Ecological Accounting: A New Measure of Economic Health

My day-to-day work life focuses on relatively concrete notions: passing global warming legislation, getting more energy efficient appliances into the hands of consumers, pushing automakers to produce more efficient cars. These are the tools I believe we must use to protect our environment. But every once in a while, I take a step back and apprehend just how transformative the change has to be if we are really going to restore the Earth. Reading Gus Speth’s new book was one of those moments.

Gus was a member of the original crew who had the quixotic notion that we could open the first the first American law firm that would hold polluters accountable in court. That was NRDC, and I think we have done pretty well for ourselves. But Gus didn’t stop there. He went on to found World Resources Institute and become the dean of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Perhaps one of Gus’ most important roles is as philosopher and provocateur. In his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, he calls for nothing less than replacing capitalism with something more sensitive to the natural world.

His list of environmental indicators is grim--the Earth is clearly in dire condition. The world’s economic growth is exploding so rapidly that is outpacing the gains we have made in protecting the environment.

What does he recommend? Nothing short of changing American-style consumer culture:


  1. First and foremost, he says we have to cap global warming emissions. If we don’t, if we keep doing what we are doing, the planet won’t be able to sustain us any longer.


  1. But second, we have to question our devotion to economic growth above all other values. As he calls it, we must rethink “our pathetic capitulation to consumerism.” This unquestioning drive toward more and more creates a paradox: we have achieved abundance but it is teetering on extinction.


Gus’s book reminds me that fighting to protect the planet is not just about policy and proposals and legislation. It’s about what we value, what is meaningful to us, what brings us peace and long-lasting health.

I recommend you read his book--and so do many reviewers. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you will be inspired to reflect on what it is you value and what you will do to support those values.