“The bridge at the end of the world”

This year’s Beatty Memorial lecture brought up the key points in Professor Speth’s last published book: “The bridge at the end of the world; Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability”. And we all know by now at least some of the main causes of the crisis we’re soon about to face: capitalism and it’s drive for profit, lack of concern for the environmental costs of our activities and failing to make the transition to sustainability. The solution to all this? Well, that’s not just as simple. In Speth’s view, the way to succeed is to raise public awareness on the crisis and to push an enlightened government to act on the matter before we pass the point of no return. But how is that possible when decades after we came to learn about the extreme environmental changes we are inducing we’re continuing on the same path of destruction with unsurpassed speed? For sure public awareness has raised, but the effects are slow to show, and certainly can’t balance the damages being done.

Some argue that we’re going about it with the wrong approach. As Speth writes in his last chapter of his book, “Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus remind us, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. did not proclaim, ‘I have a nightmare.’ My reply to them was that he did not need to say it – his people were living a nightmare. They needed a dream. But we, I fear, are living a dream. We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead. Here is the truth as I see it: we will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.” I happen to agree. At the end of his lecture Speth called on the young generation and urged us to become activists. To disregard this wouldn’t be the same as continuing on the “business as usual” path?

Although he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, Speth shares with us his ideas on what could be done. First, making the market work for the environment by “getting the prices right”. For now “The environmental costs are normally external to the company – externalities, not paid by company – and thus not incorporated in the price.” Putting a price tag on the damage to the environment and reflecting it in every product we purchase might induce a change in the behavior of the common consumer.

Second, moving to a post-growth society, from an economical point of view, advancing beyond today’s capitalism: “Eventually, a society reaches a point where more growth is not worth it.” Herman Daly sais that “we have already reached or passed this point and are now experiencing ‘uneconomic growth’.” The “real growth” must be “promoting the well-being of people and nature”. A change in mentality is called for, so that we could become satisfied with “living with enough, not always more.”

As Speth said in conclusion to both his book and his lecture, we are approaching the critical point where we have to choose our future. And as he foresees it, “where the path forks there will be the site of … a struggle that must be won even though we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge.” Are we up to the task?

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