The Bridge at the Edge of the World

Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

James Gustave Speth  2008

Dean of the School of Forestry and Environment Yale University

Awarded Japan’s Blue Planet Prize “leadership in the search for science-based solutions to global environmental problems”



The first chapters review the now well-documented ecological disaster that exists now and will continue to get worse unless some changes are made.

The main culprit in this devastation is capitalism, and particularly corporations.  The fundamental structure of capitalism is to consume the natural world, consume all other inputs to the process, including labor, fossil fuels, and to do so without paying the environmental costs of that consumption.

In addition, successful capitalism requires growth.  And in order to spur growth, it requires increased consumerism, and this is ubiquitous in the western world through advertising.  The attempt is to create the sense that one needs the product.  Sometimes it is just the latest model that is being sold.


We see that after people’s basic needs are met, there is no improvement in the quality of life with increased consumption.  Many different studies are referenced that support this view.  Has capitalism run its course? 


This book looks at many possibilities, but it is made clear that we must change.

With the great power of the corporations today – they have so much money that they now are the greatest power in the world – exceeding the largest governments. So change is going to be very difficult and the corporate world is not going to be very agreeable.


The author does not think that socialism is the answer, but there are other possibilities too.


However, how do we change things – moving to a sustainable environment, and improving the quality of life?


The conclusion is that we will need to reevaluate some of our fundamental assumptions about the important things in life and make a radical shift in priorities.  The author sees some hopeful signs that this is taking place in certain parts of the population, but the change is also going to be difficult and slow.



This is a serious book.  It does not offer any simple and quick solutions, but faces the situation squarely.

I highly recommend this book.  The footnotes and references to other studies are extensive.  It is not a fast read, but takes some time to absorb the data and ideas presented.



Selected Quotes from the book:


Clive Hamilton in his 2003 book “Growth Fetish”: “In the face of the fabulous promises of economic growth, at the beginning of the 21st century we are confronted by an awful fact. Despite high and sustained levels of economic growth in the West over a period of 50 years—growth that has seen average real incomes increase several times over—the mass of people are no more satisfied with their lives now than they were then. If growth is intended to give us better lives, and there can be no other purpose, it has failed       The more we examine the role of growth in modern society, the more our obsession with growth appears to be a fetish—that is, an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical powers.

“The fact that neoliberalism remains unchallenged is extraordinary given the events of recent history, for laissez-faire capitalism has been marked by devastating failures.  In addition, the costs of economic growth, which fall largely outside the marketplace and so do not appear in the national accounts, have become inescapably apparent—in the form of disturbing signs of ecological decline, an array of social problems that growth has failed to correct, and epidemics of unemployment, overwork and insecurity.

“For the most part, capitalism itself has answered the demands that inspired 19th century socialism…. But attainment of these goals has only brought deeper sources of social unease—manipulation by marketers, obsessive materialism, environmental degradation, endemic alienation, and loneliness. In short… in the marketing society, we seek fulfillment but settle for abundance. Prisoners of plenty, we have the freedom to consume instead of the freedom to find our place in the world.”



The corporation has several defining characteristics that dramatically affect its behavior:

  1. The separation of ownership from management. Shareholders own die corporation, but it is managed by the company’s directors and die officers they hire. Adam Smith warned long ago that the directors “being managers of other people’s money… cannot well be expected [to] watch over it with the same anxious vigilance they would their own money.’
  2. Limited liability. Unlike proprietorships and partnerships, corporate owners can lose their investment, but that’s all. Corporate owners, the shareholders, are not personally liable to the firm’s creditors. Limited liability is one reason corporations must be chartered by some government authority—states in the United States—and the chartering authority has the right to supervise and regulate the corporations, though this is rarely done in practice.
  3. Personhood. The story of how corporations became people enjoying the protection of constitutional provisions intended to guarantee rights to individuals is fascinating. In the 1886 Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the chief justice merely said from the bench during oral argument that Southern Pacific was entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. This comment, irrelevant to the Court’s disposition of the case. Made it into the clerk’s notes on the case, not the decision itself, and the rest is history. And the history continues. In June 2007, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, one restricting political ads, on the ground that it violated a corporation’s First Amendment rights. And in February 2007, the Supreme Court threw out a jury verdict against a cigarette manufacturer on the grounds that the punitive damages award violated the company’s constitutional right to due process.
  4. The “best interest of the corporation “principle. This principle, a key part of corporate law, states that directors and managers have a duty to act in the best interest of the corporation, which has been interpreted as a duty to maximize the wealth of shareholders. This principle – shareholder primacy – is huge obstacle to corporate evolution toward a more socially responsible institution. Joel Bakan, in his book The Corporation, explains the result: “A corporation can do good only to help itself do well, a profound limit on just how much good it can do. … The people who run corporations are, for the most part, good people, moral people. They are mothers and fathers, lovers and friends, and upstanding citizens in their communities…. Despite their personal qualities and ambitions … their duty as corporate executives is clear: they must always put their corporation’s best interests first and not act out of concern for anyone or anything else (unless the expression of such concern can somehow be justified as advancing the corporation’s own interests).
  5. Externalization of costs. We explored earlier the corporation’s powerful drive to maximize profits in a capitalist system, a drive we now see has legal backing as well, in the principle just discussed. Bakan describes how this drive makes the corporation into an externalizing machine: “Nothing in its legal makeup limits what it can do to others in pursuit of its selfish ends, and it is compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Only pragmatic concern for its own interests and the laws of the land constrain the corporation’s predatory instincts, and often that is not enough to stop it from destroying lives, damaging communities, and endangering the planet as a whole… All the bad things that happen to people and the environment as a result of corporations’ relentless and legally compelled pursuit of self-interest are . . . neatly categorized by economists as externalities—literally, other people’s problems…. [I]t is no exaggeration to say that the corporation’s built-in compulsion to externalize its costs is at the root of many of the world’s social and environmental ills. That makes the corporation a profoundly dangerous institution.



Proposition I: that today’s system of political economy, referred to here as modern capitalism, is destructive of the environment, and not in a minor way but in a way that profoundly threatens the planet; people will therefore demand solutions, and the current system will not be able to accommodate them; so the system will be forced to change, perhaps in the unfortunate context of some type of environmental crisis or breakdown;


Proposition 2: that the affluent societies have reached or soon will reach the point where, as Keynes put it, the economic problem has been solved; the long era of ceaseless striving to overcome hardship and deprivation can soon be over; there is enough to go around;


Proposition 3: that in the more affluent societies, modern capitalism is no longer enhancing human well-being, either objective or subjective well-being, and is instead producing a stressed and ultimately unsatisfactory social reality; people are increasingly dissatisfied and looking for something more meaningful; this dissatisfaction will grow and force change;


Proposition 4: that the international social movement for change which refers to itself as “the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism’ –is stronger than many imagine and will grow stronger; there is a coalescing of forces: peace, social justice, community, ecology. Feminism—a movement of movements; meanwhile, America’s weakened democracy and failed environmental politics are themselves ripe for transformation;


Proposition 5: that people and groups are busily planting the seeds of change through a host of alternative arrangements, and still other attractive directions for upgrading to a new operating system have been identified; these innovations can transform the current system, and they will grow;


And proposition 6: that the end of the Cold War and the West’s long struggle against communism opens the door—creates the political space—for the questioning of today’s capitalism.



Vaclav Havel has stated beautifully the fundamental shift that is needed. ‘It’s fascinating to me,” he writes, “how preoccupied people are today with catastrophic prognoses, how books containing evidence of impending crises become bestsellers, but how very little account we take of these threats in our everyday activities         What could change the direction of today’s civilization.’’ It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It’s not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet.”



