Books Motivate Progress Toward a Redefined Sustainable Future


Two books recently published by the Yale Press call for major change and motivate thinking about what is meant by “sustainability,” The Bridge at the Edge of the World and Sustainability by Design.


Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology

Selected, Edited, and with Introductions by Glenn Adelson,

James Engell, Brent Ranalli, and K. P. Van Anglen

Yale University Press, 984 pages, $70.00 hardcover, $45.00 paperback



The Bridge at the Edge of the World

by James Gustave Speth

Yale University Press, 320 pages, hardcover $ 28.00






Sustainability by Design:

A Subversive Strategy for

Transforming Our Consumer Culture

by John R. Ehrenfeld with a

Foreword by Peter Senge

Yale University Press, Cloth, 272 pages $28.00



Two books recently published by the Yale Press call for major change and motivate thinking about what is meant by “sustainability,” The Bridge at the Edge of the World and Sustainability by Design. In Sustainability by Design, Ehrenfeld contends we should be seeking a “Real Road to Sustainabilty” and defines "sustainability" as the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.  A third book, Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology portrays the interrelationship of the environment to the sciences, social sciences and humanities in order to contribute to a better understanding our relationship to the natural world.  Environment provides an historic basis for thinking about environmental needs of today.




Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Selected, Edited, and with Introductions by Glenn Adelson, James Engell, Brent Ranalli, and K. P. Van Anglen, dedicated to the memory of Rachel Carson, is written with the assertion that the “best answers begin with environmental literacy.”  In its introduction, the editors ask “Why Environmental Studies?” to which they reply: “With historically unprecedented power, we have become chief stewards of the earth.  How can we perform this task well? How can we ensure that future generations will be able to continue good stewardship?” 


Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, draws upon a full range of literary and artistic creations  to portray the interrelationship of the environment to the sciences, social sciences and humanities contribute to understanding our relationship to the natural world.  Environment provides an historic basis for thinking about environmental needs of today.



William Wordsworth’s description of the “active principle alive in all things” sets the stage for the collection that follows:


There is an active principle alive in all things;

In all things, in all natures, in the flowers

And in the trees, in every pebbly stone

That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,

The moving waters and the invisible air.

All beings have their properties which spread

Beyond themselves, a power by which they make

Some other being conscious of their life,

Spirit that knows no insulated spot,

No chasm, no solitude; from link to link

It circulates, the soul of all the worlds.

This is the freedom of the universe;

Unfolded still the more, more visible,

The more we know; and yet is reverenced least

And least respected in the human mind,

Its most apparent home.


This anthology of nearly one thousand pages presents an array of texts, from scientific papers to poetry, legal decisions to historical accounts, personal essays to economic analysis. Taken together, these selections provide a balanced, authoritative, and up-to-date treatment of key issues in environmental studies.  


"This broad collection captures both the breadth and essence of modern environmental studies. Assembled by four masters in the subject, it pulls together the elements from both the history of the field and its present-day growing edge," writes E.O. Wilson, Harvard University Professor Emeritus.


A picture of Chief Seattle accompanies his famous speech of 1854, reconstructed by an American journalist in 1887,  in which he contrasts what he sees to be the destiny of the Western settlers’ to that of his own people and, in the words of the book’s editors, “compares Western culture’s instrumentalization and exploitation of nature with Native American respect for the land, attributing this difference in attitude to the West’s individualism, lack of a sense of historical continuity, and Protestant belief that nature is material, disenchanted, and opposed to the realm of spirit.”


Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps then to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and of our bare feet conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.




Spring, 1573, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, oil on canvas Photo from Wikipedia

As readers finger through this collection making selections of what they wish to read, they will come across a picture of a U.S. Soldier in the oil fields of Iraq and a young victim of the Bhopal tragedy, contrast with a picture of a waterfall in Stafford, Vermont, taken by Glenn Adelson, Giotto’s painting of the Sermon to the birds from the Life of St. Francis, and Guiseppe Archimboldo’s Spring


Summaries within the table of contents not only  guide readers to what meets their immediate interest, but also to attract their attention to the importance of the coverage.  For example, Part One: Concepts and Case Studies’ opening chapter “Climate Shock” is introduced:


Human activity has altered the atmosphere in what, geologically speaking, is but an instant. Since the industrial revolution, burning carbon fuels has markedly raised carbon dioxide levels. The Greenhouse Effect is linked to a complicated series of chemical, biological, oceanic, meteorological, and atmospheric events. It seems very likely that is the near future global warming will continue to intensify.


