Book Review – Red Sky at Morning

“One thing is clear; the needed changes will not simply happen. No hidden hand is guiding technology or the economy towards sustainability. The issues on the global environmental agenda are precisely the type of issues – long term, chronic, complex – where genuine, farsighted leadership from elected officials as at a premium. But we have not seen this leadership emerge, and we have waited long enough. What we need now is an international movement of citizens and scientists, one capable of dramatically advancing the political and personal actions needed for the transition to sustainability.

James Gustave Speth
Dean & Professor – Yale School of Forestry & Environmental studies

I’ve read a number of books in the last few years on the coming global climate crisis and Speth’s is probably the one I would give the highest rating to. What sets Speth off from other authors is the fact that whereas they may have written extensively on the global environmental crisis, he has spent much of his life working directly on environmental issues through lawsuits, legislation, environmental research, serving as an advisor to presidents Carter and Clinton and in international negotiations to implement various treaties, conventions and protocolsBecause of this background, Speth parallels his descriptions of the global environmental crisis with discussions of what’s been done or not done about it to date. Here you will see how special interest forces exert themselves to frustrate international efforts to come to grips with the crisis. Indeed, revealing this interplay is one of the explicit focuses of Speth’s book

I set out to write a book that would help people understand what’s going on in the world of the global environment by telling the story of how things got the way they are and how we can change them. I have sought, first, to present an accurate account of the seriousness of today’s global environmental challenges and point out without exaggeration the implications of letting trends continue; second, to provide a frank analysis of the failure to date of environmental governance at the international levels, including the largely negative role of the United States; and third, to offer a strategy for moving beyond today’s stalemate, one that is comprehensive and feasible.

One of the great strengths in Speth’s book is the understanding and detail with which he recapitulates three decades of work (not just his work but everyone’s work) on environmental issues, both national and international. You get to follow the victories of the 60’s and 70’s (The National Environmental Policy Act, The Endangered Species Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and the establishment of the EPA for example) and understand why the efforts then were so successful. Then, he moves into how the focus was expanded into international issues during the 70’s and how these wider issues were defined and presented to the world’s governments for action beginning in the 80’s. Here the story changes.

The results of two decades of international environmental negotiations are disappointing. It is not that what has been agree upon…is wrong or useless. But, the bottom line is that these treaties and their associated agreements and protocols do not drive the changes that are needed. Thus far, the climate convention is not protecting the climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries. Nor are they poised to do so in the immediate future. …on the big issues the trends of deterioration continue. With few exceptions, our instruments of choice, international environmental law, is not yet changing them, and the hour is late.

Speth now wonders if we’re on the right track with the current emphasis on the treaty approach given its dismal results.

Right track or wrong track, it is a frightening thought to conclude that either way we have wasted much of the twenty years we could have spent preparing for action. Global environmental problems have gone from bad to worse; governments are not yet prepared to deal with them, and, at present, many governments, including some of the most important, lack the leadership to get prepared.

For anyone out there who thinks folks have been working the issues and that things are going to be OK, Speth’s book is a definite wake-up call.

Another aspect of Speth’s book that makes it stand out is his desire to carry the analysis from the symptoms down the deep underlying causes. Hence, you will find here a good analysis of why high population growth is very often associated with, and probably driven by, high rates of illiteracy in women, the need for extra hands when people live in extreme poverty and the absence of birth control technologies. He carries this deep analysis into the question of why we consume too much as well.

In summary, this is an excellent book easily comparable to both Ehrlich’s and Brown’s. Its tone is more academic and measured and, as I’ve said, it explores the history of what’s been tried and the deeper underlying causes of our problems more than the other books.

To the book at Amazon:

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