Guideposts

Before launching into what I believe is required and why, I should relate some thoughts that guided me in writing this book. First, I recognize that many of the proposals offered in these chapters may be controversial, especially with those favoring minimalist government. But our country is in deep trouble on several fronts, and if we want to cure these ills, some strong medicine must be taken. That points to effective government intervention as a big part of the answer. It makes no sense to deprive ourselves of the democratic means to correct harmful environmental and social consequences. Smart government does not mean wasteful, bloated government, but it does mean government.

Similarly, since today's environmental policy and politics offer too weak a medicine, the proper perspective on environmental business as usual must be critical and must offer proposals for deeper change. If someone says these proposals are impractical, or politically naive, then I would respond that we need impractical answers. That is merely a reflection of the condition in which we find ourselves. And if some of these answers seem radical or far-fetched today, then I say wait until tomorrow. Soon it will be abundantly clear that it is business as usual that is utopian, whereas creating something very new and different is a practical necessity.3

Often books are written by those who are deeply learned across the full range of their subject. I hasten to say that I make no such claim. I am searching for answers, and I hope my readers will join me in this effort. The young, in particular, may be well suited to the subject. The issues require a fresh conceptualization and a new way of thinking, even a new vocabulary.

The scope of this volume is broad. I doubt that there is anyone truly expert in all the areas covered in it. I have opted for breadth over depth. I know of no other way to provide the perspective the subject demands. But it is a challenge, for me at least, to achieve a reasonable command over so large an area. I have undoubtedly failed at points, and I hope the reader will bear with me when I have. I am consoled by Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp / Or what's a heaven for?"

I have drawn on the writings of many people and have let them speak for themselves. It might be said that to search for answers in the writings of academics and other observers is a fool's errand—that answers are more likely to be found in the world of practical affairs. This is true to a degree, but it neglects a key point. In general, the world of practical affairs does not truly appreciate how much negative change is coming at us, nor how fast. As a result, it has yet to develop the needed answers, except partially in small experiments across the landscape. So we must look beyond the world of practical affairs to those who are thinking difficult and unconventional thoughts and proposing transformative change.

And, in any case, one must never forget the power of ideas. Remember the delightful point made by John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."4

Milton Friedman was a great economist and a fierce advocate. I did not agree with many of his positions, but I believe he was right to point to the importance of ideas and the way crises can bring them to the fore: "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change," he wrote. "When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."5 Today's young people are inheriting this world. My favorite lapel button says simply: "The meek are getting ready." I'm not sure the meek will inherit the earth, but I am sure young people will. I hope this book will help them get ready.

A book cannot cover everything, and this one is far, far more about the problems facing the affluent countries than those challenging the developing world. I spent much of my life working on international development and poverty alleviation through the United Nations and elsewhere, and my heart is with the developing countries as much as the developed. But this book is not. In Red Sky at Morning, I addressed the developing world's desperate need for sustainable, people-centered development and the alleviation of both poverty and population pressures, and I explored the links between addressing these needs and making progress on environmental challenges. But here, when I take up consumption, for example, the focus will be on the excessive consumption of the rich not the underconsumption of the poor. And when I ask, as I will, whether we have arrived at the point Lord Keynes foresaw when the "economic problem" is solved, I will be asking that question of the rich, not the poor.6

Indeed, this book focuses heavily on the very rich United States. America is large and influential. The U.S. government and U.S. corporations are leading forces in international trade and the globalization of the world economy. The United States and other developed countries are setting the terms for much of the world, spreading cultural and other norms, and driving much of the economic growth occurring abroad as well as at home. The world needs America to be a leading part of the answer, but we Americans have a long way to go to claim that role. Moreover, for many of the topics reviewed here, the United States is an extreme case among the developed countries. In America's individualism, consumerism, acceptance of market forces, commitment to capitalism and globalization, lack of social and public services, and in many other ways, the country tends consistently toward one end of the spectrum of the well-to-do. If answers can be found here, perhaps they can be found anywhere.

Red Sky at Morning addressed the issue of global-scale environmental threats with a focus on what the international community needs to do and, in particular, what the United States should do to be a responsible part of that community. It urged stronger treaties and international environmental institutions, such as a World Environment Organization. This book had its origins in the need to go beyond Red Sky at Morning and take a deeper and harder look at underlying forces and needed corrections. Although many of the solutions lie in international agreements and cooperation, many others are to be found at the national or local levels. Global-scale environmental threats have national and local roots.

Finally, people are guided inevitably by their values, and I should be explicit about mine, even though I often do not live up to them. In social dealings, it is hard to improve on the Golden Rule, and, extended, it provides a basis for an environmental ethic, too, specifically our duties both to future generations and to the life that evolved here with us. Society's duty to future generations is aptly captured in the expression, We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children. And the duty to other life was captured forcefully by the best-known graduate of the school where I am dean, Aldo Leopold. "A thing is right," he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, "when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."7 To leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren and ruin the world for other life would violate the two central precepts of environmental ethics. Our duty lies in precisely the opposite directions, to struggle against the contempocentrism and anthropocentrism that dominate modern life.

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