This is an interview with one of the foremost environmental researchers in the US, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and served as an advisor to the Carter Administration. He says that environmental movements these days just aren’t thinking big enough, aren’t radical enough. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
JEFF GOODELL: In the opening chapter of your new book, you say, quite bluntly, that “something is wrong” in America. What exactly do you mean?
GUS SPETH: Well, I think we have to face up to the paradox that while the environmental community has become stronger and more sophisticated over the years, the environment is going downhill so fast that we’re facing a potential calamity down the road. All we have to do to leave a ruined world to children is just keep doing what we’re doing today—the same emissions of pollutants, the same destruction of ecosystems, same toxification of the environment—and we’ll ruin the planet in the latter part of this century.
And yet, we know we’re not just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re going to grow phenomenally. At the current rates, the world economy will be twice as big as it is today in seventeen years. That carries the potential for enormous additional destruction. The environmental movement has a lot of wonderful things about it, and it’s accomplished a lot. But it’s not up to this challenge of dealing with this amount of environmental loss and destruction.
The fundamental thing that’s happened is that our efforts to clean up the environment are being overwhelmed by the sheer increase in the size of the economy. And there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. So we have to ask, what is it about our society that puts such an extraordinary premium on growth? Is it justified? Why is that growth so destructive? And what do we do about it?
Capitalism is a growth machine. What it really cares about is earning a profit and reinvesting a large share of that and growing continually. Profits can be enhanced if the companies are not paying for the cost of their environmental destruction—so they fight [paying it] tooth and nail. The companies themselves are now quite huge, quite powerful, quite global, and no longer just the main economic actors in our society. They are the main political actors also.
And so all of these things combine to produce a type of capitalism that really doesn’t care about the environment, and doesn’t really care about people much either. What it really cares about is profits and growth, and the rest is more or less incidental. And until we change that system, my conclusion is that it will continue to be fundamentally destructive.