Concepts and Case Studies has chapters with selections from a several authors.  In addition to climate shock, they are on species endangerment, nuclear power, biotechnology, sustainable development, deforestation, environmental security, globalization, wilderness, and the urban environment.  


Associate Professor F. Gene Hampton, of Johnson County Community College, Johnson County, Kansas, writes that the book is "A masterful blend of literature, history, political science, poetry, and the natural sciences. . . . There is something here for everyone, from the precollege student . . . to the graduate student . . . to the person who reads just for enjoyment.”


James Gustave Speth’s 2004 book Red Sky at Morning effectively supplements Environment with its data showing in detail the depth of the environmental crisis and the disaster that will result from staying the current course. In Red Sky Speth shows how population growth, climate change, technology, economic globalization, destruction of habitat, and many other factors are working together to push us toward appalling environmental deterioration.  He also reminds us that increasingly scarce water, food, land, and energy resources are likely to bring not just ill health and poverty, but also chaos, large-scale economic instability, and conflict and why our current methods of tackling the crisis, endless international negotiations and treaties, have failed and will continue to fail.




Speth has built on the premises in Red Sky with his recent book The Bridge at the Edge of the World (Yale,2008) that Thomas F. Malone of the American Scientist describes as:


a clarion call for changes in the behavior of individuals and institutions that will lead to an environmentally sustainable, economically equitable, and socially peaceful world society, in which all of the basic human needs and an equitable share of human ‘wants’ can be met for every individual in present and future generations while maintaining a healthy, physically attractive and biologically productive environment.


A Bold Challenge to Modern Capitalism: As Economic Anxiety Fuels the American Obsession with Growth, A Dissenting Voice Calls for Radical Change,” wrote Yale Press in its announcement of Speth’s book. 


Co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Yale University dean, former White House advisor, and former United National Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, James Gustave Speth has been a leader in the environmental movement for more than 30 years. Called “the ultimate insider” by TIME magazine, he has long worked through traditional channels to raise awareness of environmental issues.


But now, faced with overwhelming evidence of galloping degradation of the planet, Speth has concluded that the environmental project—his project—has failed. No matter how hard environmentalists work, the current of destruction against which they are swimming is simply too swift. In order to preserve a livable planet for future generations, Speth argues in The Bridge at the Edge of the World, the current itself must be altered. And the current is that untouchable edifice, American-style consumer capitalism.


“Contemporary capitalism and a habitable planet cannot coexist. That is the core message of The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by J. "Gus" Speth, a prominent environmentalist who, in this book, has turned sharply critical of the U.S. environmental movement,” writes Washington Post reviewer Ross Gelbspan.


Speth is no Marxist, and he’s not attacking capitalism in its ideal and theoretic form. But he’s marshaled formidable evidence that American-style consumer capitalism of the early twenty-first century is incompatible with maintaining quality of life for all of us.  It is generating unprecedented environmental risks while failing to advance the happiness and social well-being of Americans, Speth argues.  Our obsession with consumption and gross domestic product (GDP) growth has overshot its target and now causes more harm—to environment, social fabric, and world security—than good. 


In a work of synthesis, Speth’s view is a broad one that recognizes the connections between environmental issues and other issues of human welfare such as health, freedom, peace, stability, and community. Speth says:


My point of departure is the momentous environmental challenge we face….But today's environmental reality is linked powerfully with other realities, including growing social inequality and neglect and the erosion of democratic governance and popular control.


Speth shows how these seemingly separate areas of public concern are intertwined and calls upon citizens to mobilize spiritual and political resources for transformative change on all three fronts.


What kind of a system should follow our present, environmentally and socially destructive one? The Bridge at the Edge of the World lays the groundwork. Speth proposes:


♦We must change the very nature of corporations so they become legally accountable to society at large, not just to themselves and their shareholders.


♦We must challenge the current obsession with GDP growth and focus on growth in the areas that truly enhance human well-being: growth in good jobs, in the availability of health care, in education, in the deployment of green technologies, in the incomes of the poor, in security against illness and disability, in infrastructure, and more.


♦We must challenge materialism and consumerism as the source of happiness and seek new values about quality of life, social solidarity, and connectedness to nature.


♦We must transform the market through government action so that it works for the environment, rather than against it.


♦We must transform democracy through deep political reforms that reassert popular control, encouraging locally strong, deliberative democracy and limiting corporate influence.


♦We must forge a new environmental politics that recognizes links among environmentalism, social liberalism, human and civil rights, the fight against poverty, and other issues. 


