportunities, there was still a lot of real wilderness to experience and people engaged in these activities with regularity. In contrast, most people now have no connection with the land. Food comes out of a package from the store. Wild animals are to be feared. Few people can imagine butchering animals for food or appreciate the sacrifice that was made for the meat in their meal. Most people now spend their free time in front of some type of electronic screen where, if they get any connection with the environment at all, it is either about the quality of their air or water and not about the loss of wild areas, even those close to their homes. Few people make the connection between population and our current environmental condition. I really cannot see how to engage people now in the monumental task of turning our environmental condition around. It would mean making a fundamental change in how we live our lives and Americans at least are not prepared to do that.
Posted by Kris on 27 Oct 2008


I am amazed that so few of the comments deal with economics -- especially at a time that we are in the midst of a crisis and probably at the edge of a severe recession.

This is a rare opportunity to put forth a different vision of an economy -- one that is more like and more compatible with nature's highly successful and long-lived system of interconnected economies -- and one that can provide for human needs without devastating the free life support system we get from nature.

Lets start talking economics -- the rest will follow.
Posted by Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. on 29 Oct 2008


Re: Kathleene Parker's comment on international family planning: "In my lifetime, the planet's population has mushroomed from roughly 2 billion to today's number that approaches 7 billion
even as the silence from the environmental community as women all over the planet are denied fundamental access to family planning (except backstreet abortions) is deafening."

I must differ with your analysis about the environmental community's silence about family planning funding. When I headed the League of Conservation Voters from 1996 to 2006, we put a vote on international family planning funding on our National Environmental Scorecard every year. And I lobbied on that issue on Capitol Hill many times in my tenure. I mentioned our support for family planning funding in press conferences, speeches, etc.

Many members of Congress criticized us for our consistent support of international family planning funding, saying family planning, or even abortion were not environmental issues (and we always pointed out that abortion and family planning dollars should not be confused, but it was convenient for some right to lifers to confuse the issue).

In particular, John McCain was quite memorable in his animosity on the issue. He once said to an assembled group of national environmental CEOs that "he wasn't even sure that we should support family planning because the more people in the world there are, the more Christians there will be in the world." True story. And shocking. Not to mention that his math is a little off if he looks at the proportionality of Christians to Muslims or certain other faiths.

Nonetheless, some of my national environmental colleagues were as consistent as clear as LCV was in fighting for family planning funding. It's important to give credit where credit is due, and not make uninformed criticisms.
Posted by Deb Callahan on 30 Oct 2008


“We should all follow our passions and skill sets to address whatever sustainability thread most appeals to us, while supporting each other and not letting our egos make us believe our own issue is THE issue.”

THE issue: Health care, energy, transportation, war, economy, infrastructure, education are among the top agenda items for a new president and Congress. They are traditionally dealt with as single, unconnected items. I doubt that population control as a single item will be getting attention any time soon. Many other crucially important issues will similarly be sidelined owing to their having to compete for limited funds and political will to be tackled in the usual disjointed manner.

Mr. Speth advocates, and I agree, that the people need to organize a new kind of movement that will actually begin to slow and ultimately reverse environmental degradation. He also advocates that our issues be linked, although I didn’t get clear how he thought that should be done. As things stand, the term environmentalism is probably inadequate. Within the field of environmentalism alone, there are a variety of issues which are currently in competition!

Deforestation, air and water quality, loss of topsoil, loss of species are among environmental issues that are usually tackled in isolation of each other. As are the development issues – economic policy, industrial practices, energy sources, built environment, trade, population density – that exacerbate them. The resulting lack of coordination or wholeness contributes to public apathy and confusion.

We need an “environmental” movement simple enough for everyone to feel a part of. The first photographs of earth from far space made many see the planet in a new way…as the seamless earth, devoid of artificial geopolitical discontinuities. I believe that sustainability requires that we make the wholeness of the space view of Earth into a reality on the ground.

I have long been struck with the need to connect issues, but not in the tossed-salad sense of connection. The tools are there for connecting issues in a systemic fashion. I hope there are some on this forum who can help toward this endeavor that requires so much work and thought.

