Avoiding the Great Collision: “We Can Save What is Left”

James Gustave Speth

I believe that a central question facing societies today — perhaps the central question — is whether the world economy can be tamed to operate within constraints that protect and restore the natural world. There is ample evidence that it is not so tamed today. Almost universally, even governments agree that the environmental impacts of today’s economic activity are unacceptably large and must be reduced. Recently, major international assessments of climate change and declining ecosystem services have added new weight to this conclusion.

Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and its biota is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.

But human activities are of course not holding at current levels – they are growing, dramatically. It took all of history to build the $7 trillion world economy of 1950; today we add that amount of economic activity every decade. The world economy is poised to double and then double again in the lifetime of today’s college students.

Modern capitalism is the powerful engine of this growth. So we can rephrase the fundamental question: can modern capitalism sustain the environment, and can the environment sustain modern capitalism? I use “modern capitalism” here in a broad sense as a system of political economy. It encompasses the core economic concept of a system where employers hire workers to use privately owned capital goods to produce goods and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But the modern capitalism concept also includes free and competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principal institution, the consumer society, and the state actively promoting economic strength and growth for a host of reasons.

As such we can say that the world’s current operating system is capitalism or, better, a variety of capitalisms. Inherent in the dynamics of capital- ism is a powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates, with the result that the capitalist era has in fact been characterized by a remarkable exponential expansion of the world economy.

As we pursue answers to these challenges, I believe we must be guided by certain values. In particular, we have profoundly important ethical duties both to future generations and to the life that evolved here with us. Our duty to future generations is aptly captured in the expression: we have not inherited the Earth from our fathers; 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.” To restate these propositions, we have no right, no right at all, to leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren, and we have no right to ruin the world for other life. Our duties lie in precisely the opposite directions. Yet the path to a ruined world is precisely the one we are on today. It is a path we must abandon, soon.

Today, the path we are on links two worlds: it is leading us away from the world we have lost, and it is taking us to the world we are making. Let’s look briefly at both.

A Haunting Absence

It is difficult today to appreciate the abundance of wild nature in the world we have lost. In America we can think of the pre-Columbian world of 1491, of Lewis and Clark, and of John James Audubon. It is a world where nature is large and we are not. It is a world of majestic old growth forests stretch- ing from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, of oceans brimming with fish, of clear skies literally darkened by passing flocks of birds. In 1602 an Englishman wrote in his journal that the fish schooled so thickly that he thought their backs were the sea bottom. Oyster banks ran for miles, with some shells close to a foot long. Bison once roamed east to Florida. There were jaguars in the Southeast, grizzly bear in the Midwest, and wolves, elk, and mountain lions in New England.1

Here is Audubon on a passenger pigeon hunt that he witnessed:

Few pigeons were to be seen before sun- set; but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments….Suddenly, there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea… . As the birds arrive, and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by polemen. The current of birds, however, still kept increasing … . The pigeons, coming in by thousands, alighted every- where, one above another, until solid masses … were formed on every tree, in all direction… . The uproar continues … the whole night… . Toward the approach of day, the noise rather subsided… . The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears; and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and pole- cats were seen sneaking off from the spot. Whilst eagles and hawks, of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil. It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.2

My colleague Steve Kellert notes that the last passenger pigeon on Earth expired in a zoo in Cincinnati in 1914. Some decades later, Aldo Leopold offered these words at a ceremony on this passing:

We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve be- cause no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies….Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. …There will always be pigeons in books and in muse- ums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons can- not breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather.3

We are moving, rapidly now, between the two worlds. Our movement began slowly, but now we are hurtling rapidly toward the world directly ahead. The old world, nature’s world, continues, of course, but we are steadily closing it down. It flourishes in our art and literature and in our imaginations. But it is disappearing.

Economic historian Angus Maddison reports that in the year 1000 there were only about 270 mil- lion people — less than today’s U.S. population. Total economic output was only about $120 billion. Eight hundred years later, our manmade world was still small. By 1820, populations had risen to about a billion people with an output of only $690 billion. Over this 800 years, per capita income increased by only a couple of hundred dollars a year. But shortly thereafter the take-off began. By 2000 populations had swelled by an additional five billion people, and, astoundingly, economic output had grown to $33 trillion. The acceleration we call exponential growth continues. The size of the world economy has doubled since I arrived at Yale in 1960, and then doubled again. And, as I indicated earlier, world economic activity is projected to quadruple again by mid-century.

