Sustainability. The American ecologist Gus Speth urges a different global ecological strategy

By Udo Ernst Simonis

[This book review published in: Freitag 40, 10/7/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Gus Speth, the great dean of the American environmental movement, wrote an alarming book. He is really not very old but old enough to become angry, angry about ecologically ignorant persons, angry about the omissions in protection the global ecology, angry about the inability of the international community of states to stop the decline and destruction of ecosystems and angry above all about the United States of America largely responsible for the stormy times coming to us.

Much was written in the past years about global environmental policy but rarely in the quality of Gus Speth. His book presents comprehensive expertise, sharp political-economic analysis and his exemplary personal engagement of “compassion.” Speth’s central thesis is easy to understand. All the international negotiations, treaties and agreements of the last twelve years – the “time after Rio” – have not brought us forward. The statistics on global ecology are becoming worse, not better. All relevant trends are destructive and the established governance structures completely inadequate. Therefore Speth pleads for a change in strategy that will first make possible the transition to a sustainable, future-friendly development. Civil society should take over the reins.

Speth devotes four sections to this new design. In the first section, he presents evidence that the increasing ecological challenges must be understood as global. He describes a “world full of wounds,” the final loss of the “garden of Eden,” environmental pollution and the waste of resources in an ever-more densely populated world. In the second part, he focuses on the past attempts to find answers to the ecological challenges from the first promising initiatives of the seventies to the international agreements of the nineties that all have not had any striking success – with the exception of the treaty on protecting the stratospheric ozone layer (“Montreal protocol”).

Speth.calls this part of his study “Anatomy of a Failure.” Since a change in strategy cannot succeed without careful analysis of the mistakes and underlying driving forces, the effects of the increasing globalization of the economy on the eco-sphere are emphasized.

How is a conversion possible? Speth outlines an “eightfold way” to sustainability: transition to a stable, smaller world population, removal of mass poverty, development of environment-friendly technologies, prices that reflect the ecological truth, sustainable consumption, ecological knowledge and learning “good governance” and active civil society. This fourth section, the main part of the study, is full of interesting and provocative ideas and proposals. Unfortunately the fifth part of the original – a documentation of citizen initiatives in the US – is missing in the German edition. Whoever reads these passages in the English version comes to the conclusion that the Bush administration will not accomplish much given the ecological ignorance toward national and global environmental problems.

Thus the message of this fascinating book is clear and the anger of its author is conciliatory. An effective global environmental policy cannot manage without more laws and institutionalization. Still everything will remain patchwork without a broad consciousness about the seriousness of global ecological problems and without stronger civil society engagement. However miserable the situation may be, there are other better solutions.

Gus Speth’s study is alarming and visionary at the same time. His very important and authoritative book focuses on failures and what must happen to really change, reduce or prevent the destructive effects on global ecology.

James Gustave Speth, We Harvest What We Sow. The US and the Global Enviornmental Crisis, 2005