Is the time ripe for a new worldwide coalition to “green” our imperiled globe? Can we do it by restraining capitalism’s exploitive sides, championing human rights, merging civic, scientific, environmental, religious and rising youth constituencies?
That’s the exciting possibility raised by James Gustave “Gus” Speth in his new book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World.” Speth laments the tortuously slow pace of environmental activism in the face of the near-calamitous decline of species, soils, forests and oceans, and the dangerous advance of global warming.
But environmentalists, he suggests, must take risks and broaden their alliances around the globe in a campaign for fundamental human rights. And he’s specific: rights to safe water and adequate sanitation and sustainable development, to freedom from climatic disruption and ruin, and to live in a nontoxic environment. But also rights to decent jobs, economic justice for the poor – all joined with dedication to the rights of future generations.
The irony, Speth argues, is that the very industrial and capitalist system that has so spectacularly fulfilled our ancestors’ yearning to “conquer nature,” letting us live free from dire scarcities, also triggers obsessive materialism and consumerism. It translates into incessant need to expand to new markets, increase profits, and let abusive mining, manufacturing and the spread of pollutants corrupt the environment we live in.
There are exciting exceptions – more and more companies focused on energy- and carbonsaving technologies, inventive recycling, new generations of “green” products they believe can provide both dollar and social payoffs. Some executives volunteer dramatic parts of their personal wealth on behalf of social and environmental causes.
But Speth argues there’s a sort of unholy alliance holding us back. On one side there’s the instinctive corporate motivation to push environmental costs off onto others. And then there’s our rampant consumerism, our addiction to material goods. We Americans accumulate “stuff” so rapidly there’s now a storage industry with national square footage of more than 70 square miles, the size of Manhattan and San Francisco combined!
So where’s the gleam of hope here? On the personal side, acting and buying “green” are gaining popularity. Polls show most Americans at least agree that our society is too materialistic, too focused on shopping and spending. Behind our excesses, we increasingly understand that “the best things in life are free” and “you can’t buy love.” There’s at least more talk these days of confronting consumption, working less, reclaiming time, eating slow food, downshifting. And pushed by energy cost escalation, looking less for isolation, more for supportive community in which to live.
Triggered perhaps by the global warming debates and natural disasters, there’s also some growing reverence for the Earth and sense of human solidarity, a connectedness with people in places around the world ravaged by war, storms and poverty.
When we’re ready for a radical shift to a less consumptive society, Speth wants government available as “the gorilla in the room” – ready, for the sake of broad reforms, to take back polluting corporations’ charters and curb the tax favors to certain businesses. A main goal: to assure that corporate activity benefits not only shareholders and employees, but “unions, future generations, government, customers, communities and suppliers.”
Economic incentives, not regulations, should be the leading tool, says Speth. He points with favor to environmental taxes, now some 2.5 percent of gross domestic product in Western European countries. Germany, for example, is moving to shift the tax burden from work and wages to energy consumption and the pollution it triggers. Europeans are also beginning to promote recycling of major consumer products – a “cradle to cradle” system to save energy and discourage wasteful and often dangerous dumping.
We’re at an exquisitely appropriate time, Speth suggests, to recognize interconnected worldwide issues and become “cosmopolitan citizens” who enjoy multiple citizenships – local and regional, national and global. The idea is we should fight for a safe environment in cities and regions where we can make the most impact, work to “green” the actions of both governments and businesses, and struggle globally for protection of the biosphere and of basic human dignity.
One idea is to promote full varieties of dialogues within our citistate and rural regions – reknitting America’s torn social fabric, wrestling with deep economic injustices, local environmental quandaries and global climate change – conversations to be spiced with direct involvement of many of today’s idealistic youth. It’s also a process that could engage our great religious institutions, which instinctively grasp human connectedness and the Golden Rule.
Moving forward on all these fronts sounds like a terribly tall order. Clear national leadership after 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina, might have jump-started badly needed national debate about our interdependence as Americans and world citizens. But the challenges are too grave to wait for a new president. Speth’s book makes it abundantly clear: Start ourselves, while (hopefully) there’s still time.
©2008 Washington Post Writers