“Money doesn’t make us happy.” We’ve all heard it from parents who drive Mercedes, innovative musicians who sell out to big labels, and Yale grads in their third year at Goldman Sachs. The mass consumerism that drives our economy — encouraging you to buy that new cell phone with the built in PDA and GPS and that pink argyle sweater from J. Crew — is harming our community. Dean James Gustave Speth of the School of Forestry speaks out against American consumer capitalism in his new book “A Bridge at the Edge of the World.” Recognizing that we are now in a state of environmental crisis, one that if not resolved will lead to an inhabitable world by the end of the century, Speth makes a call for drastic change.
Speth’s argument for environmental reform comes in a holistic and pragmatic form. By delving into social science, Speth asserts that money really does not buy happiness, and that it in fact increases “social pathologies”, such as the widening income gap. Given that there is little correlation between economic success and personal enjoyment, Speth believes there should be few constraints in a movement for sustainability.
Yet there are multiple obstacles to growth of environmental activism and governmental change. First and foremost is the concern for individual wants and desires. Speth points out that by focusing on our wants — such as our desires to buy superfluous electronics — we alienate those of future generations, and that the continuation of human life is more important than economic success. He places this burden on the shoulders of our youth by indicating that if the world economy does not drastically change to highlight the things that really do matter in life — people, health, education and happiness — we will not be able to provide a sustainable planet for our grandchildren.
Speth frames our current situation by comparing it to his childhood summers spent swimming in South Carolina’s Edisto River. As a young kid he struggled swimming against the current of the river, but as he grew older and stronger he would be able to push through it. Speth recognizes the increase in activism for environmental reform, especially on college campuses, but stresses that the current we are swimming against is growing stronger at a faster pace than the growth of our sustainable actions.
The solution is much greater than replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs, reducing individual energy consumption and trading in that big old Chevy Blazer for a Prius. Speth’s solution is a complete restructuring of the American government and individual thought. The United States government views success in terms of GDP and economic growth, thus supporting immensely powerful corporations and influencing the career motivations of American youth. The drive to decrease prices to increase consumerism not only reduces the potential for small business growth, but also encourages companies to cut costs in ways that are environmentally detrimental. Speth believes that restructuring corporations by placing more power in the hands of public shareholders and making corporations more accountable to government regulation will be a major step in reasserting the importance of environmental action.
Yet the American government as it now stands is not going to interfere with a corporation that is catalyzing economic growth, which is why Speth calls for such drastic social change. He is no Marxist — he does not believe in the need for control over means of production or central planning. Instead, he focuses on the need for economic reform. In order to decrease environmentally destructive consumerism, Speth discusses the need for an increase in the prices of consumer goods. Essentially, by increasing the price of a house that is built on top of a wetland, the amount of viable consumers will decrease, and subsequently so will the desire of contractors to build in environmentally destructive ways.
In order to spur massive environmental change, Speth establishes that the movement for sustainability must be linked to movements for social justice, universal health care, education reform and job creation. He believes that, in order to deter the growing current, we must establish a movement for social action of greater strength than the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Studies illustrate that individuals believe the United States has become too materialistic; now with additional information pertaining to how materialism is detrimental to human life, one might see the need for drastic social change.
While it’s easy to get swept up in Speth’s engaging writing and warning to “stop looking at GDP growth as our savior and instead seek to solve our problems by addressing them directly,” one must keep tabs on the fact that the post-growth economy the author recommends is hardly flawless. The establishment of a post-growth economy would need to be economically managed in a manner that will avoid recessions and the creation of additional unemployment in order to increase environmental sensibility and overall well-being. And while many of us can survive without our iPhones and Jordache jeans, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a nice pair of jeans can in fact improve self-image and even make you happy. Speth notices that it will be difficult to alter modern thought and encourage mass activism necessary to implement a shift away from consumer capitalism in the American government, but by compiling an argument supported from professionals from several different disciplines he makes it hard to ignore that we are in a crisis, and that change is necessary. First we need to become content with the goods we already have.