Gus Speth arrested at White House Keystone pipeline protest, August, 2011. (Photo by tarsandsaction.org.)

James Gustave Speth, who goes by “Gus” and speaks with a soft South Carolina drawl, is nobody’s picture of a radical. His resume is as mainstream and establishment as it gets: environmental advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Resources Institute, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now a professor at Vermont Law School, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos. Time magazine has called him the “ultimate insider.”

And yet this elder environmental statesman, author of the acclaimed books Red Sky at Morning (2003) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008), has grown ever more convinced that our politics and our economy are so corrupted, and the environmental movement so inadequate, that we can no longer hope to address the climate crisis, or our deep social ills, by working strictly within the system. The only remaining option, he argues in his forceful new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, is to change the system itself. And that, he knows full well, will require a real struggle for the direction and soul of the country.

Which is why, as he writes on the opening page of the new book, he was arrested in front of the White House on Aug. 20 last year — along with Bill McKibben and eventually more than 1,200 others — in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

“My motivation,” he writes, “was climate change: After more than 30 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.”

Invoking the moral legacy of the civil rights movement, this uber-environmentalist has now written a book not about climate and the environment (though the climate crisis looms large in its pages), but about America, the path we’re on, and the path we could be on — to a far better and safer future — if enough of us are willing to fight for it.

Parts of this book are, frankly, tough to read. In the opening section, Speth looks unflinchingly, even matter-of-factly, into the abyss, spelling out just how deep the hole is that we’re in — not only environmentally but socially and economically, from rising poverty and inequality, to declining education and public health, to massive Pentagon budgets, out-of-control campaign spending, and, yes, outsized carbon emissions.

But Speth doesn’t stop there. He goes on to paint a remarkably positive vision (some will call it utopian) of an America that, he argues, is still — despite everything — within our grasp.

As a prominent figure in what’s been dubbed the “new economy” movement, centered in places like the New Economics Institute and the New Economy Network, Speth looks to underlying forces, what he calls the “operating system” driving our political economy. New-economy thinkers embrace the idea, as Gar Alperovitz wrote in The Nation last year, “that the entire economic system must be radically restructured if critical social and environmental goals are to be met.” They want to build an economy “that is increasingly green and socially responsible … based on rethinking the nature of ownership and the growth paradigm.” As Speth shows, real-world models — from genuine progress indicators to employee-owned corporations and co-operatives to Transition Town initiatives and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies — are all around us.

At the heart of Speth’s vision, then, is a “sustaining, post-growth economy.” And yet it will never be more than a vision, he argues, without a transformative progressive movement for far-reaching democratic reforms (starting, perhaps, by rolling back Citizens United) coupled with urgent action to prevent catastrophic climate disruption in the decades ahead.

It’s a tall order. But Speth sketches — in the book and the interview here — what he argues is a plausible scenario, one he believes we can already see starting to play out. If it sounds merely wishful to you, it seems only fair to ask, at a time like this, whether you have a better plan — and whether you believe business as usual is really an option.

I spoke with Speth by phone on Friday, Sept. 7, the morning after President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Q. You’ve been advocating for action on climate change, at the highest levels, for more than 30 years, beginning in President Carter’s White House.

A. I’m quoted in a New York Times article in January 1981, based on a report we were getting out in the last days of the Carter administration, saying we’ve concluded that the buildup of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, should not be allowed to exceed 50 percent over the preindustrial level. So, over 30 years ago we knew enough to have a crude idea about the amount that could be tolerated in the atmosphere, and of course we now know that it almost certainly should be lower than that.

Q. Right, because 50 percent over preindustrial levels would be, what?

A. 420. And we’re on the verge of 400 — it hit 400 in the Arctic recently. Most everybody I know would fall on their knees to give thanks if they thought that we were somehow magically going to stop at 420.

