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Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment

Worlds Apart

Speth, James Gustave, Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2003, pp. 180.

This is a small, short book of essays based on speeches at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. You will want to read it. In the best senses, Worlds Apart is a primer, a short text, a review, an intro to the sometimes bewildering world of global environmental issues, the social and economic forces of globalization, and the accompanying treaties, rules, institutions and calls for action that trail along like gnats or yellow jackets at a picnic.

Gus Speth, the Dean at Yale, a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the former head of the UN Development Programme frames these printed and edited speeches with a pair of such sensible, lucid, compassionate and strong essays on the perils of globalization and the need for action that it is enough to make you believe in academics.

Speth, a mild mannered, friendly Southerner who is the kind of person you choose to lobby the dean during a student protest, now is the dean.  But don't be fooled by the polite demeanor or the polished, deft prose. There is iron will, strategic vision, and insistence on action behind these Ivied intros. In his opener, Speth quickly details how environmental leaders, experts, and NGOs helped initiate, shape, map, and develop the frameworks for global environmental concern, institutions, and regulation. Just this brief review of the major studies, conferences, and treaties that created global environmental consciousness and concern are worth the price of the book.

But Speth's second half then quotes approvingly and sets the stage for some pretty radical stuff by the likes of Jerry Mander and Vandana Shiva. Both clearly see the current economic and trade systems emerging from globalization as the root cause of environmental destruction. Speth quotes approvingly, for example, Martin Khor, Director of the Third World Network on why UNCED, the Rio Summit of 1992, has failed. It is because of "the countervailing paradigm of globalisation, driven by the industrialized North and its corporations, that has swept the world in recent years."

Other essays echo these profound concerns. Jane Lubchenko of Oregon State reviews the recent science of how we know that anthropogenic activity has begun to alter the global environment in fundamental ways. She shows conclusively that human society is now "a novel force of nature" that must be better understood and changed with policy relevant scientific studies if we are to survive.

PSR members will be especially interested in the views of Maurice Strong who helped stage the global environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972 and the Rio Summit of 1992. He now warns that urgent action is needed or the world will face increasing eco- or resource wars arising out of the failure to restrain environmental destruction. This strong link between environmentalism and conflict prevention is one of the best features of Worlds Apart.  Somewhat similarly, Jose Goldemberg of Brazil and winner of the Volvo Environment Prize, in one of the most useful essays in the volume, lays out exactly how and why human society must switch from polluting, climate disrupting, unsustainable fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Then, for fun, I wish I could have heard Jerry Mander's speech on why the current global economic system based on mega-corporations, free trade, long distance transportation of raw materials and finished products is destroying local economies, cultures, ecosystems, and corrupting culture and traditional life. This is the most radical essay in the book (along with a similar piece by Vandana Shiva with fascinating data and anecdotes on how globalization such as mass inland shrimp farming for the luxury market has been affecting India and giving rise to waves of mass protests). Clearly for Mander and other activists protests, exposes, and increased grassroots democracy and NGO power are essential for any hope for a sustainable future.

Then to give structure, accountability and teeth to any emerging global democracy, Speth and his fellow Yalies Dan Esty and Maria Ivanova remind us we need stronger global governance and a global environmental mechanism (GEM) to rival the WTO. These are not just dreamy utopian ideas either. Esty, the Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, has served in the EPA and seen regulations and lawsuits work. Thus, the ideas offered here for global environmental governance would, given political will and funding, be workable.

So. You can read Worlds Apart in a sitting or two (or dip into it during conference calls!). Whether for PSR members, students, Hill and NGO staffers, journalists, environmental leaders, and even, yes, the interested general public, this small book packs a large punch. And its useful notes, bibliographies, reviews, and calls to action, all introduced and approved in those reassuring Ivy tones, make this  book, despite its far-ranging and radical critique, one to hand out to those moderate and skeptical friends, family members, and colleagues that we all have.

Buy Worlds Apart through Amazon.com and up to 10% of all sales made through this link will be donated to PSR! 

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