TreeHugger Talks With James Gustave Speth: Green Consumerism, Taking Action & What Comes After Capitalism

Though it's prestigious enough that James Gustave Speth is currently the dean of Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, when you look at his past environmental activities—co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, chairman of President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme—you start to understand why, as a fellow TreeHugger writer described it, at this point he's like the Yoda of the environmental movement.

Which means, when I got the chance to interview Dean Speth, ask him about his latest book The Bridge at the Edge of the World (soon to come out in paperback) and pick his brain about what comes next in the environmental movement, I was thrilled:TH: In the beginning of the book you talk about the growth fetish: How throughout history this constant pursuit of economic expansion has actually served us pretty well, but right now we're at a point where this is untenable. For people who have been raised in this type of culture for their entire lives, how do we get the idea across to them that once worked isn't the way to go forward?

JGS: I like this phrase that Herman Daly has come up with: Uneconomic Growth. Which is the idea that somehow you could sum up all of the costs of growth, that at this point in countries like the United States, those costs would exceed the benefits. Well, what are some of the costs?

There are huge environmental costs, despite the efforts of four decades to try to curb environmental losses, here and globally, we're on the verge of losing the planet. This is a tremendous failure on the part of everybody who's been concerned about the environment and society generally. The environmental costs are extremely high, to the point of being ruinous at this point.

Secondly, we aren't benefiting socially that much from this commitment to aggregate GDP expansion. There are lots of things we need to grow: We need to grow green collar jobs; we need to grow new renewable energy industries; health care, and other things. But, one thing we don't need growth of is aggregate expansion of the economy. We need a much more targeted approach.

But on the other hand we have how many millions of people in the world, that are living on $1 a day, $2 a day, where that growth could make genuine improvements in their lives...

Absolutely. I worked in the United Nations on poverty questions for six years, and led the UN's biggest anti-poverty program, and [it's] a huge injustice, a huge tragedy. Half the people of the world [live] on less than $2 a day. There you really do need to grow.

But again, even in that context, we did a lot of studies in the UN: It's not just a question of growing. You can have jobless growth anywhere in this world. You can have growth that undermines people's prior livelihoods. The correlation between improvements in the Human Development Index and growth is not a very good one. It would be a rough guess to say that only about half of the improvements in quality of life can be accounted for by expansion in the economy. The rest is due to the policies that governments pursue.

For TreeHugger readers could you give just a simple rundown of what some other measurements are out there that are alternatives to Gross Domestic Product and how adopting them could be beneficial?

The first thing you could do is to correct GDP so that it becomes more a measure of welfare. Right now it's a measure of output. If you have more and more crime, build more and more jails, have more and more automobile accidents, your GDP goes up. If you stop washing your own car and hire somebody to wash it for you, and you get paid for washing somebody else's car, GDP goes up. It's just a measure of economic activity, of economic output and it can be corrected to more accurately reflect welfare.

There are things that can come out of it, that don't contribute to welfare; and there are things that should be also subtracted, like the run-down of natural capital. You subtract depreciation of man-made capital out of income, but you should also subtract the loss of forests, the loss of soils, the loss of water...the impact of other things out.

So, you can make GDP a lot better. And when people have done that, as with the Genuine Progress Indicator, what they find is that for several decades now, since the 70s, basically welfare per capita in the United States, as measured in dollars and cents, hasn't gone up.

But there are also other measures: Objective measures where you try to measure environmental quality by various indicators of pollution and other things. There are others where you try to measure social quality, with measures like family stability, absence of alcoholism and drugs, low criminality, all kinds of social, objective measures that can be done. And when you look at those, conditions in the United States on the social side haven't improved much, despite all the extra wealth.

Then, the third area is a family of measures that look at subjective well-being: How positively people feel about themselves and their lives. How, basically, happy they are, how much satisfaction they have in life. We're seeing more and more development of these measures of subjective well-being. Again, what they show is that despite decades of increasing economic output and GDP per capita, people's sense of well-being and happiness in our society, in England, in Japan, in other countries, hasn't gone up much.


The predominantly Buddhist nation of Bhutan's former king coined the phrase Gross National Happiness in 1972 on the premise that both material and spiritual development have to occur. According to the quick Wikipedia definition of GNH, the four components of it are equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.
Do you think it's really possible for the average American to embrace Gross National Happiness? On the evening news, instead of GDP going up, reporting that Gross National Happiness went up for example...

We could certainly begin to see reporting of measures of subjective well-being. It's kind of a joke in some places to call it Gross National Happiness, but you can measure objectively whether people in the society are feeling better about themselves, their country and their well-being.

