America the Possible: a book review
“Should we fail to act now on the climate front, the world will likely become so nasty and brutish that the possibility of rebirth, of achieving something new and beautiful, will simply vanish, and we will be left with nothing but the burden of climate chaos and societies’ endless responses to it.”
America the Possible, p. 13
One thing I’ve learned over the 44 years that I’ve been a progressive activist and organizer is that I gain strength from seeing other people change and grow. In some cases these have been young people whose exposure to the truth about why our society and world are in such bad shape has led them to step forward, change their lives and commit themselves to the struggle for a new world. In other cases it has been people like Gus Speth, an establishment insider who was a top official in the Carter Administration, but whom I last saw a little over a year ago on the first day of the two weeks of civil disobedience at the White House against the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline. Gus got arrested that day.
If our movement is to be successful, we need a growing number of both kinds of new recruits.
Gus Speth has written the latest of three books about what he himself describes in this latest one as the need for “a Great Transition involving deep, systemic change.” Its full title is “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.”
Economic analysis and the projection of economic alternatives to our current system are primarily what the book is about, and there is much food for thought. This is true as far as his diagnosis of how deeply off-track the capitalist system that dominates the world has gone; it is also true as far as his exploration of possible alternatives to it.
The titles of the sections where he lays out what is wrong about our current system give a good idea of Speth’s comprehensiveness: Poverty Amid Plenty—Vast Economic Insecurity—Income Inequality Matching 1928—Wounded People—Failing Health Care—Failing Educational System—Jobs Deficit—The Welfare of American Children—Minorities—Incarceration—Denial—The Debt Bind—The American Empire—Environmental Decline—The Food-Water-Climate-Energy Complex—Facing Up To Climate Change.
As a climate activist, I was particularly glad, if not surprised, to read the way that Speth intertwined this urgent crisis into the mix of crises and issues we are facing.
Speth puts forth his general vision for the economy as he begins the longest section of his book, entitled “Transformations,” on p. 72: “Overall, the economy will be governed to ensure broadly shared prosperity and to preserve the integrity and biological richness of the natural world. It will simply be assumed that the priority of economic activity is to sustain human and natural communities. Investment will concentrate in areas with high social and environmental returns, and it will be guided by democratically determined priorities at the national and local levels. Corporations will be under effective public control, and new patterns of business ownership and management—involving workers, communities, governments and other stakeholders—will be the norm.”
Not exactly an approach that either of the two dominant political parties are going to champion.
Speth has surveyed much of the literature and many of the ideas of various progressive economic and political thinkers, and he presents the ideas he believes deserve serious consideration, among them: relocalization, with “economic and social life rooted in the community and region;” new business models, with “locally owned businesses, including worker-, customer-, and community-owned firms prominent;” a shorter work week with “time regained” for family, friends, personal development, etc.; limiting economic growth and a steady-state economy that uses technological development “to reduce the environmental burden of the non-growing GDP;” “democratization of capital” that is publicly, not privately, controlled; and many more.
Speth spends a number of pages addressing the issue of corporations. His concluding paragraph projects that “the corporation that offers the best hope for the future is one that prioritizes public benefit over private profit, is locally rooted and faithful to its employees and its communities, and that ensures these objectives will be met through more democratic patterns of ownership and management.” He asks the question, “What becomes of today’s corporations when growth is no longer a priority, when the bloom fades on consumerism’s rose, when energy prices require a shift toward localization, and when the demand that corporations cease being part of the problem and become part of the solution becomes irresistible?”
Other areas that Speth addresses are: Transforming Money and Finance—Transforming Social Conditions—Transforming the Measure of Progress—Transforming Consumption—Transforming Communities—Transforming Foreign Affairs.
His last major chapter puts forward what he believes to be a strategic priority if change is to come about: Realizing Democracy through a variety of reforms to our dysfunctional and big-money dominated political system, among them:
-“getting far more Americans registered and voting”
-instant runoff voting, in which voters rank their preferences among candidates, and/or fusion voting, leading to proportional representation
-a Constitutional amendment to roll back Citizens United and “deprive corporations of constitutional personhood.”
-lobbying reform and disclosure of spending on issue campaigns designed to affect legislation
-reforming the media, including public subsidies for fact-based journalism
I was surprised that Speth put forward political reform as the key, immediate strategic priority for the progressive movement, given his appreciation for how serious the climate crisis is, how close we are to tipping points that may make it extremely difficult to avoid incredibly catastrophic, runaway climate change. The longer it takes for the world to get serious about getting off fossil fuels and acting on this planetary emergency, the more likely it is that these eventual efforts will be too late to have much of an impact.
Speth understands this. In his introductory chapter he says, “If we do not act now on climate change, both nationally and internationally, the consequences will become so severe that the dark visions of those predicting calamity will become all too real. Climate disruption is already well under way.”
I remember talking earlier this year with another prominent national progressive leader who, after agreeing to endorse an action I was helping to organize on climate, said to me something like, “I’m afraid we probably went past a tipping point on climate several years ago.” I didn’t directly respond, but I’ve thought of this often since. I have a hard time understanding how he could have this view and not be making this issue much more of a personal top priority, if not the top priority. And he’s not alone.
I’ve tried to understand this over the nine years that the climate has been my top issue, and I still don’t really get it. To me what the oil, coal and gas companies are doing to us, abetted by far too many in government, is akin to a criminal gang coming to a person’s home, killing or critically injuring everyone in the house and destroying that home and everything in it, and then continuing on down the street and doing the same thing to all of the neighbors. That’s what the fossil fuel industry and their allies are doing to THE WHOLE WORLD. They are making it difficult to have hope that there will be a decent future for those now living and those coming after us.
It seems to me that when this is what we’re facing, priority number one, before anything else, has to be to get the neighbors [the people] organized to defeat the criminal gang [fossil fuelers]. We need to do whatever it takes, understanding there will have to be sacrifices, to preserve our homes [world].
Gus Speth, a long-, long-time environmentalist, concludes in America the Possible on a strong note, writing about the necessity of an “invigorated American progressive movement” and a “rebirth of marches, protests, demonstrations, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience. . . [against] the widespread persistence of relative poverty at home and absolute poverty abroad, the emerging exhaustion of the planet’s renewable and nonrenewable resources, the impossibility of ongoing exponential growth on a finite planet, the destruction of the climate regime that has nurtured human civilization, the drift to militarism and endless war. Business as usual is not an option. . . Full of hope, it is time to rise up and make history.”
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