America the Possible: An Interview with Gus Speth

When you consider the need for systemic change, the 2012 election, despite notable differences in policies, direction and approach, can seem like little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a certain ship 100 years ago or perhaps deciding which passengers get a lifeboat. This is why I really appreciate the wisdom and information in “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy,” the latest book from Gus Speth, one of the nation’s most accomplished environmentalists. In it, he charts a new course for the nation--one with the potential for calmer seas and lifeboats for all. 

Currently professor of law at Vermont Law School, James Gustave Speth served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality during Jimmy Carter’s Administration, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, founded the World Resources Institute, was the administrator of the UN Development Programme (1993-1999) and served as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (1999-2009). In "America the Possible," he does a great job of laying out the nation's challenges, describing why having a theory of change is so important, and presenting ideas on specific changes that are needed and how to implement them. He also argues adamantly about the urgency and feasibility of "pro-democracy political reform." The manifesto that opens the book is available on Orion Magazine here and here.
The following are excerpts from my conversation with him in mid-October.
Q: How does it feel to have a book calling for changes to the system out there during a presidential election?
A: The election is a big choice, as someone has described it, between those who want to protect progressive gains we’ve made and those who want to roll them back. But there’s a bigger choice facing our country, one that is not really being framed in this election. It’s really a choice between whether we want to merely revive the economy, as we are constantly urged by both sides to do, or whether we want to transform it. We have to remember that the old economy we have is a pretty sad place; it says the priority is economic growth and indeed it does produce that growth over time --since 1980, the size of the U.S. economy has grown 125 percent. And yet during that time, poverty and inequality mounted dramatically, life satisfaction flatlined, the environment declined, jobs fled our borders by the millions, the middle class became fragile and shrunk, levels of depression increased. All this happened in the teeth of a lot of growth…We ought to be talking about how to build a new economy, where the true and real priorities are people and place and planet. 
By growth, I mean GDP growth; there are lot of things that need to grow like real and good jobs, availability of health care, modern infrastructure, green technologies and green energy. A lot of things need to grow, but one thing we don’t need to focus on is growing GDP per se and yet that is where our political discourse is stuck. So, yes it’s frustrating to see the way these issues don’t get framed in our politics, but their day will come.
Q: How aware are people of the need for system change? And for those who are aware, are they ready for the struggle that may ensue?
A: I think a lot of people are fed up, and an increasing number of those people are seeing the system is the problem. People are seeing that when you have encompassing problems across such a broad front--environmentally, economically, politically, socially--it can’t be because of small reasons; you have to conclude that it’s because we’re trying to make progress within a system that has the wrong DNA, it’s wired to produce the wrong results. We need to rewire it, build in a new DNA, a new system of political economy.
I think it is going to take a rebirth of protests and demonstrations and it will take quite a struggle to give birth to something new. We have a version of that struggle on issues like trying to get climate legislation passed, financial reform passed, some semblance of tax reform passed. These are mild versions of big issues we are going to have to take on and struggle with.
My sense is that people become ready for deep change and real struggle when they conclude that the worst option is to keep doing what we’re doing to just preserve the status quo. At that point, enough people to drive real change will come to the conclusion that we’ll be better off trying to make these deeper changes. What I try to do in the book is show that this world that we can still build is an attractive one, in which people will be much better off than the one that we’re headed to.
I think an increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that it is the system…but we have to walk on two legs. There is so much that has to be done yesterday for example on the climate issue before we will ever accomplish these more transformative changes. There is a need for incremental and fundamental change to unfold together. Generally speaking, the progressive community in this country has focused most of its energy on incremental change and what seems plausible in the near future, rather than trying to lay the groundwork for deeper changes that are possible.
Q: Do you think it will take a crisis to accelerate the cultural changes necessary to make America the Possible viable?
A: Crisis can be terrible and can lead to bad results but they can also open door to deeper change and lead to fundamental rethinking of what’s important and where we are and ought to be going.  Yet the last thing you want to do is sit back and wait on a crisis and assume you will get something positive coming out of it.  So there is a question of preparation…In 2008, we weren’t really ready for the crisis and didn’t really have political momentum for deeper change.