Speth’s proposals demand a lot from world citizens and especially from Americans. At our current moment of economic insecurity, panic about the present could overwhelm even the most pressing concerns about the future. The knee-jerk scramble to fire up the stalling engines of economic growth leaves little room for big-picture assessment. Voices such as Speth’s that call for careful reconsideration of our assumptions are hard to hear.  


Although our position is undeniably difficult, Speth finds hope in the very real interest of young people and many others in finding solutions, and in the rich ideas being generated by top thinkers devoted to the problem. Solutions that seemed foolish yesterday and that seem radical today will seem sensible and necessary tomorrow, he argues. 


A catastrophe is coming if we stay on our current path, Speth warns.  The Bridge at the Edge of the World  provides a roadmap to lead us away from disaster toward a sustainable human future.


Edward Sanders, Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy, wrote:


An important contribution to the growing body of visionary literature dealing with the challenges of sustainability. In addition to his own thought-provoking observations, Speth's extensive references offer an excellent introduction to many other authors who address our daunting global environmental problems, capitalism's role in exacerbating them, and the core sufficiency principles that many observers believe will be required to deal with them. The book provides a smorgasbord for future readings by those who want to dig deeper into the issues of sustainability.


Paul Gillespie, of  Irish Times praised Speth’s book as "An important message from such an influential and mainstream figure in the environmental movement. . . . Speth's importance is to bring the relationship between capitalism and climate change into mainstream debate, where it should stay."


Further acknowledgement of the importance of Speth’s came from Physics and Society which wrote that his book is "Destined to change the terms of the discussion."




Addressing the challenge to change the underlying cultural beliefs and value that produce unsustainability as an unintended consequence of normal societal activities, John Ehrenfeld wrote Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. His book develops a critique of modern cultures, particularly modern industrialized culture.  He says his book was primarily written for the United States. A Foreword is by Peter Senge.


With a growing awareness of the environmental threats to the natural and social worlds, the issue of “sustainability” has become ever more popular, spawning a host of new strategies. This may be doing more harm than good in the long-run according to Ehrenfeld, a leading scholar of environmental engineering, as it perversely diverts attention from the real issue. Technocratic strategies like sustainable development, eco-efficiency, or corporate social responsibility are only band-aids. Technological quick fixes can, at best, reduce unsustainability, but cannot create sustainability—the real, but hidden, driving force for action.


Sustainability by Design shifts the focus from the problem-oriented, remedial frame of sustainable development to a positive vision beginning with a new definition: Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.


Ehrenfeld offers original and concrete examples of truly sustainable design, while highlighting where businesses have already taken action towards achieving such goals such as Apple, Toyota and Xerox to name a few.


Joel Makower, Executive Editor,, writes:


Ehrenfeld deftly weaves physics and philosophy, storytelling and system dynamics to show what it will take for us to be healing to the planet and to ourselves. This is an extraordinarily valuable contribution.


This book challenges readers in terms of behavior both as individuals and as a society, but it also outlines practical steps towards developing sustainability as a mindset.


Jill Ker Conway, President Emerita of  Smith College, said of Ehrenfeld’s book:


John Ehrenfeld has written a thought-provoking and fundamentally optimistic book about the interaction of culture, economics and technology in producing our current environmental degeneration. Unlike other writers who lay out only scenarios of doom, he lays out a plan for incremental social and technological change which could put us back on a path to a sustainable future. The book is vast in scope, ranging across many disciplines, but the reader who arrives at the closing chapters will find the journey deeply rewarding.


Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman, Interface, Inc., similarly wrote of the value of Sustainability by Design:


Drawing from the works of other giants, and adding his own deep insights, John Ehrenfeld has lit the path that can lead humankind away from the yawning abyss that lies so close before us, toward a wholly appealing goal:  an ethical human relationship with nature and technology.                                     


Horizon International requested Ehrenfeld to describe his book as a solution for the Horizon Solutions Site and to use one of his examples of successful application of the concept of sustainability as he defines it.  He offered the following:


“In my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture, sustainability is defined the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever. It is a qualitative concept, not some technical output from a mechanical system, even one that incorporates human actors. The key is the word, flourish, which captures many of the qualities humans have aspired to over the ages. Qualities like flourishing, justice, or beauty fall into the class of emergent properties of complex systems. They appear to observers only when all the relationships inside the system are working harmoniously. Such properties are either present or not. One does not measure or manage sustainability.