Historian J. R. McNeill has stressed the phenomenal expansion of the human enterprise in the twentieth century. It was in the twentieth century, and especially since World War II, that human society truly left the moorings of its past and launched itself upon the planet in an unprecedented scale. McNeill observes that this exponential century “…shattered the constraints and rough stability of old economic, demographic, and energy regimes.” “In environmental history,” he writes, “the twentieth century qualifies as a peculiar century because of the screeching acceleration of so many of the processes that bring ecological change.”4

While the twentieth century’s growth has brought enormous benefits in terms of heath, education, and overall standards of living, these gains have been purchased at an enormous cost to the environment.

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second, lost. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. Ninety percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20 percent severely threatened. Species are disappearing at rates 100 to1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in 65 million years. Most agricultural land in drier regions suffers from serious deterioration and desertification. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

Dead Zones and Ozone

Consider also that human activities are now large relative to natural systems. We severely depleted the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer without knowing it. We have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by one-third, and started the dangerous process of warming the planet and disrupting climate. Every- where Earth’s ice fields are melting. We are fixing nitrogen at a rate equal to nature’s; one result is the development of at least 150 dead zones in the oceans due to overfertilization. We already consume or destroy each year about 40 percent of nature’s photosynthetic output, leaving too little for other species. Freshwater withdrawals doubled globally between 1960 and 2000, and are now approaching a quarter of all river flow. The following rivers no longer reach the oceans in the dry season: the

Colorado, Yellow, Ganges, and Nile, among others. We live in a full world, dramatically unlike the world of 1900, or even that of 1950.

Physicists have a very precise concept of momentum. To them momentum is mass times velocity, and velocity is not just speed but also direction. Today the world economy has gathered tremendous momentum — it is both huge in size and growing fast. But what is its direction? Where are we headed?

The pattern is clear: if we could speed up time, it would seem as if the global economy is crashing against the Earth. The Great Collision. And like the crash of an asteroid, the damage is enormous. And for all the material blessings our economic progress has provided, for all the disease and destitution avoided, for all the glories that shine in the best of our civilization, the costs to the natural world, the costs to the glories of nature, have been huge and must be counted in the balance as tragic loss.

I am seated in my study as I write this, looking at a stack of books about two feet high. They share a common theme, and it is not a happy one to contemplate. One can see this theme immediately in their titles.

•   By a conservative jurist: Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response.

•   By the president of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom: Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future.

•   By a leading United States scholar: Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

•   By a United Kingdom scientist: James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity.

•   By a United States expert: James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century.

•  By an expert on conflict: Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.

•   By  an  Australian   diplomat:   Colin   Mason, The 2030 Spike: The Countdown to Global Catastrophe.

That is but a sample of the collapse books now on the market. Each of these authors sees us on a path to some type of collapse, catastrophe, or breakdown, and they each see climate change and other environmental crises as leading ingredients of a devil’s brew that also includes such stresses as population pressures, peak oil and other energy sup- ply problems, economic and political instabilities, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the risks of various twenty-first-century technologies, and similar threats. Some think a bright future is still possible if we change our ways in time; others see a new dark age as virtually inevitable. Sir Martin Rees thinks that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.” Personally, I cannot imagine that the risks are so great, but Martin Rees is a smarter person than I.

In any case, it would be foolish to dismiss these authors. They provide a stark warning of what could happen.

Despite all the bad news, we can conclude with an affirmation. We can say with Wallace Stevens that “after the final no there comes a yes.” Yes, we can save what is left. Yes, we can repair. We can reclaim and restore. This is the beginning of our wisdom: we can make amends.

But there is not much time. A great American once said:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not re- main at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”

Martin Luther King, 4 April 1967, River- side Church, New York City

We must not be too late. Nothing less than the creation is at stake.

James Gustave Speth is Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His books include Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale University Press, 2004) and Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment (Island Press, 2003).


1    William McLeish, The Day Before America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

2    Stephen Kellert, The Value of Life: Biological Diversity & Human Society (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/ Shearwater Books, 1996).

3    Stephen Kellert, The Value of Life: Biological Diversity & Human Society (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/ Shearwater Books, 1996).

4   J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).