You’re right to mention cultural change. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a great comment that the central conservative truth was that culture and values really do matter and determine fate of societies, but the central liberal truth is that a society could intentionally change its culture and values and save itself. Just as we shouldn’t wait for crisis to come unprepared, we shouldn’t wait on value change to come.
There are natural processes where culture evolves and values change, but there are things that we can do. If you ask social psychologists what really can change a culture pretty quickly, the answer most likely you’ll get are crises like the Great Depression that delegitimized the current order and destabilized current patterns of thought and assumed wisdoms, and made people rethink and made governments change. Transformative leadership and telling a new narrative that explains where we are going and where we’ve been can be very important in changing attitudes and values. Social movements can dramatize the need for change and change consciousness. Our religions and religious leadership can play a big role. Education also. Maybe as important as anything else are local initiatives that bring the future into the present and people can actually see change happening before their eyes at the local level--seeing is believing. All of these things can contribute to changing minds and changing values and they are all things that we can hasten. We don’t want crises but we certainly want to have them be teachable moments.
Q: What are some of the key things that should happen now to take us from a short-term view to a long-term vision?
A: We need to be a lot better about convincing folks that we have a systemic problem that requires systemic change. Progressives need to come together in a much stronger embrace of a common progressive identity and a common infrastructure for dealing with public policy issues and public opinion. Progressives are very badly siloed now and this is a real source of weakness. We need a positive vision of the kind of future we could be building; I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about what kind of world we want in 2050 when our grandchildren are adults. I synthesize a lot of it in my book, but analysis still needs to be done on how we can realize that vision. In some areas, we still need to do additional policy work, research and thinking through of how things would really work. Another thing we need to do now is keep building these local initiatives; when change does come it will be both ground-up and top down in terms of national policy also because national policy was forced and brought out by a proliferation of successful local models.
There is also a category of non-reformist reforms; things that look like reforms but plant the seeds for deeper change. One very good example would be to have a system of national indicators beyond GDP that could tell us how well we are doing across a broad front of issue. I like the idea of a Genuine Progress Indicator which is built out of GDP but takes out all the things that you don’t want to happen and takes into account other factors.
Another thing we’ve got to do is come together after this election all the progressive communities and everyone else with good sense and start implementing a series of pro-democracy reforms. We can’t allow the current trends we’re seeing in our politics, the creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy to continue. There are things we need to do from securing vote and securing the voters to campaign finance reform that can actually stick, to independently defined congressional districts and lobbying reforms.
We need to be building a powerful grassroots movement; we focus too much inside the Beltway and thinking among ourselves. There are tens and tens of millions of people out there that we ought to be engaging on issues that we’re not now. Our environmental community, and this is true of many progressive communities are dealing with modest numbers of our society. We need to rebuild the labor movement in our country. And lastly, we’ve got to be sure, again this is where climate issues come into the picture, that we are moving ahead to head off calamity. If we really let the climate issue continue like it is going now for much longer, it will be so problematic that it will absorb huge amount of time, energy and money that we should be spending on other issues. If we want to preserve options for the future, we have to prevent that kind of calamity that could deflect us off into totally defensive modes.
I think it’s important in each of these areas that we begin to really strengthen our efforts. Of course, it would be very helpful if the foundation community and donors stepped up to the plate, which we’re seeing some of but not nearly enough yet.
Q: How can we get the public to believe in the government’s ability to address the problem? And how do we get people to have a bigger sense of themselves?
A: Reagan’s famous statement was that government is not the solution to our problems but government is the problem. He and his followers for some decades have proceeded to make it the problem; they have outsourced a lot of governmental affairs, weakened governmental instittuions, starved big portions of it, extended cronyism and political appointments (and not just Reagan and the Republicans either), all the while bashing the government for not being able to do things properly and discrediting it and discrediting government employees. It’s a nonsensical way to run a country; this is a big complicated country with a huge national backlog of needs and a very difficult world to deal with and we need effective competent democratically steered government and we’d better face up to that or nothing is going to work.