“I argue further in my book that the cause of unsustainability today is largely an unintended consequence of the workings of our modern, technological industrial socio-economic system. The underlying cultural beliefs and norms that have brought so much progress over the past centuries have become ineffective and even pathologic. One of these beliefs is the standard view of the world outside as constituting some objective reality and as capable of becoming known to us through the application of reductionist science. We can always describe parts of it in mathematical or other formulaic laws. Metaphorically, we see the world as a big, complicated machine we own and operate, largely for our own ends.


“We know that this view is imperfect and incapable of describing the important systems we rely upon, like the biosphere that is our biological life support or the financial system that is our economic life support. These systems do not behave in ways we can comprehend fully, exhibiting patterns of behavior the reductionistic models do not predict. They are technically “complex,” a word used to describe systems like these. In this view, our world is more like a garden we live in and need to tend and care for it. Complex systems, like the Earth, are often made up of smaller nested complex systems, and we can learn much by focusing on these. By looking at complexity in practice, we can begin to replace our traditional basic beliefs about the world.


“The system I have chosen to discuss is the Toyota Production System (TPS). Most models of business view the firm more like a machine that a garden. But the TPS is best understood as a complex, organic system.


1) The TPS can be described by reference to a model of a complex living system. The TPS system evolves over time toward a perfect state where all the parts of the system occupy a niche that is seamlessly nested in a network of actors, each with a specific role. The system resembles a trophic food chain. Starting at the shop floor level, every worker is situated in a chain where, metaphorically, he or she takes in the output from the previous person up the line, and adds the next bit of content from a stream of materials available to that station. Toyota uses the language that every worker is a customer of the person handing off the automobile in whatever stage of completion it is in at the previous station.


2) The overall performance of the TPS is driven by the idea that the system produces cars for its customers, one by one by one. Every car is manufactured to match customer orders. There are no cost related operational metrics. The ideal being sought is a flow through the system such that the outputs (autos coming of the line) matches the orders stream from the customers.


3) The keys to success is that output qualities--profit, quality, customer satisfaction--are emergent from the operational integrity of the whole system, not being produced mechanically as if the system were just a big machine. In the language of complexity, they are emergent properties of the system. They appear only when the whole system is functioning robustly, like the conditions in a mature ecosystem.


4) The ideal of an ecosystem in a “final” state of evolution is never realized, however. The environment is always changing and elements of the system fall “ill” from time to time and fail to play their role in the flow perfectly. Whenever deviations from the idealized flow are encountered, the system attacks the problem using a variety of techniques depending on the seriousness and type of deviation. These procedures act like the immune system in a living body,  better like repair DNA in the cells.


5) No work-arounds are allowed when something in the network develops a problem that upsets the flow. The remedial process goes on continually, improving the process flow at each step. It is this continuous improvement that is, perhaps, the most distinctive feature of the system. Every person involved in the system has a role in the continuous process (kaisen in Japanese). Managers are treated as mentors for those under their span of control, all the way up through the several layers of the system. As the flow deviates from the ideal, actors throughout the system continually work to adapt. One might say the system is continually evolving like the world does, only perhaps as a much faster scale. Toyota is a small fractal of the world.


6) The system is robust and resilient. Toyota has exhibited sustainability in the past in that the emergent properties, like profit and quality, have been produced over long periods. In 2008, Toyota had its first loss and some are questioning the sustainability of the TPS. In defense, the environment suffered an extraordinarily severe upset as customers virtually disappeared for the first time in history. An upset so large as to overwhelm the flow that has driven adaptation in the TPS.


“The global system we rely on to produce flourishing as the critical emergent property is clearly in a state where this cannot happen until the  “flow” within the system is altered to match the temporal dynamics of the environment. Flourishing is not an output from the system viewed as a machine. So repairing the system will take much more than a replacement of its parts. It means restoring the flows within the system. Since we do not know how the system functions as a whole, that is, we cannot reduce the functions to an analytical model, the TPS model of continuous process improvement seems like a good choice to begin to construct a strategic sustainability framework.


“One of our challenges is to construct a nested set of responsibilities where every actor in the system become responsible for improving the processes in his/her purview, relying on mentoring and coaching from other actors related in some way. To do this, it will require a reawakening of responsibility and awareness of one’s place in the system. Go with the flow becomes more than a 60’s slogan.”


John Ehrenfeld’s suggestions about the Special Role of Business in becoming a sustainable society as presented by Yale Press are:


  • Replace the rubric of sustainable development with that of sustainability as flourishing
  • Stop publishing misleading advertisements hinting that ecoefficiency will solve the world’s problems and save money at the same time
  • Use the ‘Tao of Sustainability’ as a strategic and operational template
  • Create a culture of sustainability in the workplace
  • Businesses should design their offerings to guide behavior toward ethical responsibility
  • Social responsibility, like charity, begins at home.


