Moving the Earth

Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment
By James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 299 pages, $24.00

More than 30 years ago, in 1972, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment put the world on notice, warning that the rapidly expanding human enterprise was jeopardizing the stability of planetary systems that sustain life. In the years since, we have called this multifaceted dilemma "the environmental crisis." The realization is now dawning in some influential quarters that this predicament is also a historical and cultural crisis that confronts us with the greatest adaptive challenge that humans have ever faced.

In recent months, Tony Blair's top science adviser, former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, and Canada's environment minister all judged that climate change presents a far graver threat in coming decades than international terrorism. Although the term "global warming" suggests a gradual transition to a warmer world, changes in the earth's climate tend to come in radical leaps. According to research in climate history, temperate areas such as England have plunged into subarctic conditions within the span of a single decade. Leading researchers report signs that the climate system is heading again for radical change and conclude that it could happen "in our lifetime."

Even the Pentagon's strategic planners are thinking about this prospect. An article earlier this year in Fortune magazine, hardly a source of environmental alarmism, reported that a study prepared for the Department of Defense outlines a worst-case scenario of escalating chaos: extreme cold in northern Europe, the migration of people southward, widespread droughts, catastrophic famines, dust storms, increasing political instability, nuclear proliferation, and resource wars -- in short, a descent into a warring Dark Ages, but this time with nuclear weapons.

Even if such extreme possibilities never materialize, we face dire risks in years to come because of the world community's failure to heed the warnings of environmental scientists and act on an agenda for global reform that emerged almost 25 years ago. In his new book, James Gustave Speth offers a brief, lucid, illuminating guide to the causes of our parlous situation, why past efforts to address it have failed, and what changes would be necessary to head off disaster. Warning that the hour is late, Speth challenges the conventional approaches of reformers and the faith of free-market fundamentalists that "the world can simply grow out of its environmental problems."

Few people could be a more credible guide to our predicament than Speth, who has devoted his distinguished career to fostering broad awareness about threats to the global environment. He has served as an adviser on environmental affairs to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and as head of the United Nations Development Program. He founded and headed the World Resources Institute, a prominent think tank on global issues, and earlier helped co-found the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the leading environmental-advocacy organizations. Currently, he is the dean of Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Why are we in this crisis? The short answer, Speth notes, is explosive growth in the scale of the human enterprise, which began with the industrial revolution 200 years ago and shifted into overdrive at the end of World War II. The population explosion accounts for some of the growing human burden, but the world economy has exploded five times faster than population, and it is this accelerating economic expansion that has trWhy have the world's leaders done so little in the face of growing danger? The answer here is more complex, but Speth provides a crisp and convincing account of the diverse factors, which include an egregious failure of U.S. leadership, the political preoccupation with economic growth and neglect of noneconomic goals, and deep structural obstacles arising from our economy and the international system of sovereign states.

This book's greatest strength is Speth's analysis of the reasons for the "pitifully weak" responses mounted by the international community as the environmental challenges escalated from local concerns in the 1970s about dirty air and water to global jeopardy in the 1980s. In his view, the public support and political momentum that fueled the wave of U.S. environmental reform in the early 1970s waned when the new agenda of global issues emerged because the politics became far more difficult.

The U.S. reform era addressed acute, visible issues driven in significant part by grass-roots activism. The global issues such as ozone depletion and climate change involved remote, invisible, technically complicated threats and a top-down politics driven by a small international leadership in science, government, the United Nations, and advocacy groups. Two decades of international environmental negotiations have not stopped desertification, climate change, the collapse of fisheries, or the eradication of the world's plant and animal life. Speth says the failure is a consequence of weak treaties that focused on the symptoms of this crisis rather than the powerful underlying causes, which include an obsession with economic growth and little regard for escalating environmental costs. The upshot has been that governments willingly concede sovereignty to the World Trade Organization for economic expansion but not to protect the global environment.

Speth's account shatters the persistent notion that the United States has been the world's environmental leader, as President George Bush Senior boasted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Although the current Bush administration, which pulled the United States out of the Kyoto climate treaty altogether, has been more candid in its contempt for international efforts, U.S. footdragging and disengagement have been a chronic, bipartisan affair over the years.

By many measures, including annual release of the carbon dioxide driving climate change (24 percent of the global total), the United States bears more responsibility than any nation for the current clash between the human enterprise and the earth's sustaining systems. At the same time, the United States has been a hindrance rather than a help in efforts to address the growing global emergency. The one striking exception occurred during the Reagan administration, when American leadership figured significantly in the successful conclusion of a treaty banning synthetic chemicals attacking the ozone layer, which shields the earth from deadly radiation.

Speth prescribes less boldly than he analyzes. Here he seems to be doing a tricky tightrope act of calling for fundamental change without risking dismissal as an unrealistic radical. The final three chapters of the book consequently seem to waver between statements of great urgency and a puzzling optimism about helpful but insufficient initiatives.

In his "eightfold way" for changing course, Speth targets the right issues -- population, mass poverty, consumption, environmentally honest prices (that is, accurately reflecting environmental costs), technology, education, governance, and the need for a profound cultural transition -- but his recommendations don't grapple with the structural challenges that his own analysis highlights. For example, how much headway can one expect on tempering and redirecting consumption in a world, where, as Speth reports, the barrage of advertising has been growing three times faster than the population?

Speth's final chapter addresses the need for a "transition of culture and consciousness." More than anything, his discussion reflects the underdeveloped state of thinking on this question in environmental-policy circles, for he never really ventures into deep cultural waters. Instead, Speth dips his toe into what he calls "pernicious habits of thought," such as "the enchantment with limitless material expansion," but does not explore how we came to such a faith and why it reigns, and his own vision of the future is vague and ungrounded. If a revolution in values is the answer, where is it to come from? Speth doesn't say.

The threats to the global environment find us saddled not only with dangerously obsolete technology but also with obsolete ideas about the natural world and human possibility. Our inherited worldview needs an overhaul as badly as our industrial civilization. The problem isn't just the lack of environmental ethics. It goes deeper to the modern era's unstated operating assumptions. If this is the critical cultural work, it won't be enough to foster "sustainability science" and environmental literacy, as Speth recommends. The challenge of survival also demands historical knowledge, cultural literacy, sophisticated conceptual skills, and a flair for metaphor. Poets, artists, and philosophers may prove as critical as scientists in creating a compelling imaginative vision that can provide the foundation for a viable human future. The prospect of sudden climate change in our lifetime makes that new vision all the more necessary and urgent.

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