Part of the answer on how to get people engaged is that all of the progressives need to come together on about 30 different areas I identify in the book where there are strong progressive organizations working on different issues but not coming together to convey a message that could inspire the public. Individual messages can be very inspiring and they do tend to come together from time to time on specific campaigns, but not the sort of sustained effort to focus on the need to rebuild competence in government, to achieve a set of national goals that would pull us out of the basement where we are now. There is a leadership role that needs to be played by our major progressive institutions in engaging with the public. I don’t think most people understand that if you look at more than 30 indicators of well being and international citizenship, what you find unfortunately is that the U.S. has sunk to the bottom across a sample of the 20 most well-to-do advanced democracies.. People know our schools, health care and the environment are in trouble but I don’t think people appreciate we are worst when it comes to poverty and inequality, worst when it comes to material well being of our children, worst when it comes to gender inequality. I’m afraid the list goes on--we have a debate going on whether to increase military size or keep it like it is, but people don’t appreciate that we spend now almost as much as the rest of the world combined on military expenditures.
This is not a pretty picture. We have to come together and be honest about where the country stands and tell this to the people and come together with a message of what we can do with this long list of national challenges and what it’s going to take. The payoff is what kind of world would you want to leave for your children and grandchildren.
Q: Americans like to think of ourselves as winners. How do you have an honest conversation in a way that will inspire action as opposed to making people feel bad?
A: You inspire action by empowering people with real information about what conditions and trends are. You empower people with a vision and helping people find their own sense of what our vision ought to be for the future and identifying the path to get there. These are the imperatives of seeing the reality of the needs for system change, of having a positive vision, of having the means to get there, and lastly, the need to focus first and foremost on our politics and building a movement for change that can get us to a real system of citizen sovereignty.
I think a lot of people are discouraged now and are fed up and that can be a springboard to something much better and a deeper critique of what’s going on. I believe that when people really see and feel the problems we have in the country with sufficient depth and sufficient gravity then an awful lot of those people are going to say ‘all right damn it, let’s do something about it.’
Q: That’s why I think climate has the potential, by being such a horrible problem, to be the catalyst for addressing a lot of these other issues.
A: I agree with that. I think it’s making people think about a lot of different things. The reality of impacts is sinking in (ed. the interview was conducted pre-Hurricane Sandy). The craziness of the senator from Oklahoma saying the whole thing is a hoax while his state is burning up and drying out, this kind of thing is coming home to a lot of people. Our climate debate in country was so intentionally polluted as demonstrated by Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt and others. People are so inclined to stick with the idea of their tribe and to not take issue with what they think their tribes’ view is on things. For a big part of country the view of a certain segment was that climate science was in doubt, and those seeds of doubt were intentionally planted to counter Al Gore and others and to discredit science.
But I think it’s changing; the worm is turning again. More and more people are seeing the reality of the climate threat or appreciating the role of science in helping to guide us in this, and are seeing the need for action. These federal deficits and the need to do something about them--a view which I share but not to the extent of a lot of people who would forget other problems in the process—over time is going to make people think about how do we raise some money. Whether you talk about cap and trade or a carbon tax, it’s an available tool that can raise a lot of money and should.
Q: Your book’s central message is one of good hope. What do you think of the odds that we’ll be able to achieve the American dream you lay out in your book.
A: I think America the Possible is possible. It is by no means certain. There are a lot of things pushing in the wrong direction, and not just inertia. There’s a lot of money at stake in the financial elites and others keeping their privileged purchase. A lot of control over what people are thinking through corporately controlled and financed for-profit media, and the whole corruption of money in our politics. We’re up against a lot of hard things, but I still think we have it in us to rise to this occasion.
I say in the book that things are much too bad for pessimism, and we have to maintain both realism and hopefulness. There is a lot of greatness still in the American public. We’ve come through in times in the past when we’ve faced a grave challenge and if we can just convince enough people that we confront a grave challenge today and that there are things we can do something about it, I think we’ll be okay. 


David Minkow is the editor of Climate Access.