Monday, October 19, 2009

Some words on James Gustave Speth's Bridge at the Edge of the World

I've just finished The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. It is a fascinating read that distills much of what must change in American life for us to achieve sustainability. Speth takes on a fast but quite detailed survey of some of the most important topics we need to consider regarding sustainability. These include the problems facing our natural and social environments because of the consumption-driven globalized American economy, how we can change that economy and what it measures, and the necessity for us to transform the economy and all of our social systems. I found the sections on environmental economics and alternatives to GDP for the measurement of affluence, abundance, and well-being to be particularly useful if general.

As an educator, I was a little bit disappointed in Speth's treatment of schools. He rightly applauds students for their activism and their calls for change. But he seems not to recognize the possibility of constructing classroom experiences that can shape our behaviors. Children and young adults spend enormous amounts of time within schooling systems and through their explicit and hidden curricula, they change who we are, what we value, and how we behave. The research may still be out there to do and the findings a ways off, but I have a strong hunch that children who attended schools with sustainability suffused through their 13 years of primary and secondary education would be more sustainable and communally-minded people than the students being put through the sorting machines made by A Nation At Risk and the No Child Left Behind Act.

All of that said, I don't really begrudge Speth this oversight; he is the dean of Forestry and Environment Studies at Yale and not a school wonk per se. Though an educator himself, he may not think seriously about the social power of schools. But I think that readers might want to consider how schools can and are building the bridge he calls us to build.

On the penultimate page, he writes the following list...almost poem:
being, not having
giving, not getting
needs, not wants
better, not richer
community, not individual
other, not self
connected, not separate
ecology, not economy
part of nature, not apart from nature
dependent, not transcendent
tomorrow, not today
This list constitutes quite a challenge for us all. I have been in the habit of lately saying that the system in which we live makes hypocrites of us all. I want so much to reduce my footprint and yet in order to get out a message about more sustainability to my technocratic friends, I have to use an electricity-intensive computer coated in plastic that uses near slave labor to acquire its parts. If I say I am my brother's keeper and say that I believe in and act upon the Golden Rule - to do unto others as I would have them do unto me - then how does my conscience allow me to use this computer? And yet, if I don't use it, will my silence allow those who exploit ignorance to become that much more entrenched and powerful? Can I use this tool to help us build that bridge at the edge of the world to a better tomorrow?

Part of what I hope for is to create not just awareness of the problems before us, but the ethical imperatives for us to act. As the above-quoted segment implies, the peril of our situation today and its accelerating dangers demand that we think not just about our own appetites today but the appetites of our children's children. Do we serve them by serving our appetites?

What does the perpetuation of something like the plastic water bottle industry mean for us and our values? On whom do we depend when we can blindly choose Fiji water over our own taps? I think that investigating that alleged "choice" shows us that we are like Dickens' ghostly children from A Christmas Carol - "Ignorance and Want" - the bastard children of an overly consumptive materialist society that isolates people from one another, from our natural wellsprings, and legally forces injustice upon us. Or we have become part of a system that Wendell Berry characterizes as "[a] symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom."

Yes, the list of problems is long and the task daunting. We are in danger and have faced ourselves with a web of systems that endanger too much life on Earth and could ruin the planet as we know it. "That is one way the world as we know it could end, down that path and into the abyss," he writes on the last page. "But there is the other path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss." It is time to build this bridge together.

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