Crisis could shift focus to environment
CO-ORDINATED ACTION Countries came together to kickstart economy, and green issues could be next
The financial crisis and its aftermath could help set the stage for the transformative changes urgently needed to help the planet sustain life, a distinguished U.S. environmentalist said yesterday.
The meltdown of financial markets galvanized governments and a concerned public watched as they acted in concert, adjusting their policies in response to emerging leadership, James Gustave (Gus) Speth said in an interview.
“The central role of government in regulating the economy and protecting people has certainly been confirmed – and dramatically confirmed – during this crisis,” said the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.
“And I would hope the importance of government and powerful intervention in the economy won’t be limited to the financial sector but will extend to consumer and environmental affairs also.”
Speth, who is to deliver McGill University’s annual Beatty Memorial Lecture this morning, argues that radical changes to modern capitalism are needed if environmental sustainability is to be achieved.
Capitalism, as it is now constituted, produces an economy and politics that are highly destructive to the environment, said Speth whose latest book is titled The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.
Laws, incentives and governance structures under which corporations operate need to focus on stakeholder primacy rather than shareholder pri- macy, said Speth, noting that U.S. bailout packages place restraints on the salaries, benefits or options of senior executives of companies receiving aid.
In recent years, corporations have been parading their “green” products or commitment to the environment, but “the only reliably green company is one that is required by law to be so,” he said.
The financial crisis has also heightened awareness of the U.S.’s “growing income gap,” and there could be a movement to deal with social equity issues which do have an impact on environ- mental protection, Speth said.
But perhaps more importantly, the crisis “may help us cure our central disease, ‘affluenza,’” said Speth, who coined the term to describe the U.S.’s extravagance and wastefulness.
The author has also chided mainstream environmental groups, saying they too often work within the system.
“I think the environmental community has put off-limits ... a challenge to consumerism, a challenge to lifestyle, a challenge to corporate domination of our politics,“ said Speth, who has a reputation as a consummate Washington insider. He worked in the White House under President Jimmy Carter as head of the Council on Environmental Quality, co-founded the Natural Resources Defence Council and served as head of the United Nations Development Program.
Unfortunately, the economic crisis could also serve as an excuse to slow the battle against climate change, he said.
That is happening in Europe, a region that has provided leadership on the environmental front, he said. Eastern European countries and Italy have expressed opposition to parts of a plan that aims to cut Europe’s carbon dioxide emissions 20 per cent by 2020 from 1990 levels.
“If dealing with this climate emergency were optional, then you would want to weight the economic costs very carefully, but it should be unthinkable that the things we need to do to save the planet – quite literally – are postponed or not done for economic reasons. That should be off-limits,” Speth said.
James Gustave Speth, a former U.S. presidential adviser, says the financial crisis should not provide an excuse to slow pro-environment initiatives.