Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!


September 21, 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

A leading figure in the environmental movement offers a manifesto for America the Possible

Gus Speth played a pivotal role in the evolution of the environmental movement since the 1970s. He was chairman of Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Time magazine once called him “the ultimate insider”. But as he writes in the preface (excerpted below) to his new book America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, “But my conclusion is that working inside the system is insufficient. We have to step outside America’s broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it.”

His book is both sobering and inspiring, a monumental manifesto showing how a vision of the common good can guide us out of the current economic, political, environmental and spiritual morass. For more on America the Possible, see my previous blog. A two-part excerpt of the book published in Orion magazine can be found here and here.

—Jay Walljasper

Like most Americans, I love this country. I love its boundless energy and spirited people, its natural beauty, its creativity in so many fields, its many gifts to the world, and the freedom and opportunity it has given me, which is why on August 20, 2011, I became a jailbird.

Along with sixty-five others, I was arrested in front of the White House protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, all 1,700 miles of it intended to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast to satisfy our country’s insatiable thirst for oil. Our modest act of nonviolent civil disobedience landed us in the central cellblock of the District of Columbia jail for two nights.

My motivation to go to jail was climate change: after more than thirty years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet’s climate, I found myself at the end of my proverbial rope. Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America’s economic and political system had failed us all. Having served as President Jimmy Carter’s White House environmental adviser, helping to found two of our country’s major environmental groups, leading the United Nation’s largest program for international development, and serving as dean of Yale’s environment school, I was once dubbed the “ultimate insider” by Time magazine. But my conclusion is that working inside the system is insufficient. We have to step outside America’s broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it. As the slogan goes, “system change, not climate change.”

My new book America the Possible tells the story of how system change can come to America. At its heart is a vision of an attractive, pleasant, and successful America that is still within our power to realize by mid-century. In this America the Possible, our country will have rejoined the leading nations in achieving social justice and well-being, in building peace and real global security, in sustaining our planet’s environmental assets both domestically and globally. We will have reclaimed our democracy from what were once quite properly called the “moneyed interests.” And we will have seen a deep transformation in our country’s dominant values and culture.

Now that is all very nice, you might be thinking, but how do we get there? The journey to America the Possible begins when enough Americans have come to some important conclusions.

The first conclusion is that something is profoundly wrong with our overall political economy—the operating system on which our country now runs. That system is now routinely generating terrible results, and is failing us socially, economically, environmentally, and politically.

The second conclusion follows from the first. It is the imperative need for system change, of building a new political economy that delivers good results for people and planet.

The third conclusion is that, contrary to what one frequently hears, a better alternative does indeed exist. We certainly do not yet understand all the details of how this alternative will look, and much hard analysis and creative experimentation lie ahead. But we do know enough to have confidence that something much better can be built, and we know enough to start building it.

These conclusions are not today’s conventional wisdom, but more and more people are embracing them. They are the foundation from which the work of system change can move forward. From the vantage point these three conclusions provide, we can see how the dynamics of fundamental change might emerge.
As conditions in our country continue to decline across a wide front—or at best fester as they are—ever-larger numbers of Americans lose faith in the current system and its ability to deliver on the values it proclaims. The system steadily loses support, leading to a crisis of legitimacy. Meanwhile, traditional crises, both in the economy and in the environment, grow more numerous and fearsome.

In response, progressives of all stripes coalesce, find their voice and their strength, and pioneer the development of a powerful set of new ideas and policy proposals confirming that the path to a better world does indeed exist. Demonstrations and protests multiply, and a popular movement for prodemocracy reform and transformative change is born. At the local level, people and groups plant the seeds of change through a host of innovative initiatives that provide inspirational models of how things might work in a new political economy devoted to sustaining human and natural communities. Sensing the direction in which things are moving, our wiser and more responsible leaders, political and otherwise, rise to the occasion, support the growing movement for change, and frame a compelling story or narrative that makes sense of it all and provides a positive vision of a better America. The movement broadens to become a major national force.

The Tea Party, whatever its fate, shows that it is possible to move from protest to movement to political power with amazing speed. The progressives I know are hoping that the Occupy, labor, climate, and other protests will help spark the beginnings of a new movement in America.

We do not know exactly how these and other forces will emerge and interact. But we know this: pleas for immediate amelioration—for jobs, for tax justice, for climate action—will at best be met with proposals for modest accommodations and half measures— and the struggle for deep, systemic change will be met with fierce opposition and determined resistance.

So an all-important conclusion emerges—namely, that the prospects for systemic change will depend mightily on the health of our democracy and the power of the social and political movement that we build. Transformative change, and even most of the proposals for reform offered by progressives in Washington today, will not be possible without a new politics in America. So prodemocracy political reform and building a new progressive movement in America must be priority number one. Popular movements can have near-term political objectives, like amending the Constitution to protect the public’s right to regulate campaign finance, or they can seek transformative change in values and the way the world is perceived, as many in the Occupy movement seek. And the diverse aims can be complementary.

Throughout the book, I try to show that hope for a better America is not hollow but reasonable and well grounded. Amid all the difficulties we face, current and foreseeable, there are grounds for plausible hope that a bright future is still within our reach. As David Suzuki says in his powerful essay “The Legacy,” “It is not too late to take another path.” I have been encouraged by the emergence of the “new economy movement” and supported by constant interactions with its members. In the words of the New Economy Network, the new economy is one where “the priority is to sustain people and planet, social justice and cohesion are prized, and peace, communities, democracy, and nature all flourish.”

In late October 2011, my wife, Cameron, and I drove across Vermont to a wildlife management area near Lake Champlain, hoping to find the migrating snow geese heading south. We heard them first, and then there they were, thousands of them feeding and resting in a cornfield on the banks of Dead Creek. Stretching across almost the entire horizon to the southwest, these magnificent creatures from the tundra were a joy to behold. We climbed up onto the car for a better view and watched for about an hour. Then, just when we’d decided to go check out the ducks and mergansers, the geese suddenly levitated en masse. In only a few seconds they were high in the sky, honking and whirling in ever-widening circles. We thought at first that they were heading off again on their journey, but slowly they descended on another rich area of corn and water. It was one of the finest sights I’ll ever see, and I was reminded of John James Audubon’s description of flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky.

It was a moment of hope as well as pleasure, seeing nature still strong despite all the wounds we have inflicted. But, as we stood there, it grew on me that this grand display was made possible not only by Mother Nature but also by people and their government, state and federal, acting together decades ago to create Vermont’s Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. They cared enough to create something wonderful for future generations. When Cameron said, “We will bring them here one day,” I did not have to ask to whom she was referring.