The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
James Gustave Speth, the dean of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, opens his environmental book with 16 charts that track environmental data from 1750 to the present. The quantities they measure are diverse—Population, Damming of Rivers, Water Use, Atmosphere: Ozone Depletion, etc.—but they all look the same: a relatively flat line that spikes into excess as it approaches the present.
In his written introduction, Speth goes through a litany of gruesome facts: Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are gone; species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal; the Colorado, Yellow, Ganges, and Nile rivers no longer reach the ocean during the dry season.
Who is to blame? To Speth, the world economy and modern capitalism. Prosperity drives up both the increased use of natural resources and the enormous waste. And Speth suggests destroying everything prosperity has wrought in order to save prevent a total collapse: Reduce consumerism, challenge corporations’ economic and social dominance, invent alternatives to capitalism, promote a new social and spiritual consciousness, and develop new politics. For inspiration, Speth quotes poet Wallace Stevens—“after the final no there comes a yes”—and offers his own encouragement, reassuring his readers that there is “a bridge at the end of the world.”
That bridge is an odd paradox, but one that serves as a sound foundation for this book. If modern capitalism’s status quo has yielded happy world citizens, Speth wonders, then change might be hard to implement. But if “what we actually have is ‘spiritual hunger in an age of plenty,’ there is a large space for hope.” To Speth, many people are so deeply unsatisfied with their lives that we just might be able to bring about significant change.
Speth makes this suggestion at the end of the second chapter and he devotes the rest of the book to describing what can be done. He applauds the 20th-century environmental movement, but criticizes it for being more rooted in words than action and for always working inside the economic and political system. He acknowledges the progresses of economic growth but draws a new path for future “uneconomic growth”—an increase in green technology that promotes the well-being of both humans and the earth. He notes that the quest for material goods creates far more despair than happiness, and recommends that consumers try for a while to “live with enough.” And he goes on to list a number of ways that we might redefine and reinvent capitalism, strengthen democracy, and reintroduce meaning into our lives.
Though Speth’s goals for humanity in general and the U.S. in particular are monumental, they’re not absurd. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman observes that “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” For Speth, the current crisis is two-fold—a crisis of the natural world and human happiness. If we solve one of those problems, he argues, we just might solve them both.