Q. In your chapter describing the severity of the climate crisis, you conclude, “The world is firmly on the path to a ruined planet in the lives of today’s children.” Now, last night, in his speech to the DNC, President Obama spoke explicitly about climate change in a way we haven’t quite heard before, certainly in a speech like that. What did you hear in President Obama’s statement? And what would you say to the president right now if you had the chance to sit down with him?

A. First, the comment that he made on climate was most welcome. It would have been good to have a little more specifics, and it would be good to hear it more often from him and his administration, which has kind of gone radio silent on the climate issue since the debacle in the Senate. But I think he was specifically referring to what was the most chilling moment, to me, in the Republican convention — when Romney used, as a laugh line, the line where Obama said he wanted to slow the rise of the oceans, and the Republican convention broke out in laughter at the idea that somebody would take climate, and climate science, seriously. I mean, wow. It’s one thing to have a good number of really off-the-wall people denying the science and running around debunking the climate issue, but to have the whole Republican convention go up in peals of laughter at the idea that somebody would want to do something about it, as a priority, was really chilling.

I think Obama responded to that, briefly, and incompletely. You can certainly fault the administration for dropping the issue in the last couple of years. Until he brings it back into the campaign a little more fully, he’s not going to have much of a mandate to move on it in the next four years. So it’s very important for him to bring it back into the political mainstream, into the discourse. I hope it’ll come back up in the debates, for example, in a much more forceful way.

Q. Obama also spoke about citizenship, and called on the country to follow him on a “harder path” to a “better place.” And former president Clinton, in his DNC speech, said that he knows America “will come back,” because “we always do.” These guys are speaking your language there — that’s basically what your book is about. But are they talking about the same “better place” that you’re talking about? Are any of our leaders really addressing the realities you’re laying out for us in your book?

A. Would I expect President Obama to start reciting from my pages in this election? I think the answer is — no. In terms of the main line of our politics today, a lot of things that I’m concerned about and write about are things for a little further down the road. They’re things we need to be preparing the ground for now, things we need to be injecting into the conversation, into our political dialogue.

What he could start talking about now are things that appear to be plausible, in terms of our politics today, and are also, at the same time, really groundbreaking — laying the seeds for much deeper change. One in particular is the need to develop alternatives to the current measurement of GDP. There are states doing genuine progress indicators, instead of looking at GDP only. There are major commissions, national and international, which have called for a richer family of measures for how the country is actually doing. Getting beyond GDP is getting to be a mainstream issue. Of course, the critique goes way back for decades. In fact, Bobby Kennedy’s last famous speech, which I quote in the book, contained a stinging critique of over-reliance on GDP as a measure of national progress.

If we had a monetized measure of sustainable economic welfare — that took into account the sustainability of progress from the environmental side, the equity issues, and other things that are accommodated in this genuine progress indicator — going toe-to-toe every quarter with GDP, we could really make some headway. I would say to him, yes, talk about growth, but not in the aggregate terms, not this GDP fetish, but talk about the things that we really want to grow. And frame policies in a way that promotes those particular things, rather than always trying to prime the pump of aggregate expansion.

There are other things, too. If we really could start moving strongly toward greater equity in our society — not just a little more tax on the very well-to-do, but a real commitment to recreating the equity that we had, say, in 1970, moving back to that level of equality, at least. Another thing he could talk about — and his administration has done some things — is incentives and support for community-level initiatives. State banks, co-ops of various types, industrial development corporations at the local level. Municipal development corporations. New types of corporations. I think the administration could provide a lot of support in that area, and it would be welcomed in communities, but in the long run I think it would be quite transformative.

Q. In all three of your books, you stress that environmentalism, and the environmental movement alone, isn’t enough to address the deep challenges we face. And it’s interesting to see how your emphasis, from book to book, has become less “environmental,” and more social and economic and political. Is that fair to say?

A. Well, my sad conclusion is that the environmental community is stuck in a rut and losing. If we just keep doing what we’re doing now, without any growth in the economy and population, we’ll ruin the planet. And yet the environmental community is still mainly working within the ambit of the things that succeeded in the ’70s.

