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  • Red Sky at Morning*
  • Theodore L. Steck
James Gustave Speth. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2004. Pp. 299. $24.

Perhaps you have been meaning to read up on our environmental predicament. You don't want to be smothered in data nor to wade through a thousand-page treatise. You need the big picture from someone in the know. Neither a skeptic nor a zealot, neither an unbridled optimist nor an unmitigated pessimist, neither a technocrat nor a popularizer, but an expert and reliable guide. I suggest that Red Sky at Morning is the book for you.

The author of this work, James Gustave Speth, is one of America's most distinguished environmentalists. The power that energizes this personal yet authoritative account draws upon the depth of his unique life engagement with big environmental problems. Soon after receiving his law degree from Yale University in 1969, Speth cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council, a pioneer among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) bringing environmental concerns to the public. He soon became an advisor to President Jimmy Carter and joined Carter's historic task force in delineating, with notable urgency, the seriousness of emergent environmental problems. Speth later founded and led a second NGO, the World Resources Institute. He served the United Nations Development Program throughout the 1990s. About five years ago, Speth assumed his present position as Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale.

Speth's book speaks to us clearly and with candor. It offers a guide to the important features of the environmental landscape, terrain very well known to him, [End Page 603] as well as penetrating insights and prescriptions that inspire thoughtful optimism, his trademark. Along the way, there are cogent critiques, laments, sermons, valuable insider information, and prescriptions for action at every level: individual, civil, national, international, and global. It distresses Speth that the response of our leaders is so demonstrably inadequate to the challenge of keeping our surroundings hospitable to our well-being. As the dust jacket promises, here is "a citizen's agenda for action." To assist in your mobilization, Speth provides an impressive "bookshelf" of readings and a chapter of "resources for citizens," including numerous Web links.

You might be wondering how the natural environment, our primordial provider, has fallen into such danger? I must blame human nature. Our amazing head and hand have given us the ability to refashion hostile landscapes into hospitable homes in which to flourish; this is a form of fitness enjoyed by no other species. Having thereby outgrown our native African habitat a hundred thousand years ago, population pressure has pushed H. sapiens to colonize and fill virtually every exploitable niche. Ten thousand years ago, we began to move out of Nature and into villages; we gave up hunting and gathering and domesticated Nature for our food supply. The pace picked up enormously about two hundred years ago, when the Industrial Revolution amplified our power by orders of magnitude. Our technical prowess was bolstered by Enlightenment institutions such as market economics, democracy, and principles of civil and social organization. What has emerged is a modern world characterized by upwardly spiraling wealth that empowers the self-realization of a billion urban, industrial individuals. Another 5 billion of us are in the queue.

In the simple pursuit of better lives, we humans are transforming the planet at the expense of the natural fabric that sustains us. We are more powerful than wise: our short-term successes have driven our support systems into decline. Consider the deteriorating state of our climate; the soils that provide our food; the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere; and the landscape that makes us happy. There is also the harm we inflict upon ourselves through industrial emissions and the degradation of our living space. Whether your concern is with our insults to Nature or our neglect of the future or the deprivation of the poor here and now, you might be wondering whether the revolutionary economic growth of the past two centuries can be sustained. This is a big question; for Speth and other cognizant observers, it is the defining issue for the 21st century...


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pp. 603-611
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