We Need a "New Operating System" for the Modern World! Yale Univ's Dean of Environmental Studies Says

smokestacks, pollution, grime photo

photo: Gilbert Rodriguez

In a practical sense, to make the type of changes in theory and practice which many TreeHugger readers would probably like to see happen to make the world a more ecologically sustainable place, we may have to compartmentalize a bit. Overturning the whole system may prove difficult, but at least according to Yale University's Gus Speth that is the type of change needed.

Orion Magazine currently has an interview with Speth which I think is important to read, but here are some excerpts to give you to set the tone:
"Modern Capitalism" Has Failed to Create a Sustainable World
Orion describes how Speth sees the problem:

His proximate concern is global warming and the impact it will have on civilized life as we know it. But unlike, say, Al Gore, Speth is not concerned with details of climate science or policy prescriptions for the near-term. He is after bigger game—the Wal-Martization of America, our slavish devotion to an ever-expanding gross domestic product, the utter failure of what Speth disparagingly calls "modern capitalism" to create a sustainable world. What is needed, Speth believes, is not simply a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, but "a new operating system" for the modern world. 

The Scale of the Global Economy Overwhelms Our Environmental Efforts
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.

What Would Re-Formed Capitalism Look Like
Speth discounts the idea of a return to communism, saying that we need to be working towards a non-socialist alternative to capitalism. But what would that entail?
Well, let's take the core of it—the corporation. Corporations right now are mandated to serve and promote the best interest of stockholders, by law. [...] I think that needs to change fundamentally, so that corporations really are in the business of serving all of the factors that help generate wealth—all of the stakeholders, in effect. One way to describe what has to happen, and the way that the situation in the future would be different, would be to describe it as a series of transformations. The first would be a transformation in the market. There would be a real revolution in pricing. Things that are environmentally destructive would be—if they were really destructive—almost out of reach, prohibitively expensive.

A second would be a transformation to a postgrowth society where what you really want is to grow very specific things that are desperately needed in a very targeted way—you know, care for the mentally ill, health-care accessibility, high-tech green-collar industries.

A third would be a move to a wider variety of ownership patterns in the private sector. More co-ops, more employee ownership plans, and less rigid lines between the profit and the not-for-profit sectors.

So, What Do Readers Think?
The motivation for presenting this comes out of a discussion that was going around the virtual TreeHugger office on how do we define sustainability. I won't go into the details or the points different authors took, but I want to know where readers stand?

How do you define sustainability? Where do you draw the line of what social issues truly reside under the umbrella of environmentalism: labor issues, animal rights, economic justice? For you, do you see the current environmental problems we face as a species as able to be dealt with without greater changes to the underpinnings of society?

Personally, I cast a pretty wide net and agree with pretty much everything that Speth says. Not that I think it's possible to have a go at all of it at once—I'm more pragmatic than that—I think Speth's on the right track.

What does everyone else think though? Where do you draw the line?

via :: Orion Magazine
The Environmental Big Picture
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