City General Plans and other kinds of geopolitical land-area plans offer fruitful ways to begin integrating issues. This is because these plans are comprehensive in scope, and lend themselves to the development of synergies between issues. General Plans are often comprised of elements that include: infrastructure, economic development, land use, housing, circulation, conservation, open space, health policy, transportation, scenic routes, air quality, parks and recreation, arts and culture, design, noise, safety, historic preservation, among others. And the law usually requires that there be internal consistency between elements.

Beyond local planning lies regional plans. This from the city of Los Angeles: “When preparing or revising a general plan, cities and counties should carefully analyze the implications of regional plans for their planning area. General Plans are required to include an analysis of the extent to which the general plan's policies, standards, and proposals are consistent with regional plans.” “Regional plans…provide the legal basis for allocating state and federal funds, as in the case of transportation and water quality facilities. Other regional plans, such as air quality plans, spell out measures which local governments may institute in order for the region to meet state and federal standards.”

So planning tools exist, though still very inadequate, to promote sustainable development within given parts of the earth’s surface. A new US administration might well set in motion a survey of such plans in the US and elsewhere toward seeing what potential consistency and integration exists between them. I believe that everyone can comprehend why land-area plans everywhere should be relatively integrated.

Economic restructuring must also be aligned with planetary sustainability. The international community must fund programs that contribute to global sustainability and climate stabilization.
Off the top of my head are the following: Preserving the Amazon Rainforest; coal sequestration (or something analogous) in China and India; Congo peace-keeping and habitat preservation; micro loans and economic development; international structures that promote sustainability; and family planning. International aid must be tied to green development that might include the above issues among many others.

Sustainability thus sanctioned by the international community could do much to reduce ethnic, religious and national tensions throughout the world. Rather than hoping these can simply be removed, we need to have a compelling substitute for them. Reaching for the big global picture that everyone can grasp is the best way to do it.

Writer Tom Friedman has been a major voice for the kind of environmentalism I think we need. In his view, environmentalism and nation building are one and the same thing. Green development is the hub of the wheel of governance, not one of its many spokes. A green-development philosophy affects every aspect of governance. Imagine a health-care system that had no synergistic relationship with air-quality control. Or an economic program that had no relationship with either.

The primary need is for issues of governance to be integrated as part of a larger sustainability movement.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes, MFA '63 on 02 Nov 2008


Thanks for wise comments about current eco movements in US must come from needful communities redefining our relationships to local natural resources in our bioregion. So i am working on learning, educating to protect our forests from TL-CC Total Logging Clear cutting by understanding Health Native Forest Habitat Ecology is working in multiple ways to benefit our many needs for living together as native did or destroyed their places then moved onto more fertile grounds.

Also we are causing many Mini Extinctions of wild creatures in forests, farming & developed areas killing off many varieties for trees, toxic factory foods, wasteful suburban entropy, etc. We will change, stop or reverse these trends by relaxing the total effects on healthy ecology or suffer depression, crash ∨ ecospasms shock waves, then have to conserve to live.
Posted by micheal sunanda on 03 Nov 2008


In his long list of what the new environmental politics needs to be, Dr. Speth describes the Green Party to a T without actually naming it.

The Green Party is based on four principles: peace, justice, democracy and sustainability. Greens are organized around the world in 90 countries and counting.

In the US, Greens have won hundreds of local elections and are gaining momentum all the time. I'd encourage all good people to give the Greens a look. Peace :)
Posted by Dave Schwab on 03 Nov 2008


If all the baby boomers in the US were to voluntarily eliminate themselves the US population would decrease by approximately 78 million. That would go a long way to restoring some sanity in this country.
Posted by APaul on 06 Nov 2008


Thank you Gus for such a good synopsis of the issue at hand. I think whether the details of planet warming are clear or not we do know that our industrial activities on the planet have many negative consequences that we humans and all our relations are feeling, many dying from them. Environmentalists, community organizers, small businesses and workers do need to unite and the Green Party is a very good place to do that. The fact that they haven't already is their biggest mistake. Trusting the current winner-take-all system, and I mean that not just in terms of the political but the economic and social system as well. (Perhaps Gus left out the "workers" since it is such a buzz word for the anti-social among us?) From all the recent events in the financial sector it should be clear that the current system is a socialist system for the wealthy and a capitalist system for the poor, so those who charge that it is socialist to be anti-capitalist are misinformed. People care about their families and quality of life, they care about clean water, healthy food, a place to live, clothes to wear and care about those who they perceive might help them get that. Names of the ideologies? ...not so much. We should be looking at the Transition Towns movement which is about decentralizing the system and transitioning from a growth economy to a highly efficient static economic system. To achieve that the current system needs to be challenged in the policy making arena instead of just feeding at the edges as the non-profit environmentalist and social activist communities do. The time, I agree, is now. Support Malik Rahim for US Congress from New Orleans, join your local GP chapter, go to GP.org to find it or start it and help your town become a Transition Town.

