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The Looming Disaster

Thomas Malone

Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. James Gustave Speth. xvi + 299 pp. Yale University Press, 2004. $24.

Drawing on his decades of experience as a distinguished leader of the environmental movement, James Gustave ("Gus") Speth has written a brilliantly insightful and extraordinarily useful book, Red Sky at Morning. (Among Speth's accomplishments are that he cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council, chaired the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, advised presidents Carter and Clinton on environmental issues, founded and headed the World Resources Institute, led the United Nations Development Programme and won Japan's prestigious Blue Planet Prize; he is currently dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale.) The book's thesis is that there is an urgent need to mount an "Environmental Revolution."

The immediate goals of that revolution would be fourfold: to link local environmental issues with global ones; to embed environmental considerations into mainstream public policy; to commit ourselves to the notion that, as Maurice Strong (senior advisor to United Nations Secretary–General Kofi Annan) observed in Where on Earth Are We Going?, "our economic system should serve and support our social goals and human values"; and to reestablish the United States as an environmental leader.

The ultimate goal of the revolution would be the creation of a world society that is environmentally sustainable, economically equitable and peaceful. "The leadership of civil society and of the private sector will be especially important," Speth explains, noting that there must also be "a deeper change, a different way of seeing ourselves in relation to the planet on which we live." He also observes that we need "an international movement of citizens and scientists, one capable of dramatically advancing the political and personal actions needed."

Awareness of the need for such a revolution has been building for half a century. Speth cites the wisdom of the legendary Aldo Leopold, who wrote in The Sand County Almanac in 1949 that "We have ethical duties to the communities of plants and animals that evolved here with us. . . . A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community." In 1961 Rachel Carson remarked in the opening pages of Silent Spring that "Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world." Almost two decades later, the 1980 Report of the Brandt Commission on International Development Issues warned that "chaos—as a result of mass hunger, economic disaster, environmental catastrophes, and terrorism" could be as much of a threat to social stability as war. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development called for the creation of a new charter that would set forth the principles of sustainable development that were needed to maintain livelihoods and life on our shared planet. And a decade ago the world's top scientists, including a majority of Nobel laureates, stated that

we are fast approaching many of the earth's limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

The Preamble to the Earth Charter, a global mission statement that was discussed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and released in 2001, begins as follows:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future . . . [which] at once holds great peril and great promise. . . . Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.

Yet the world's governments have been slow to respond to global environmental challenges. "We have been told what the future may hold," Speth says, "but so far we seem unable to step from the path to disaster." Two decades of international environmental negotiations have resulted in framework conventions on climate, desertification, biodiversity and the Law of the Sea, but so far those treaties, agreements and protocols are not actually preventing environmental deterioration. Speth characterizes them as "weak medicine" for an ailing Mother Earth and asks why the standard convention–protocol model, which worked well to protect the ozone layer, has fared badly when applied to these bigger problems. The failure is compounded of many elements—a tendency to address symptoms rather than underlying causes; economic opposition and protection of sovereignty as political factors; weak multilateral institutions; the use of consensus–based negotiating procedures; and lack of strong leadership from wealthy, industrialized countries.

The supporting evidence for a threat to sustainability is persuasive. Speth describes two "megatrends" of environmental deterioration: increasing pollution and biological impoverishment. These have been triggered by "prodigious expansion in human populations and their production and consumption." The global population increased fourfold during the 20th century, and the average economic productivity of individuals grew fivefold; the result was a 20–fold growth in the global economy, which is expected by 2050 to quadruple in size to $140 trillion. "Ecological footprints" left on the finite natural system by the expanding human system indicate that in the 1980s human demands began to exceed the regenerative capacity of the world's air, water, land, sunlight, and plant and animal life.

Speth describes in some detail the cause of those megatrends. In the largest sense, he observes, it's our economic activity: We're "consuming nature and pouring out products and pollution."

In addition, some of us are consuming more than our share. In 2002, G. W. Yohe and I (in an article in the Journal of Knowledge Management) pointed out that 900 million individuals in 23 affluent industrialized nations today produce and consume more than 20 times the quantity of goods and services used by the 700 million individuals in the 40 least–developed countries (after taking into account differences in purchasing power). Annual gains in economic productivity (powered by energy from fossil fuels) are 50 percent higher in those affluent countries than in the least–developed ones. Moreover, this higher rate of growth builds from a level of economic production and per capita consumption that is more than 20 times greater in affluent than in developing nations. By 2050 the level of production and consumption will be more than 40 times greater in affluent than in "least–developed" nations if present demographic and productivity trends continue.

Serious inequities also exist within countries. The U.N. Development Programme's 2003 Human Development Report noted that in about a third of the countries surveyed (including Japan, the Nordic countries, and Eastern European countries), the richest 10 percent of the population enjoys 5 to 10 times as much income and consumption as the poorest 10 percent. In another third (including the United States, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom), the richest 10 percent have 10 to 20 times as much as the poorest, and in nearly another third (including many African and Latin American countries), they have more than 20 times as much.

The annual rate of population increase is nearly six times greater in the least–developed countries than in the affluent ones. Most of the growth in world population will take place among the five billion people in the developing world, where, as Speth notes, three billion individuals "live on less than two dollars a day" and have little capacity to cope with deterioration in life–supporting ecosystems. Massive population growth in developing countries and massive production and consumption in industrialized countries are fueling economic inequity, threatening environmental sustainability, and jeopardizing social stability and peace in a world blessed with new technologies for sharing knowledge—and cursed with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Speth spells out eight transitions that will be required to transform society: progress toward a stable or smaller world population, freedom from mass poverty, environmentally benign technologies, environmentally honest prices, sustainable consumption, an emphasis on knowledge and learning, good governance, and—above all—a culture and consciousness that respects nature, human rights and economic justice, and treasures peace. These transitions are central to four overarching imperatives: reduction of population growth in developing countries; restraint on economic production and conspicuous consumption in the industrialized world; development of environmentally benign sources of energy to power economic development globally; and a revolution in education that will equip individuals to become co–creators of the human future.

Innovative partnerships among disciplines and institutions (academia, business and industry, government, and civil organizations) will be required to advance these goals. The book has two appendices that can help empower its readers: a comprehensive "Bookshelf" of recommendations for further reading and a set of "Resources for Citizens" that includes lists of Web sites pertinent to each of the eight transitions. Voters, investors, consumers, family members, association members, workers, advocates of government policies and funding, conservationists, activists and educators should all find information of use to them. The "Resources for Citizens" appendix is available for free downloading at

Success in these endeavors will produce a civilization like that envisioned by Paul Raskin and colleagues in Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (2002)—"a civilization of unprecedented freedom, tolerance and decency." In this brave new world, "Conspicuous consumption and glitter are viewed as vulgar throwbacks to an earlier era. The pursuit of the well–lived life turns to the quality of existence—creativity, ideas, culture, human relationships and a harmonious relationship with nature."

In summary, Red Sky at Morning is a clarion call for changes in the behavior of individuals and institutions that will lead to an environmentally sustainable, economically equitable and socially peaceful world society, in which all of the basic human needs and an equitable share of human "wants" can be met for every individual in present and future generations while maintaining a healthy, physically attractive and biologically productive environment. This vision is now within reach.

Read a review of the Afterword to the new paperback edition of Red Sky at Morning

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