You could measure whether it varied across the country. Whether people in a certain category in the country feel better and happier in certain regions, in certain economic groups, in certain ethnic groups, and why.

Most studies suggest that materialism, an over-emphasis on consumption, undermines well-being, undermines happiness. And a commitment to spending more time with family, friends, associates increases this sense of happiness and well-being.

I think very much that it would be fairly straight-forward, honestly, with a serious effort, to introduce [these sort of] new measures that people would take very seriously.

Throughout the book there is a theme that suggests (to paraphrase you) we have to get beyond the materialistic, anthropocentric, contempocentric current world view. That's something that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of environmentalism, or the green movement. How do you translate this broadness to an audience that may want to think more in parts per million than anything else?

I think that people deciding to lead more sustainable lifestyles is extremely important. It takes a long time to change power plants, but consumers can change tomorrow: As we saw, perversely, when this whole SUV craze took over. Consumers can make decisions that could dramatically change the economy. They need however good information, and they don't have it now.

Nearly every product on the market now has some sort of green claim, or natural, on the label. There have been studies that have looked at these and overwhelmingly these pretensions are either misleading, incomplete, wrong or deceptive in some way.

We need a system of labeling, and a system of product biographies, which looks at the whole lifecycle of things that consumers buy and tries to assess not only its carbon impact but its overall environmental impact and footprint. I think we're moving in that direction with sites like ClimateCulture.com and services like ClimateCooler.com, two new commercial enterprises that are using sophisticated tools to measure carbon footprint.

This greening of consumption is only the first step because it's still consumption. And it's still very high levels of consumption. You have to be very careful. People insist on more energy efficient refrigerators and then they have two refrigerators. Or they insist on more fuel efficient automobiles and then drive a lot more.

The bottom line on environmental quality issues has been that we get tighter regulations and then the growth overwhelms the improvement. You make each plant produce half the pollution and then double the number of plants, the output. That's been the pattern, overwhelmingly.

There's a real problem that some of the people who study consumption call individualization. That is, to try to put the whole environmental problem onto individuals. As if they could solve it, without deep changes in the system and the whole production processes, which people can't control directly.

So, the green consumption idea can only get so far. As long as we're committed to high levels of consumption, green or otherwise, as long as we're committed to high levels of aggregate expansion of GDP, without a focused program of growing those things we really do need to grow, there's going to be huge environmental impact.

Hopefully a more progressive administration in Washington can make it better, but that's only going to last so long. And pretty soon the growth will begin to overwhelm the system again, like it has so many other times in our history.

We also need to combine these individual efforts to improve consumption with efforts to get political. We need to get political about this in dealing with the deep legislative and other changes that are needed. That's really the next big step.


Going along with that, there's a chasm between people saying, "I'm going to make these five simple green changes to my lifestyle" and advocating that we need to change the entire structure of our economy. Do you have any recommendation on how we can bridge that chasm?

What I would say to people who are going to TreeHugger is 'join the movement.'

You can talk about these issues conceptually for a long time. There are many alternative measures that could be used, both measuring objective and subjective well-being in society. They've been studied. They could be popularized. But more than anything else, what we need in our country is a powerful grassroots movement.

For example, on the climate issue there's going to be a big protest on March the 2nd in Washington DC to protest a major coal fired power plant that is producing energy for the Capital [TH note: Go to Power Shift 09 for more info on this]. I hope young people by the millions will show up for this. I think we need to bring back some of that spirit we had in the 60s and in the early 70s.

Would you go so far as Al Gore did at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in September in calling for civil disobedience to stop new coal-fired power plants that don't include carbon capture technologies? In England there were some activists who detained a coal train, would you go so far as to advocate, if not that exact action, but that category of action?

I think that it's appropriate at this point, if it's necessary to get the message across. There's a great tradition in our country, and internationally, of non-violent civil disobedience.

You know, we forget sometimes that that's what the civil rights movement in our country was all about. The things that the civil rights protestors were doing were, very often times, illegal. There were marches that weren't authorized. They were places they went, like bowling alleys and lunch counters, where they weren't allowed to go, where it was against the law for them to be.

I think, if it becomes necessary to alert a larger public to the seriousness of these issues, by engaging in non-violent and non-destructive, but nevertheless marginally disobedient, practices then so be it. Because the price of continuing on like we have been today is just too high.

James Gustave Speth on what comes after capitalism & the need to incorporate more philosophers, psychologists and poets into the environmental movement:

Tags: Activism | Carbon Footprint | Communities | Consumerism | Economics | Environmental Certifications | Green Jobs

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