The main line of environmentalism in the U.S. — the big national groups — were highly successful in the ’70s and did not make a series of strategic changes that were needed in the period that followed. The community kept doing what it was doing — which was lobbying, and working to raise public awareness of issues and create pressure on the Congress and administration to do things, and litigating.

They didn’t step back and realize that we’re going to have to become a mighty political force in this country. We’re going to have to get into electoral politics. We’re going to have to get outside the Beltway and start developing real grassroots strength. We’re going to have to see social justice as a huge environmental concern, because in a country where 40 percent of the families have incomes of less than twice the poverty level, you have this huge number of people, now even more so, who are economically insecure. So if you merely hint, for example, that somehow this policy might result in the rise of gasoline prices, or energy prices, people become alarmed, because they’re barely getting by as they are. So the equity issue and the environmental issue are intimately linked, and yet environmentalists have put the social justice issue off-limits.

Another area for environmental engagement has got to be prodemocracy political reform. We’re getting beat right and left because we have a deplorably corrupted political system. And if we don’t, as a community, start working with others to reform our politics, before it’s too late, we’ll never succeed. Democratic reforms should be part of the environmental agenda.

Q. You’re talking about something all-encompassing, as you say, a real progressive movement. Your last chapter is titled, simply, “The Movement,” and you quote Frederick Douglass, who said, in 1857, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” You call the book a “manifesto.” So, what kind of a movement, and what kind of change, are we talking about? What you’re calling for could seem pretty radical to a lot of people.

A. Movements are built of many different pieces, and certainly one of those is the people who are willing to stir up a ruckus. And I give Occupy a lot of credit. When I started writing this book, I was struggling to find the data on inequality, and how much the 1% had, and the levels of disparity in our taxes, and things like that. That was a couple years ago. Occupy and the 99% movement really put those issues on the map, and millions of people are now far more aware of these issues than they would have been without what Occupy did, and is still doing. So I think the willingness to put oneself on the line, to sacrifice, is important.

The idea of a movement, in my mind, is one in which the various progressive communities really come together in a way that they have not — a fusion of progressive causes. To our regret, the forces of reaction and negativism, the Right, have come together. They’ve come together in their research work, their think tanks. They meet regularly to plot a strategy. They walk out with the same talking points, and make them well in the media. Progressives come together for particular campaigns, but they don’t have the infrastructure or the commitment to hammer out a common platform, to build a common infrastructure, and to work together on a constant basis on each other’s causes. And so part of it is a movement that would in effect take a page from the Right.

But if there’s a page we have to turn to — to see what we have to do now — it’s the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. They put it all on the line. They knew that they were being treated unfairly and unjustly, and that there was no higher calling for the future than addressing that. And I think that kind of spirit is what we need now on the broad issue of saving our politics from this creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy, and beginning to plant the seeds of deep change.

Before we ever get to deep change, though, we’re going to have to do something about climate. A lot of the changes that I want to see happen are changes that will take a while — and we haven’t got a while with the climate issue.

Q. If we have runaway, out-of-control climate disruption, all that other stuff goes out the window.

A. It just means we’ve got to walk on two legs. And over time, these deeper changes are going to be necessary to deal with the climate issue.

Q. Given the urgency of the climate situation, what are the things that we need to do right now, the immediate priorities? Should we be focused on carbon pricing — something like a carbon tax, which seems to have some bipartisan backing?

A. If a carbon tax had more political legs than any other approach, I’d certainly endorse it. And it looks like it’s picking up steam. But you can raise revenues, a lot of them, with a cap-and-trade scheme. If I had my druthers, I’d have a kind of cap-and-dividend program. You would sell allowances and use the funds to do two things: contribute to the resources of the federal government, and create a dividend, per family.

