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Ecology: The Bridge At The Edge Of The World

Le-Min Lim – Updated on Aug 31, 2008 – SCMP

Written by: James Gustave Speth
Yale University Press, HK$224 ***1/2

When the Group of Eight pledged recently to slash emissions of greenhouse gases, they were pondering a question: just how serious are the threats to our environment?

The simple answer: dire, says James Gustave Speth in his disturbing book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability.

A gentler diagnosis is plain wrong, says Speth, the dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Decades of government foot-dragging on climate policy and wanton abuses by companies and individuals have pushed our environment to disaster’s brink, he writes.

How bad is the damage? Here is one measure: if we continued to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, greenhouse gases would reach a concentration level so high it would make the world too hot to live in during the second half of the century. In other words, our children and grandchildren would reap the full wrath of our excesses, says Speth.

And Speth should know. He was an environmental adviser to US president Jimmy Carter and head of the United Nations’ international development agency.

The good news is: there is time yet, albeit very little, to avert the worst. Start by cutting emissions by more than 80 per cent of the current amount to cap the build-up at safe levels, he says, citing the 2006 Stern Report on climate change. Drastic? Yes, so close are we to the tipping point that “some strong medicine must be taken”.

The onus is on developed nations to take the lead in making things right, he says. G8 nations appeared to signal a willingness to do so, agreeing, at the least, to halve emissions by 2050. George W. Bush said developing nations also must share that commitment, prompting objections from countries such as China and India.

In the west, governments should stop coddling polluters, make environmental protection – not profit or growth – the priority, set clear goals and let the market adjust accordingly, Speth says. Specific persons in companies, not just faceless corporate entities, should be held accountable for violations.

“Government policies could be implemented to correct market failures [to set an appropriate price for scarce resources like clean air and water] and make the market work for the environment rather than against it,” he writes.

With candour, cadence and clarity, Speth presents a compelling case for prompt action, making this book a must-read on the subject. Protecting the environment needs not just an overhaul of institutions, but of values and mindsets.

Consider the pursuit of economic expansion. We should broaden the definition of growth and progress beyond dollars and cents. Speth says we must choose between two paths: one leading to destruction, the other to a bridge that would help us cross to safety.

Like an evangelist, Speth draws not just on facts, but anecdotes, quotations, even poetry to make his point. The book becomes treacly at times with New Age musings, though that doesn’t detract from its message. Encouraging shoppers to buy environmentally friendly goods is a way for our consumer-driven society to contribute to the cause.

The book is a desperate call for steps to mend the environment.

Will anyone listen?


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