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How Global Warming and Capitalism Are Deeply Intertwined

It is no accident that environmental crisis is gathering as social injustice is deepening and growing inequality is impairing democratic institutions.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from James Gustave Speth's The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability (Yale).

In 1970 James Gustave Speth co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has become one of America's most well-endowed and high-profile environmental organizations. He worked in the White House under President Carter, chairing the Council on Environmental Quality; when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected in 1992, Speth was a senior adviser to their transition team. He spent the 1990s as the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, where he integrated environmental sustainability into the agency's poverty-fighting mission. Thus, what follows--his call for a radical departure from the movement's current strategy--comes from the ultimate environmental insider.

I grew up in a small town on the Edisto River in South Carolina in the 1940s and '50s. As a boy, I often swam the Edisto, though at first I could not buck the river's current. But as I grew older and stronger, I was able to make good headway against it. In my environmental work for close to four decades, I've always assumed America's environmental community would do the same--get stronger and prevail against the current. But in the past few years I have come to the conclusion that this assumption is incorrect. The environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to deteriorate. The current has strengthened faster than we have and become more treacherous. It is time to consider what to do besides swimming against it.

It is no accident that environmental crisis is gathering as social injustice is deepening and growing inequality is impairing democratic institutions. Each is the result of a system of political economy--today's capitalism--that is profoundly committed to profits and growth and profoundly indifferent to nature and society. Left uncorrected, it is an inherently ruthless, rapacious system, and it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject human and natural values into that system. But this effort fails because progressive politics are too feeble and Washington is more and more in the hands of powerful corporations and great wealth. The best hope for change in America is a fusion of those concerned about the environment, social justice and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force. This fusion must occur before it is too late.

Sadly, while environmentalists have been winning many battles, we are losing the planet. Half the world's tropical and temperate forests are gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics is about an acre a second. Half the planet's wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone and 75 percent of marine fisheries are overfished, fished to capacity or depleted, up from 5 percent a few decades ago. Twenty percent of the corals are gone; another 20 percent severely threatened. Species are disappearing about 1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in 65 million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Each year desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity worldwide. Toxic chemicals can be found by the dozens in essentially every one of us.

Earth's ozone layer was severely depleted before the change was discovered. Human activities have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide levels up by more than a third and have started the most dangerous change of all--planetary warming and climate disruption. Earth's ice fields are melting. Industrial processes are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a rate equal to nature's; one result is the development of hundreds of dead zones in the oceans because of overfertilization. Withdrawals of fresh water consume more than half of accessible runoff, and water shortages are multiplying here and abroad. The following rivers no longer reach the oceans in the dry season: the Colorado, Yellow, Ganges and Nile, among many others.