Q. You talk a lot about trying to get to “honest pricing,” throughout the economy, to deal with externalities.

A. That’s the oldest teaching in environmental economics, to get the prices right. We are very, very far from that, thanks to all the subsidies and the uncompensated externalities.

Q. You say it’s inconceivable that our current political system can solve these problems — and this is why you’re calling for a real movement that can, first and foremost, address democratic reform, things like a constitutional amendment on corporate personhood.

A. Well, that would certainly be a part of it. There are lots of different proposals, and there’s a certain amount of controversy about exactly how to do it, but you want to be sure you protect the right of our national government to regulate money in politics, through the amendment. It ought to be within the power of federal and state governments — Montana, for example, Arizona, and others that have tried to regulate in this area and had their laws struck down by the court — to regulate the influence of money in politics without being blocked by constitutional difficulties.

Equally important is passing public financing, fair elections, small-donor financing legislation, of the type introduced by Sen. Durbin and others in Congress.

But there are a host of other things. Securing the vote, for lord’s sake. Instead of people having to jump through hoops in order to vote, it ought to be the default position that you’re registered when you get to be 18. That’s the way it is in most advanced democracies today.

Q. Central to the book is the idea of building a new “sustaining, post-growth economy.” And in that context, you talk about “building the future from the bottom up,” in communities, cities and towns.

A. I think the people who’ve got the right idea about this are groups like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), an excellent network of people who are focusing on locally rooted, locally committed, environmentally sustainable enterprises, and community revitalization through that means. There are other things that are wonderful examples, like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. And despite all the things that have buffeted Detroit, there are a lot of exciting things going on there, having to do with new food systems, urban agriculture. There’s just a lot that can be done at the local level to build community, to build solidarity, to build a different type of economy that’s more locally rooted, and a different type of corporation, different types of ownership of corporations. It’s wonderful to see all the things going on that could be multiplied many times over — Transition Towns, other things.

So if you ask me for the big things that could lead to larger changes down the road, it would be bringing the future into the present at the local level, and coming together nationally to save our political system before it’s too late.

Q. I know there are a lot of readers, especially political journalists and the kind of people who might review this book, who will inevitably say, “Yeah, that’s all very nice and inspiring, but it’s just so much wishful thinking” — and especially that the idea of a “post-growth economy” is just an impossible sell, politically, to the American public.

A. I think the people who would take that position are either defeatists, who probably would’ve thought that a lot of other things that did happen were impossible. Or they are too much in the moment of our politics, and are not looking a little further down the road.

Q. So, the new America you envision is, in fact, possible?

A. Obviously, I think the answer is yes. It’s in the title of the book. And I think there’s still a plausible case that we haven’t lost the game, that we can still build an attractive and livable and happy future for ourselves in this country. Is it going to be easy? No. It’s going to take a protracted struggle — a real, nonviolent citizen outpouring of demand for deep change. So it’s still possible, but it’s not going to happen on the course we’re on now, with the level of demand that we have now.

In the book, I do sketch out a “theory of change,” for how system change can come about. It’s not a simple thing. But there are seven drivers, or forces for change, that fit together to make this happen. The first is continued deterioration of life in the country. Whether we continue to slide or not, I think more and more people are getting fed up.

Q. You write about a “crisis of legitimacy,” that when things get bad enough, the system itself will be delegitimized.

A. When the system doesn’t deliver, across a broad front, more and more people are going to realize that it’s the system’s fault. It’s not because we didn’t put enough money into education last year. It’s a deeper, more systemic problem.

The second force for change is crises — and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them. Crises are moments that undermine the system. It could be environmental — any day now, we could start seeing a lot more methane being pumped out of tundra and oceans. There could also be another economic crisis.

Another force, which you see some signs of now, is what I call progressive fusion. Groups like Rebuild the Dream, organizing across a broad front of progressive issues, and progressives beginning to come out of their silos, and beginning to work together more.

