Transcript: Gus Speth, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World". 1 August 2008

Thom talks with James Gustave Speth, Gus Speth, the author of "The Bridge at the Edge of the World", which is Thom and Justin's BuzzFlash book of the month.

Thom Hartmann interviews Gus Speth, 1 August 2008

[Thom Hartmann]: As most of you know, every month I write a book review, more or less every month, sometimes we run a week or so late, but by and large every month I write a book review for as a way of supporting that website, which is supported by people buying books off the website; it's their principal source of revenue. And there's several years worth of archives of my book reviews there by the way, many good ones, many of them are still in inventory over at BuzzFlash. But our book for this month, which my son Justin whose birthday is tomorrow by the way, happy birthday Justin, helped me write this thing and we both read the book and both loved it. Justin, my son, is also an environmental scientist, has a Master's degree in environmental sciences.

This is a remarkable book. It's called "The Bridge at the Edge of the World", the website and the author is James Gustave Speth, or Gus Speth. Gus, welcome to the show.

[Gus Speth]: Hi Thom, it's a pleasure to be with you.

[Thom Hartmann]: Great to have you with us. Why the title, "the Edge of the World"?

[Gus Speth]: Well, I think the, I think the book is a report from the edge of calamity. It might, I've been in this environmental area both forty years now and starting in the late 1960s, and I helped to started a group called the Natural Resources Defense Council which has done very well. But we get stronger and stronger in the environmental community and the environment continues to go downhill. That's the paradox that we have to now confront, and so many people, including many in the environmental community are not really confronting it. So I think the title really derives from my conviction at this point, my conclusion that we're on a path to an unprecedented environmental decline and the current approaches that we're taking in environmental policy and environmental management are not going to reverse that decline. It may slow it but, and indeed they have slowed it, but we're on the edge of calamity.

[Thom Hartmann]: Are, well, before we get to the drivers, what would the calamity look like?

[Gus Speth]: Well, I think most people now are very familiar with the climate possibilities. I mean, we're only edge there of a situation in which continued warming of the planet, from our extraordinary excessive use of fossil fuels primarily, that that warming could reach a point where it's in effect self-sustaining; that it's a runaway type greenhouse effect and we're already seeing severe consequences from the rather modest amount of warming over the planet that we've had so far.

I mean, everywhere scientists look, the Earth's ice fields are melting, glaciers are melting and ice is disappearing and yet we really have, you know, had only just a taste of what we are likely to have in terms of warm warming. So that may be, you know, the biggest thing out there now, but we're still eliminating tropical forest at the rate of about an acre a second and it's been going on now for decades. We're extracting anywhere from 50 to 70% of the fresh water supply from our streams and lakes. We've eliminated 90% of the large predator fish in the oceans. We've destroyed half the planet's wetlands. And on and on. We're extinguishing species at a rate about a thousand times the rate that species do normally go extinct and here at home in the US we've improved a number of things but, you know, I think people don't appreciate that we're still losing over 6,000 acres a day of open space in our country. And I could go on.

[Thom Hartmann]: What are the, in your, we're talking with Gus Speth, his new book "The Bridge at the Edge of the World", the website And it's also my BuzzFlash book of the month, you can check it out over at

Gus, is population the primary driver here? We're were pushing seven billion humans on the planet Earth. When Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office there were only two billion humans. When this country was founded there were only one billion humans. When John Kennedy was inaugurated there were only three billion humans. We've more than doubled that. It seems that this is more than just a technological problem.

[Gus Speth]: Well, it's certainly more than technological problem, and certainly population is a prime driver of environmental decline but it's mainly what the people do; it's mainly the economic activity of these swelling, of our planet's swelling population. And that economic activity has expanded much more rapidly than population has. And that's really what, you know, it's the economy, stupid. That's what's eating up the environment, consuming vast quantities of resources, spewing out vast quantities of dangerous materials, occupying huge swaths of the landscape.

And so I think we really have to understand what drives our economic system, what is this system of political economy that we are really in, because my conclusion is that we have to change that system of political economy, and that system is capitalism. And we have to face that and we have to ask how do we invent a new capitalism, how do we get beyond today's capitalism and to a system that really is capable not only of sustaining the environment, but sustaining people? Because this system that we have today is not sustaining our society and our people in our communities either.

[Thom Hartmann]: Isn't it to a large extent that we had, it's about circles and lines, basically. In nature everything's waste is something else's food. Everything lives within a circle. There's this continuous cycle, you know, everything that dies becomes the sustenance for something else that's emerging into life and that circle goes all the way round.

With capitalism it's linear, it's a line, it's just grow, grow, grow. It's essentially a cancer model. What is your suggestion for an alternative to modern day laissez-faire capitalism?

[Gus Speth]: Well, I think we have to do several things; there's no one answer. First, we really need environmentally and socially honest prices in the marketplace. We are, you know, I think if you ask any economist today they'll tell you that, you know, energy, for example is underpriced, tremendously underpriced in terms of what its environmental and social and security consequences. And yet we hear every national politician talking about, you know, reducing the price of energy and keeping it low and and indeed, as Paul Krugman said today in the New York Times, if we deal with the climate crisis properly it will drive up energy prices and we need environmentally honest prices. We need a new type of corporation. I think we really need to reinvent the corporation. Now, this is terribly difficult I certainly agree. But we need corporations which are rechartered so that they focus on providing wealth for all of the stakeholders and not just the shareholders.

[Thom Hartmann]: You know, up until the 1890s it was a feature of the corporate charter laws of every state in this nation that a corporation when it's incorporated must as its first responsibility serve the public good and the community in which it's located. As a result of a John Rockefeller's charter mongering, you know, that charter mongering era as it is referred to, the 1890s, those provisions were stripped from virtually all the states' corporate charter provisions.

[Gus Speth]: Yeah, that's a good bit of history another bit is the way that corporations came to be seen as people under the constitution.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right.

[Gus Speth]: And protected by our constitution so that now we have a terribly difficult time effectively regulating advertising and corporate political activity because they have these rights, first amendment rights under the constitution. It's a, I think, very misguided set of conclusions.

[Thom Hartmann]: Yeah, absolutely. I wrote a book on that called Unequal Protection.

[Gus Speth]: You've written some great books, let me tell you. I've seen them and I, the other thing we have to face is our own pathetic capitulation to consumerism. We need to get beyond our affluenza, our own hyperventilating lifestyles and move to a system which, you know, we're really remembering truly what we've been taught in our religious institutions about, you know, what is important in life and what are the best things in life.

[Thom Hartmann]: Amen. James Gustave Speth, Gus Speth, the author of "The Bridge at the Edge of the World", you can get it over at or any fine bookseller. Thanks Gus.

[Gus Speth]: Thank you.

Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.

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