One excellent summation of the dimensionality of the needed cultural change is provided by Paul Raskin in his work on the Great Transition Initiative.’ Here is what he sees: “The emergence of a new suite of values is the foundation of the entire edifice of our planetary society. Consumerism, individualism, and domination of nature—the dominant values of yesteryear—have given way to a new triad: quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological sensibility.

“That the enhancement of the ‘quality of life’ should be the basis foi development is now so self-evident, it must be remembered that, over the eons, the problem of scarcity and survival… dominated existence. Then, the industrial cornucopia, while unleashing an orgy of consumption among the privileged and desperation among die excluded, opened the historical possibility for our post-scarcity planetary civilization. People are as ambitious as ever. But fulfillment, not wealth, has become the primary measure of success and source of well-being.


‘The second value—‘human solidarity’—expresses a sense of connectedness with people who live in distant places and with the unborn who will live in a distant future. It is a manifestation of the capacity of reciprocity and empathy that lies deep in the human spirit and psyche, the ‘golden rule’ that is a common thread across many of the world’s great religious traditions. As a secular doctrine, it is the basis for the democratic ideal and the great social struggles for tolerance, respect, equality, and rights.

“With their highly evolved ‘ecological sensibility,’ people today are both mystified and horrified by the feckless indifference of earlier generations to the natural world. Where the right to dominate nature was once sacrosanct, people today hold a deep reverence for the natural world, finding in it endless wonder and enjoyment. Love of nature is complemented by a deep sense of humanity’s place in the web of life, and dependence on its bounty. Sustainability is a core part of the contemporary worldview, which would deem any compromise of the integrity of our planetary home both laughably idiotic and morally wrong.



Another way of describing the values and worldview that are needed is to identify the transitions that are required to move successfully from today to tomorrow:

From seeing humanity as something apart from nature, transcending md dominating it, to seeing ourselves as part of nature, offspring of its evolutionary process, close kin to wild things, and wholly dependent on its vitality and the finite services it provides;


From seeing nature in strictly utilitarian terms, humanity’s resource to exploit as it sees fit for economic and other purposes, to seeing the natural world as having both intrinsic value independent of people and rights that create the duty of ecological stewardship;


From discounting the future, focusing severely on the near term, to empowering future generations economically, politically, and environmentally and recognizing duties to yet unborn human and natural communities well into the future;


• from hyperindividualism, narcissism, and social isolation to powerful community bonds reaching from the local to the cosmopolitan and to profound appreciation of interdependence both within and among countries;


from parochialism, sexism, prejudice, and ethnocentrism to tolerance, cultural diversity, and human rights;


from materialism, consumerism, getting, the primacy of possessions. And limitless hedonism to personal and family relationships, leisure play, experiencing nature, spirituality, giving, and living within limits;


from gross economic, social, and political inequality to equity, social justice, and human solidarity.”



Peter Barnes explains the problem starkly in Capitalism 3.0: “The reason capitalism distorts democracy is simple. Democracy is an open system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism is a gated system; its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses. Capital’s primacy thus isn’t an accident, nor the fault of George W. Bush. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.” Barnes notes that regulatory agencies have been co-opted by the industries they were intended to regulate. “And it’s not just regulatory agencies that have been captured. Congress itself, which oversees the agencies and writes their controlling laws, has been badly infected. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the ‘influence industry’ in Washington now spends $6 billion a year and employs more than thirty-five thousand lobbyists        [I]n a capitalist democracy, the state is a dispenser of many valuable prizes. Whoever amasses the most political power wins he most valuable prizes. The rewards include property rights, friendly regulators, subsidies, tax breaks, and free or cheap use of the commons. The notion that the state promotes ‘the common good’ is sadly naïve…. We face a disheartening quandary here. Profit-maximizing corporations dominate our economy…. The only obvious counterweight is government, yet government is dominated by these same corporations.”


Presidential science adviser John Gibbons used to say with a wry smile that if we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re headed.