Another dimension is the process of envisioning and actually building an attractive future. And that happens both ground-up and top-down. We need a vision of the type I tried to present in the book. That’s the first step: envisioning a new American dream. What is the positive future that we could be fighting for and striving for? The process of actually having that vision, creating that, is just starting. And allied with it is the idea that we need a new national story, as Bill Moyers has said, that really helps people understand how we got where we are, and how we can get where we should be going. And then the ground-up part is actually building the future in communities, in new types of corporations, and other ways.

The fifth area is transformative leadership. The political scientists talk about leaders who are transactional and leaders who are transformative. And one of the problems that Obama has had, is that people thought he was going to be a transformative leader and found him to be more of a transactional leader.

Another is protests leading to movement-building. Again, you can see things changing there — you can see Occupy, you can see the Tar Sands protests. You can see the beginnings of groups coming together — there was a process this spring of trying to train people for nonviolent direct action that was sponsored by 50 different activist groups.

And lastly, I’d say this coalescing of progressives around saving the political system, and building a strong citizen-sovereignty democracy in the country. Traditionally, after political debacles, like the 2000 election, progressives come together for a short while, and get something done. But we need to have all the progressive groups, whether they focus on tax justice or climate or anything else — jobs — all focusing on political reform in a sustained way, after this election, until we really have pushed through the changes that are needed to free us from this corporatocracy and plutocracy.

I think if you look at those drivers of deeper change, there is room for hope. You can see the beginnings of action on all these fronts. That’s why I think it’s plausible that things are going to move in the right direction. As I quote Dee Hock, “Things are much too bad for pessimism.”

Q. What do you say to someone, a young person (or anyone, really) who’s deeply concerned and frightened about the future — and may feel paralyzed and overwhelmed, and understandably cynical about the possibility of change — and doesn’t know what to do?

A. If you have a historical perspective, and are not so tied into the moment, that’s very helpful. Gar Alperovitz, who’s a friend of mine, says, “Fundamental change — indeed, radical systemic change — is as common as grass in world history.”

Q. So you’d point them to other examples of transformative change?

A. Look, I grew up in the civil rights era — I’m from Orangeburg, S.C. — and I saw that happen. And we see transformative change in the Arab world, today. Big things can happen, and have happened.

Another source of great motivation, to me, is that I am the proud parent of three children and grandparent of six, any day now. There’s no accident that the picture on the dust jacket of this book shows one of my grandchildren. We’re on such a bad track now, what we’re bequeathing to them is so frightening, that it really is quite a spur to action. If you give up, you’re in effect saying, I give up on the world that my children will have, that my grandchildren will have.

Q. There’s a sense among a lot of people, and you’ve talked about this in your books, that our crisis is as much moral or spiritual as “environmental” or political or economic. And, of course, people have been talking about some kind of fundamental shift in our cultural values, our worldview, for a long time, really since the beginning of the environmental movement — and yet, here we still are.

A. Value change, which I talk about at some length in the book, is absolutely essential to moving ahead. There are modelers, like the people at Tellus Institute and others, and the thing that makes a big difference in their success scenarios is a deep change in values and culture. So it’s essential.

On the other hand, you can’t sort of wait for the values to change. One of the things I’ve tried to develop, in two books now, is that value change is not something that we have to sit down and wait on to happen. I love this quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that culture, not politics, determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

We’ve got to drive deep systemic change to the point that by the end, at some point, we will have created a fundamentally new system of political economy. It won’t be the old socialism, and it won’t be today’s rapacious, ruthless capitalism. It’ll be something quite different from either. There’ll be more different types of ownership of capital, more public involvement, more democratic involvement, in ownership of capital and investment decisions. This is very important. Economic democracy, so to speak. Corporations will be reined in at the top, and new types of corporations built up from the bottom. There will be the idea of separation of corporation and state.

And those are all longer-term objectives that we can start working on now. There are others, as well. But unless we are achieving this sort of deeper, transformative change, our modest efforts at reform are going to continue to be overwhelmed.