John Ehrenfeld on The Tao of Sustainability


Flourishing can occur only if we pay close attention to the three critical domains that the forces of modernity have dimmed:


  1. Our sense of ourselves as human beings: the human domain.
  2. Our sense of our place in the [natural] world: the natural domain
  3. Our sense of doing the right thing: the ethical domain


Ehrenfeld has blog about sustainability on his home page.

On February 19, 2009, a posting entitled “Time to Smell the Roses” appeared.  Ehrenfeld wrote:


Maybe the light of sustainability is beginning to dawn. With the economic system collapsing more and more in spite of the biggest infusion of new capital ever, and the environmental world becoming sicker every day, people are starting to realize that both losses play havoc with their psyches and their ability to flourish in general.


…It is critical to recover the caring or being quality that underlies our species uniqueness. We must take care of ourselves before we will be able to care for the planet.


These books are available from the Yale University Press New Haven and London at:



Summaries about the authors:


Environment: an interdisciplinary anthology,

Selected, Edited, and with Introductions by Glenn Adelson, James Engell, Brent Ranalli, and K. P. Van Anglen


Glenn Adelson teaches biology and environmental studies at Wellesley College, and is a recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa teaching award and twice the recipient of the Levenson teaching award at Harvard. He has a Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, and is the co-author of a textbook, Biodiversity: Exploring Values and Priorities in Conservation.


James Engell is Guerney Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University, where he is also is currently department chairman. In addition to publishing nine books and numerous journal articles, Engell is well known for articles such as “Imagining into Nature: ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’” and “Only This: Connect,” an essay on the need and advantages of teaching the liberal arts and sciences together. He has long advocated the integration of the humanities and social sciences into environmental education and policy decisions. Engell teaches courses in romantic poetry, eighteenth-century studies, general education, rhetoric, and (for the Gilder Lehrman Institute) environmental issues. On four separate occasions, three times as the sole recipient, he has been awarded faculty-wide teaching and advising prizes at Harvard.


Brent Ranalli is a senior analyst at The Cadmus Group, Inc., an employee-owned environmental consulting firm. He earned a B.A. in History and Science from Harvard University and an M.Sc. in Environmental Science and Policy from the Central European University, with additional coursework at the Harvard School of Public Health.


Kevin P. van Anglen has degrees in English from Princeton, Cambridge, and Harvard Universities. He has taught English and American literature at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston College, and Boston University. He has also been a Post-doctoral Fellow of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and currently serves as an editor of the Princeton University Press Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, is a consultant for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, the coeditor of Religion and the Arts , and a member of the Board of Directors of the Thoreau Society, Inc. van Anglen is the author, editor, or contributor to various publications specifically on Milton and Thoreau and more generally in the field of English and American Studies.



The Bridge at the Edge of the World


James Gustave Speth is dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He has had a distinguished career as a leader or founder of several major environmental institutions over more than three decades. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar, Speth co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, chaired the President’s Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, was president and founder of the World Resources Institute, acted as a senior advisor to President-Elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, and oversaw the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as its chief executive officer.  In 2002, he was awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize for “a lifetime of creative and visionary leadership in the search for science-based solutions to global environmental problems and for pioneering efforts to bring these issues, including global climate change, to broad international attention.”  He is the author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale University Press, 2004), of Global Environmental Governance (2006), and of Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment (2003).



Sustainability by Design


John R. Ehrenfeld is Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and holds an appointment as a Senior Research Scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 2001 he retired from MIT where he was Senior Research Associate at the MIT Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development (CTPID) and had additional appointments as Senior Lecturer in the interdepartmental Technology and Policy Program and in the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering. He founded and ran the MIT Technology, Business, and Environment Program. Before coming to MIT, Dr. Ehrenfeld spent many years in private industry doing research in environmental issues. He founded Walden Research Corporation, one on the first private firms to focus on the environment. He was appointed by President Carter as Chairman of the New England River Basins Commission. Dr. Ehrenfeld holds a B.S. and Sc.D. in Chemical Engineering from MIT, and has been involved in environmental research over the course of his career as a distinguished and highly regarded scholar and practitioner.


Read more about the author and Sustainability by Design on his blog:





Gus Speth is on the Horizon International Scientific Review Board and a Special Advisor to the Horizon Magic Porthole coral reef program.


The content of this article in addition that cited is from the Yale University Press.

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