The Bridge at the Edge of the World

Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

James Gustave Speth

View Inside Price: $18.00

March 10, 2009
320 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
8 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300151152

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Click here for an extended question & answer discussion with the author.

Click here for a Q&A with Gus Speth on the NYTimes Economics blog

Click here to listen to an interview with the author on the Yale Press Podcast

How serious are the threats to our environment? Here is one measure of the problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. Of course human activities are not holding at current levels—they are accelerating, dramatically—and so, too, is the pace of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification. In this book Gus Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning and a widely respected environmentalist, begins with the observation that the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to decline, to the point that we are now at the edge of catastrophe.


Speth contends that this situation is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. Our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today’s destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that.

James Gustave Speth, a distinguished leader and founder of environmental institutions over the past four decades, is dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He was awarded Japan’s Blue Planet Prize for “a lifetime of creative and visionary leadership in the search for science-based solutions to global environmental problems.” He lives in New Haven, CT.

"Speth is a maestro—conducting a mighty chorus of voices from a dozen disciplines all of which are calling for transformative change before it is too late. The result is the most compelling plea we have for changing our lives and our politics. And it is a compelling case indeed."—Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

"Honest, insightful, and courageous. Dean Speth draws on his formidable experience and wisdom to ask why we are failing to preserve a habitable Earth. His conclusions are cogent, revolutionary, and essential."—David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College. Author of Design on the Edge and Earth in Mind

"When a figure as eminent and mainstream as Gus Speth issues a warning this strong and profound, the world should take real notice. This is an eloquent, accurate, and no-holds-barred brief for change large enough to matter."—Bill McKibben, author, Deep Economy and The Bill McKibben Reader

"An extremely important book both for what it says and for who is saying it. The steady transformation of a solid, pragmatic, progressive negotiator into a 'radical and unrealistic' oracle concerned with the fundamental nature of modern economies is an important event."—Richard Norgaard, University of California, Berkeley

"One can scarcely choose a more important or timely subject than this one. Speth writes about it with passion and conviction, and a touch of humor."—J. R. McNeill, Georgetown University

"A powerful and ambitious attempt to characterize the changed strategies environmental organizations need to adopt to become more effective. This book challenges many things that would seem to have political immunity of a sort—among others, corporate capitalism, the environmental movement itself, and the forces of economic globalization."—Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief, Science Magazine

"In this magisterial and hopeful book, Speth charts three compelling journeys—his own path from reformer to deep systems analyst, environmentalism's trajectory from inside player to social movement, and the nation's emerging great transition from a way of life rooted in economic scarcity to the discovery of nature's abundance. This is a profound book which deserves our deepest attention."—Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology,

Boston College, and author of The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need

"Gus Speth leads us to the formidable bridge we must cross -- an epic transformation in how we live, consume and produce -- to halt capitalism's destructive forces and to improve the human condition.  A calm and persuasive guide, Speth is infused with the human optimism always needed for great historic shifts."—William Greider, author, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy

"What a delight to read Gus Speth's' new book, which no one else could write but all will admire, stunned by his remarkable talents. The book opens vast new opportunities for thought and discussion in science and public affairs and will undoubtedly long stand as the classic that it is."—George M. Woodwell, Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center

"Gus Speth’s critique of unbridled capitalism is riveting and haunting, and his solutions are poetic and inspiring."—Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer and When Smoke Ran Like Water

"In The Bridge at the Edge of the World, James Gustave Speth gives us new lenses with which to see what we have done to our environment and, more important, to see what we can do to restore it. He challenges us all to act not for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. In particular, he takes on the most powerful guardians of the status quo—our mindsets. The bridge he hopes to construct has its bridgehead firmly based in today, because Speth asks us to think about it and then to use our creativity, imagination, and the power of common purpose to act to restore the environment and create a healthier world."—Honourable Gordon Campbell, Premier,

Province of British Columbia

"Gus Speth is one of the leaders in trying to steer humanity on a course to sustainability, and this is his most important book to date.  Read it, and then take some action."—Paul R. Ehrlich, author with Anne Ehrlich of The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment

"The Bridge at the Edge of the World may be the most concise analysis of the current state of the natural world and what might be done about it."—Brooke Williams, Planet News

"If we are to pull away from the edge of catastrophe, in which everything that we value is at risk, the advice presented so clearly and masterfully in this book will help show us the way. It should be carefully studied by everyone interested in the world beyond our immediate future and daily preoccupations."—Peter H. Raven, President,

Missouri Botanical Garden

"Acclaimed environmentalist Speth asserts that our capitalist economy, with its emphasis on continuous robust growth, is at loggerheads with the environment. He minces no words as he writes that to destroy life as we know it, all we have to do is 'keep doing exactly what we are doing today.'"—Booklist

"In his severe indictment of our stewardship of the planet, Speth says all we need to do to destroy the Earth is to continue what we're doing now: overproduce and overconsume. He presents a scary compendium of all the damage we have inflicted. . . . But he's smart enough to know that if the market economy is a big part of the problem, it has to be a big part of the solution. . . . The book is a wide-ranging synthesis of many ideas in the realms of economics, politics, and ecology, and calls for some profound changes in the way the economy and political institutions are governed."—Peter Hadekel, Montreal Gazette

"The Bridge at the End of the World lays out a harsh future and strong prescriptions for changing the way we do business, conduct politics and treat the environment. . . . Speth believes that the world economy's obsession with growth and consumerism will lead to disaster. . . . What is needed, Speth argues, is a radical change in the economic system that takes into account the environmental costs of doing business and refocuses society on building more sustainable ways of living."—David Funkhouser, Hartford Courant

"Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. That is the core message of The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by Gus Speth, a prominent environmentalist who, in this book, has turned sharply critical of the U.S. environmental movement. . . . This book is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress."—Ross Gelbspan, Washington Post Book World

"Speth lays out the scientific consensus about climate change and ecological stress with authority. Global warming, he notes, has a terrible momentum. . . . [This book] is an excellent quick survey of global climate and ecological management at present. . . . [Speth's] aim is to improve the quality of life, foster social solidarity, and restore our connectedness to nature by making corporations accountable to society at large."—Brian Thomas, New Leader

"James Gustave Speth, wrote the book The Bridge at the Edge of the World because he's worried about our future and he's right. We should all be very worried. . . . This book, both for it's brilliant articulation of the worlds' current system and, as Speth calls it, the 'crisis of capitalism,' is an important addition to your bookshelf. And it's sufficiently easy to read and accessible that it's a great gift for just about anybody!"—Thom Hartmann,

"Speth pulls no punches. He offers a sharp, sometimes lacerating critique of the movement he helped establish, saying it has become swamped under 'environmental impact statements' and 'total maximum daily load' regulations. . . . His solution is to forge a new 'environmental political movement,' in which initiatives in human rights, social justice, politics, and the environment all work toward the same goal: a healthy planet that can fulfill the needs of all humanity. . . . [Speth says] 'the environmental community needs to become a political reform group.' It's a call we're hearing with increasing frequency, but this time it comes from a uniquely authoritative voice."—Molly Webster, onearth Magazine (NRDC)

"Speth has emerged as a devastating critic of capitalism's destruction of the environment. In this radical rethinking, he has chosen to confront the full perils brought on by the present economic system, with its pursuit of growth and accumulation at any cost. . . . The crucial problem from an environmental perspective, he believes, is exponential economic growth."—John J. Simon, Monthly Review

"With candor, cadence and clarity, Speth presents a compelling case for prompt action, making this book a must-read on the subject. Protecting the environment needs not just an overhaul of institutions, but of values and mindsets, he says. . . . He argues that we must now choose between two paths: one leading to destruction, the other to a bridge that would help us cross to safety. Like an evangelist, Speth draws not just on facts, but anecdotes, quotes, even poetry to make his point."—Le-Min Lim, Chicago Tribune

"When Gus Speth gets radical, it's time to start digging bunkers. . . . He's been a major player in the modern environmental movement—and he says that movement is failing. In his new book . . . Speth argues that the progress of the green movement has been no match for the far larger tide of ecological destruction that now threatens to submerge humanity entirely. It's time to question the political economy that dominates the developed world, time to ask whether it's providing benefits commensurate with the massive environmental deterioration it generates. It's time to question capitalism."—David Roberts, Gristmill

"Speth's well-reasoned call for a new environmental movement, for a new movement in which environmental issues are central, is a welcome and much-needed contribution, particularly for the climate and environmental movements. . . . Speth writes approvingly of a government-regulated market economy, one in which environmental impacts and the 'polluter pays' principle would be paramount, essentially a form of environmental social democracy. . . .  And we are fortunate that 'ultimate insider' Gus Speth will continue to help lead us as we build towards the Environmental Revolution which must occur."—Ted Glick, Gristmill

"Speth laments the tortuously slow pace of environmental activism in the face of the near-calamitous decline of species, soils, forests and oceans, and the dangerous advance of global warming. . . . But the challenges are too grave to wait for a new president. Speth's book makes it abundantly clear: Start ourselves, while (hopefully) there's still time."—Neal Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group

"Speth is at his best analyzing the nature and the complexity of the problem, and displaying the debates among various academic disciplines and in multiple circles: scholars, policy analysts, activists, opinion leaders, and policy makers. His prodigious knowledge of these debates and his ability to render them in a crisp, clear prose, densely sprinkled with great quotes from great minds, make the book a fine read and a valuable resource. It should be standard reading for students who care about sustainability, regardless of their area of study and future career plans."—Philip J. Vergragt & Halina S. Brown, Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy

"An important contribution to the growing body of visionary literature dealing with the challenges of sustainability. In addition to his own thought-provoking observations, Speth's extensive references offer an excellent introduction to many other authors who address our daunting global environmental problems, capitalism's role in exacerbating them, and the core sufficiency principles that many observers believe will be required to deal with them. The book provides a smorgasbord for future readings by those who want to dig deeper into the issues of sustainability."—Edward Sanders, Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy

"The Bridge at the Edge of the World was an epiphany for me. . . . It is an optimistic view of the future. . . . One of the book's most compelling features is that it serves as a guide to key literature; hundreds of citations are included for those of us inclined to explore further the issues raised. . . . I see it as a guide for moving toward cultural, social, and environmental equity that could in turn lead to balanced sustainability in the planet's future. . . . Read this book! I am making sure all my graduate students read my copy."—John D. Peine, Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy

"Speth understands that America's addiction to growth must be challenged, and that we need to learn to recognize what is 'enough.' In recognizing that what environmentalism needs most is the forging of a new consciousness, Speth's book becomes a powerful support to our Network of Spiritual Progressives—indispensable reading!"—Tikkun

"What is needed, Speth argues, is a radical change in the economic system that takes into account the environmental costs of doing business and refocuses society on building more sustainable ways of living."—David Funkhouser, Hartford Courant

"Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. . . . This book is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress."—Ross Gelbspan, Washington Post Book World

Selected as a Top 5 Environment Book in New England by the Boston Globe

A 2008 Top Seller in Environmental Sciences as compiled by YBP Library Services

A 2008 Top Seller in Environmental Sciences as compiled by YBP Library Services

Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by the Washington Post in the Nature & The Environment category

Finalist for the 2009 Orion Book Award, given by The Orion Society