And, to one of the commenters here; Brazil is NOT cutting down the rain forest to produce ethanol, that is part of the APIs campaign against ethanol which in a decentralized economy is the liquid fuel of choice, a mere by-product of an efficient food growing system. Lets not ignore the technologies we have that can get us there now. No more studies, no more waiting on research, the time is now.

Posted by Howard Switzer on 11 Nov 2008


Gus Speth used to be the administrator of the UN Development Programme. Why was he not saying these things when he had the chance to make a radical difference? How about leveraging Yale Forestry's position to get more of this stuff going? How about a modest mea-culpa before dumping on the failings of environmentalists?

How many times have bureaucrats - end-career - started to hark on about the power of social movements. Gus: you should have been in the streets, then, instead of in New York/UN Headquarters.
Posted by John M on 16 Dec 2008


Quoting from drew above,

I am also taking from the post is basically saying that the incline in CO2 will cause ~25% extinction of all species on earth - however this seems not possible to me.
Posted by Manny Pacquiao on 10 Feb 2009


The only good question I saw the author pose was, "Are environmentalists to blame?"

The answer is YES, in part because environmentalism has become a religion. It's not enough to be green, you have to suffer, you have to feel guilty, you have to sacrifice for sacrifices' sake, regardless of what the outcome of your sacrifice will be. And in part because greens actually caused some of the messes they cry about.

Greens have done as much if not more damage to this planet than any oil company. What the author sites as a success, "the 70's environmental movement" basically prevented the building of any more nuclear power plants in this country, which resulted in a boom in coal plants. Which also gave us Acid Rain, mercury in our fish, and particulate pollution which conservatively kills 10,000 Americans a year. Not to mention that American power plants have for years been the single largest segment of co2 producer's in the world.
Posted by f1fan on 10 Mar 2009


Since reading The Limits to Growth in the early 70s I have been aware of humanities mad rush toward the collapse of the health of the planet's environment. It has also become clear to me and many others who are better informed that the primary force driving this degradation is the increasing numbers of humans.

No matter how Spartan our life styles there is no conceivable way that the earth can sustain 6 billion people let alone the projected 9 billion by the end of this century. No matter how successful we are in any areas of conservation (planting trees, reduced consumption, etc.) all will result in failure without effectively bringing our numbers within sustainable limits. How many people the earth can sustain will depend upon how soon we stop the degradation (a healthy planet can support more people than a sick one) and how small the environmental footprint of each person. If we all want to drive Hummers and have huge homes the number may be less than 1 billion. If we all use only what we need we may be able to sustain 3 billion.

If humanity does not face the laws of carrying capacity they will be imposed upon us by nature. Ideology will not be the deciding factor, reality will be. Unfortunately we are not in agreement on what reality is but eventually it will smack us square in the face. I do have great hope that humanity will some day come to its senses but I fear it will only be after some very hard lessons. We are in the last stages of "the good life" and these may fade even more quickly than those of us who are now predicting very difficult times in the not so distant future.
Posted by Cebrun Gaustad on 22 Apr 2009


A great article.

In the Uk the climate camp movement are making progress and have helped force the scrapping of a new coal fired power station at Kingsnorth.

Aidesep the network of indigenous people in the amazon have used non violent direct action to stop the rainforests being logged and used for oil extraction.

Best of all the great Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel Prize for economics, she is on record as saying economic decisions should be based on the indigenous principle of making sure they respect the next seven generations.

In a world of fakes she is a superb ecological economist with her work on the commons.

Be great if people took notice of Elinor and the indigenous.

Posted by Derek Wall on 08 Nov 2009


Comments have been closed on this feature.
james gustave spethABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Gustave Speth is author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, served as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter Administration, and in 1982 founded the World Resources Institute, where he served as president until 1992.

 
 

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