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Gus Speth '64 on "The Beginning of the Endgame"

Gus Speth, '64
Yale Alumni Magazine
March/April 2004

We live in the twenty-first century, but we live with the twentieth century. The expansion of the human enterprise in the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, was phenomenal. It was in this century that human society truly left the moorings of its past and launched itself upon the planet. Most familiar is the population explosion. It took all of human history for global population to expand, by 1900, to a billion and a half people. But over the past century that many more people were added, on average, every 33 years.
As population increased fourfold in the past century, world economic output increased twenty-fold. From the dawn of history to 1950 the world economy grew to $6 trillion. It now grows by this amount every five to ten years. Energy use moved in close step with economic expansion, rising at least sixteen-fold in the twentieth century.

Here is what happened in just the past twenty years:

  • Global population up 35 percent.
  • World economic output up 75 percent.
  • Global energy use up 40 percent.
  • Global meat consumption up 70 percent.
  • World auto production up 45 percent.
  • Global paper use up 90 percent.
  • Advertising globally up 100 percent.

While twentieth-century growth has brought enormous benefits in terms of health, education, and overall standards of living, these gains have been purchased at a huge cost to the environment. The vast environmental deterioration is partly due to the greater scale of established insults: traditional pollution like soot, sulfur oxides, and sewage grew from modest quantities to huge ones. After World War II, the chemical and nuclear industries emerged, giving rise to an armada of new chemicals and radioactive substances, many highly biocidal and some with the potential to accumulate in biological systems or in the atmosphere. At the same time, in the world's natural resource base we find severe losses. From a third to a half of the world's forests are now gone, and about half the mangroves and other wetlands. Agricultural productivity of a fourth of all usable land has been significantly degraded due to overuse and mismanagement. A crisis in the loss of biodiversity is fast upon us. The rate of species extinction today is estimated to be a hundred to a thousand times the normal rate at which species disappear.

Today, the world economy is poised to quadruple by mid-century, perhaps reaching a staggering $140 trillion in annual global output. We probably could not stop this growth if we wanted to, and most of us would not stop it if we could. Close to half the world's people live on less than two dollars per day. They both need and deserve something better. Economic expansion at least offers the potential for better lives, though its benefits in recent decades have disproportionately favored the already well-to-do. Remember also that while growth is a serious complicating factor, even if we immediately stopped all growth in both population and economic activity, we would still bring about an appalling deterioration of our planetary habitat merely by continuing to do exactly what we are doing today.

The implications of all this are profound. We have entered the endgame in our traditional relationship with the natural world. We now live in a full world. Whatever slack nature once cut us is gone.

An enormous responsibility for planetary management is now thrust upon us. This huge new burden, for which there is no precedent and little preparation, is the price of our economic success. We brought it upon ourselves, and we must turn to it with urgency and with even greater determination and political attention than has been brought to liberalizing trade and making the world safe for market capitalism.

What can reliably be said about the prospect for humans and nature? A pessimist might conclude that the drivers of deterioration are too powerful to counter, that our economy is too dependent on unguided growth and laissez-faire, that our politics cannot accommodate long-term thinking, and that our society responds only to major crises and in this case the crises will come too late.

Weighed against this are hopeful signs and encouraging developments. Scientific understanding has been greatly improved. The proportion of the world's people in poverty is being reduced. Technologies that can bring a vast environmental improvement in manufacturing, energy, transportation, and agriculture are either available or close at hand. We are learning how to harness market forces for sustainability, and major schemes for capping and trading the right to emit climate-changing gases are emerging. International environmental law has expanded and is ready for a new phase. Environmental and other civil society organizations have developed remarkable new capacities for leadership and effectiveness. Private businesses, environmental organizations, and local governments the world over are taking impressive initiatives often far ahead of international agreements or other government requirements.

Indeed, concern for the environment is emerging as a force in corporate strategic planning. BP, Shell, DuPont, and several dozen other large companies have voluntarily agreed to make substantive cuts in their greenhouse-gas emissions. Home Depot and Lowe's are among the leaders in a movement to sell wood, when available, only from forests certified as sustainably managed. GM, IBM, and others have created a consortium to develop markets for renewable energy.

So, despite the gravity of our predicament, the situation is far from hopeless, and some areas such as a green consumer movement and emissions trading to control greenhouse gases may be poised for take-off. Solutions ― including the policy prescriptions and other actions needed to move forward ― abound. We need but use them.

The needed changes will not simply happen. It is time for we the people, as citizens and as consumers, to take charge. Eventually, leaders in the political and business worlds will see that it is powerfully in their self-interest to promote the transition to sustainability. But the evidence to date is that, absent some new force in the picture, they will be much too late in coming to this realization. The best hope we have for this new force is a coalescing of a wide array of civic, scientific, environmental, religious, student, and other organizations with enlightened business leaders, concerned families, and engaged communities, networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life. Young people will almost certainly be centrally involved in any movement for real change. They always have been. New dreams are born most easily when the world is seen with fresh eyes and confronted with impertinent questions.

When the perception of an issue is systematically altered to engage a new and broader audience, perhaps by a crisis or major event, far-reaching change becomes possible. We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of "the environmental movement." We need a real one.