James Gustave Speth, in The Bridge at the End of the World, articulates a percussive condemnation of the existing form of capitalism, or what Noam Chomsky refers to as “really existing free-market theory.” He argues that while small improvements have been made in local situations, the global economic order and the concomitant drive towards growth or, the principle tenet guiding the “secular religion of the state,” has maintained a disastrous record on global environmental issues. The environmental degradation that plagues Earth literally threatens human existence on a mass scale. Climate disruption, including global warming, deforestation, desertification, the loss of freshwater, and other serious environmental damage in being done by the dominant economic mode of production. Thus, Speth asserts that fundamental changes in the way the world functions and is organized are required to reduce the enormity of and rectify this precarious situation.
Although Speth advocates for, and weights the positives and negatives of, a variety of different ways to reverse the damaging effect of the capitalist mode of production, his primary emphasis is on the fundamental restructuring of the system as we know it. He argues, as many have before, that capitalism is an economic system that requires constant growth. The drive towards capital accumulation constitutes the “secular religion” of any business and corporation and, subsequently, it is what directs the state. Constant expansion, then, is an inherent tendency in the capitalist mode of production. While Marx originally located this fundamental aspect, arguing that capital accumulation eventually led to exploitation, overproduction, and crashes in the system, Lenin argued that the need for expansion led to imperialism and war. Speth, although not the first, continues this tradition by showing how the desire to produce for growth, and not for human need or environmental concern, leads to environmental destruction.
However, Speth does not begin with broad and radical changes. First, he maintains that a mix of environmental regulations and standards, along with market mechanisms, will provide a more beneficial outcome than just regulation. Interesting, he claims that “documented economic savings from cap and trade approaches…have been real and substantial.” This is an interesting claim, considering the progress of cap and trade in both Europe and the United States concerning reducing CO2 emissions have been negligent at best. Despite this, while Speth takes time to address various market mechanisms and other machinations, such as cap and trade, within the mainstream establishment, he makes it clear that these are important, but ancillary tools for reducing the damaging aspects of capitalism.
Speth argues that the environmental movement has made some important gains, but provides a serious critique of that movement as well, arguing that a new and “real” environmental movement, located within grassroots communities and recognizing the solidarity that must exist on global issues, is the hope for change. He identifies the characteristics of the “old” environmental movement. First, the old movement believes everything “can be solved within the system, typically with new policies, and more recently, by engaging in the corporate sector.” Second, it tends to be “pragmatic and incrementalist.” Third, it tends to “deal with the effects rather than the underlying causes.” It also relies on economic indicators and the “right cost,” maintains a sectarian approach to policy solutions, and “entrusts major action to expert bureaucracies.” These assertions are, on the whole, accurate. Therefore, Speth articulates the need to drastically break from this corporate, bureaucratic, and elite mode of organization. The “old movement” must be replaced with a new one, where GDP is not the main driving factor and economic concerns are not the main considerations. Instead, this new environmental movement ought to strive for a “post-growth society” where raw economic growth is replaced with growth in green jobs, health services, environmentally friendly public transit, nonmilitary government spending, etc. Speth spends a great deal of time tearing down the idea that GDP represents material well-being or happiness in a society. In this instance, and many others, Speth continually ties environmental well-being with human well-being.
Another primary features of his strategy involves corporations. The very nature of corporations, he argues, ought to be fundamentally changed from entities which exist to increase shareholder returns to things which exist to serve humanity. This would entail a serious re-writing of the modern corporation and bring a new meaning to a corporate charter. While Speth does not go so far as to argue for the elimination of corporations as illegitimate power structures, he does construct and impressive list of way to limit corporate power. He argues that corporate charters ought to be revoked or countries ought to expel corporations if they threaten the environment. Similarly, he maintains that limited liability ought to be rolled back and corporate personhood should be eliminated. Lastly, he asserts that politics ought to be free of corporate influence through campaign finance reform and corporate lobbying ought to be drastically reduced. These are all extremely progressive steps that could, and should, be taken in any society with a vestige of democracy left.
