Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: America the Possible

By Duncan Gromko

Gus Speth recently published a book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. It's a quick read that charts out Speth's view of the revolution that needs to occur in the American political economy. There's a good interview with Speth at Yale e360 where he talks about the book.

The context for Speth is that he was the "ultimate insider:" he founded the World Resources Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, worked for the Carter Administration, and was Dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environment. Personally, as someone who is working within the system and struggling with the frustrations that come with that choice, it's eye-opening to read: "Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all...We have to step outside of America's broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it." In the e360 interview, Speth talks about why he is so disillusioned and decided to get arrested: "Well, precisely because I - and many others - am at the end of my rope. We've tried everything, and honestly, the data has been clearly reported, and the science is about as scary as anyone can imagine. The numbers are flooding in, and it's enormously frustrating."

A striking part of the book is how much Speth quotes other thinkers. It wasn't until the last chapter that I realized why: Speth isn't proposing new ideas, he's trying to unite good ideas that are already out there. Speth realized that the environmental causes he fought for ultimately came up short because he didn't engage non-enviro progressives (and vice versa). There isn't a "progressive tent," there are many different kinds of progressives. He cites his former students, Wilson and Krencicki, who say "Elites within the Progressive movement have failed to develop comprehensive strategies to gain influence and lasting power in American politics over the past several decades. No unified Progressive identity has been developed." Speth also quotes one of my favorite writers, Grist's David Roberts: "We need a new story about the world progressives are trying to build, what they're fighting for, their grand vision of history's direction."

Speth then spends the next 198 pages laying out his vision of progressivism, including dozens of specific issues: poverty and income inequality, health care, education, racial and ethnic discrimination, national debt, immigration, crime, drugs, energy security, climate change, Social Security, military overreach, multilateralism, prodemocracy reform, higher taxes, corporate governance, economic democracy, gun control, a new consciousness, natural resources management, finance reform, civil liberties....suffice it to say that Alex Jones would freak out if he read this book.

If that sounds like a ridiculous long list of policies for a short book, it is. I agreed with most of what he was saying, but I was a little frustrated while I was reading because that's just too much to cover in any kind of meaningful way, especially in 198 pages. But then I read the last chapter, it clicked for me, and I got what Speth was trying to do by including so many policies: unite us all (if only there was a ring that could rule us all...)

Another mildly frustrating part of the book is that, other than the prescription of "unity," Speth doesn't lay out much in terms of how we get to this revolution he's envisioned. While he has a lot of specific policy reform suggestions, there is a lot of power invested in maintaining the status quo. But, I guess there is no easy answer there.

In that long list of Speth's prescriptions, there is one that stands out for me (maybe I need to reread the last chapter if I'm still prioritizing my issue above other progressive issues...). Speth says that we need to get away from the growth obsession and towards more meaningful measures of human well-being. He frames this in an attractive way: there are both limits to growth and limits of growth. Limits to growth means that there are physical limits beyond which economic growth cannot exceed. The planet has a limited capacity for supplying goods and services; exceeding limits for a sustained period of time will reduce the productive capacity of the earth. Limits of growth means that, beyond a certain point, the returns to growth are diminishing. Global human well-being indicators are correlated with GDP up to a point, but once you have the basics to live a comfortable life, a new Mercedes doesn't make you any happier. There are two basic ways to move towards a steady state economy that prioritizes well-being over growth:

1) Public policy that doesn't focus on growth. For instance, getting rid of GDP and replacing it with more holistic measures (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare or the Genuine Progress Indicator).

2) A shift in values and consciousness where society prioritizes: "non-material dimensions of fulfillment...the quality of life, the quality of human solidarity and the quality of the earth....Sustainability is the imperative that pushes the new agenda." These new values would replace consumerism.

This would be no small achievement. Speth lays out a set of policies and values that would help us achieve this goal; worth reading.

I want to be optimistic about unity in the progressive movement, but there is a long way to go. We like to argue and obsess over stuff. Even enviros disagree about everything. A couple of my recent posts (divestment and Keystone) have been about justifying one enviro strategy or policy to another group of enviros. And I gotta say, I disagree with several policies in Speth's manifesto. But, if there is a set of policies that can unify progressives, Speth provides a good place to start the conversation. I think Speth would say that, rather than allow ourselves to be divided over a difference of opinion, we should focus on the similarities.

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