The strongest aspect of Speth’s work is his argument that society needs to rid itself of the economic model and values it currently abides by. He quotes William Robinson who argues that global capitalism is headed for a crisis because of overproduction, polarization, the crisis of state legitimacy and sustainability. Robinson is correct to point out that when an “organic crisis” of both “structural (objective)” and “hegemony (subjective)” nature, that change is possible. Change, however, can also lead to authoritarian or fascism and not necessarily towards progressive social change. It is important here to note that the concept of hegemony cannot be abstracted from political control. Ideological hegemony, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued, is intricately tied to political and economic control. Therefore, the grassroots environmental movements that Speth advocates for need to be a direct force that counters the hegemony of the dominant state apparatus and the ruling class. If a strong, leftist, radical alternative is not present when these fissures erupt in the ruling class legitimacy, crisis could allow for the galvanization of political and economic forces even worse than today. Finally, Speth maintains that a synthesis of localism and direct democracy are the only viable solutions to the global environmental problem. Although he does not provide a particular model for how direct democracy would function, he provides a fervent defense for the concept.
Speth articulates both a dystopian and utopian vision of the world in this book. For instance, his vision of the world as it currently exists, and as it would exist if it continues on the same trajectory, is an extremely depressing one. The notion of serious environmental catastrophe, the huge polarization of wealth, the highly deteriorated democratic institutions, the growth of corporate power, all of these things are dystopian to the extreme. They present a sad state of affairs, but Speth correctly points out that we need to be reminded of these things, because until we are aware of the scope of the problem, we cannot fix it. Thus, dystopia serves a purpose, because it is reflective of reality and acts, in the same way that Orwell or Huxley act, to warn people of the possible ramifications that may arise if we do not take action.
In the reverse, however, he also presents a utopian vision. Now, I feel I must clarify what I mean by this. I do not believe his vision is utopian because it involved a fundamental reorganization of society. On the contrary, I argue that this is the only way to achieve both human liberation and environmental sustainability. Instead, I believe his vision is utopian because he seems to think that simply the presence of a strong, grassroots environmental movement can make these changes without the dismantling of the power structures that currently exist. He points out that the institutions in U.S. society are highly undemocratic and need to be restructured, but appears to argue that this can be done without the organized power of the working class aimed at a revolutionary upheaval. I just do not see how, without directly challenging capitalism and having a commitment to a system to replace, that these power structures can be toppled. The need for a grassroots environmental movement with a focus on social justice is obvious, but what are the limits of this movement? Is it to reform corporations? To reduce the power of undemocratic institutions? These would be important victories, but they cannot take us all the way. I argue that a revolutionary organization, which understands that power rests in who provides the labor and who controls the means of production. Thus, until working people control the oil rigs, the fisheries, the factories, democracy, and sustainability, cannot be achieved. Workers, democratically deciding upon what to do with the resources at hand, can redirect resources from harmful industries and towards renewable energy and protective environmental measures. Until the profit-motive, and capitalism, is done away with, environmental sustainability is utopian. And I do not think an environmental movement alone has the potential dismantle the entire system of corporate power.
Despite the plethora of progressive reforms toward corporate power, Speth never actually challenges the legitimacy of corporations by questioning their source. Corporations are, by nature, illegitimate power structures and private tyrannies. The debate should revolve around why we need them at all. I tend to agree with his assertion that there needs to be a “democratization of wealth” and that a blend of localism and direct democracy are vitally needed. I, however, reject the notion that socialism is incapable of providing this. For instance, he argues that neighborhood assemblies in every rural, suburban, and urban district need to be created. This is true, but why shouldn't such important democratic decisions also be rooted in the workplace? In every revolutionary situation, where a “democratization of wealth” was desired, workers created workers’ councils where they decided how to organize society. This was true of France in 1968, Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979, and Poland in the 1980s. Working people, once organized, how their hands on the levers of power.
He is correct to point out both that the global justice or anti-capitalist movement “is stronger than many imagine and will grow stronger” and “the end of the Cold War…creates the political space for the questioning of today’s capitalism.” The latter is absolutely true, but this does not mean we should reject socialism or the democratic governance over the economic by the masses of working people. What existed in the Soviet Union, Cuba, or China had little to do with socialism. Most socialists know that. However, this also does not mean that we can revert to vacuous social democratic positions and argue that social changes comes through incremental and piecemeal reforms. As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg explained:
[P]eople who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.
I believe this is true of the environmental movement. We cannot simply hope for small reforms of the current existing system. We cannot even rely purely on the ideas, however progressive they are, provided by Speth about limiting corporate power and making corporations work for human good. The “conquest of political power and social revolution” by working people, who have to live with the day-to-day effects of environmental degradation, are the ones who can reverse it. Until then, a “post-growth” society is unrealizable, and any reform can be averted, rolled back, or simply dismissed by illegitimate structures of power. Speth is right in arguing for a grassroots environmental movement, and he is right in linking that movement with social justice, but he is incorrect in assuming that a fundamental restructuring of society can be done with the “conquest of political power and social revolution” that we need to do it.