A Roadmap to a New Economy: An Interview with Gus Speth

by Lisa Mastny   |   March 8, 2012

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New Dream spoke with Gus Speth, a professor of law at the Vermont Law School and a member of our Board of Directors, about the need to reshape the political and economic system to work better for all Americans. Speth is the author of the book, America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy.

You’ve been in the trenches of the environmental movement for more than 40 years. Can you briefly describe how you came to be engaged in these issues?

 A group of us at law school in the late 1960s were looking for something exciting to do with ourselves. Remember the 60s? None of us was very interested in a traditional law practice. I remember reading one day about the NAACP civil rights litigation, and the thought occurred to me: how about an environmental legal defense group? Within a year or so, that idea had become the Natural Resources Defense Council. And it’s still going strong.

In the late 1990s, you stepped back from work at the United Nations and in the D.C. environmental scene to become dean of the Yale environment school, where you eventually wrote several books. What prompted this shift to writing and academia?

After many decades of working on international development and environmental policy issues, I began to reflect on where we stood, and what kind of progress we had made. In 2004, I published my book, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, which described the basic failure of the international regimes we’ve created to save the environment. I realized that we needed to adopt a different approach—one that not only has different negotiating procedures, but, more importantly, addresses the root causes of these problems. 

You have since written several more books, including The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, and your forthcoming book, America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy. Could you talk briefly about these?

I see these three books as something of an “American Crisis” trilogy. Each one digs deeper into the issues beyond environment and willy-nilly poses bigger challenges to the country and to ourselves as citizens. I’ve been working on America the Possible for the last two years, and my basic conclusion is that progressives of all stripes have got to forge and fight for an agenda of deep, transformative change. As the slogan goes, “system change, not climate change.” A shared progressive agenda should embrace not only the environment but also international affairs, social problems, and political reform. We need to build a future from the ground up in our communities, and to challenge consumerism and the gospel of economic growth. Progressives need a common, integrated vision, which includes getting social justice liberals to see the environment as part of their cause and vice versa. Today, America’s progressive causes tend to be in their own silos, something that is not true of the right.

You’ve observed that, as Americans, we’ve “Let ourselves slide into a deep hole nationally.” What do you mean by this?

If you look internationally, there are easily 30 important areas where the U.S. ranks at or near the bottom of a list of 20 advanced democracies—below countries like the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, and Canada, which we generally consider to be our peer nations. We have the highest poverty rate (both generally and for children), the greatest inequality of incomes, the lowest social mobility, the lowest score on the UN index of “material well-being of children,” and the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. We also have the highest military spending, the largest international arms sales, the highest homicide rate, and the largest prison population.

The trends are also sobering in the health arena. As a country, we have the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet despite spending all this money we have the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth.

Taken together, this points to an America in serious decline—and by “decline” I don’t mean losing world power relative to China and other countries, but decline in human and natural conditions. As citizens, we should all be angry, profoundly angry, when we consider what has happened to our country and what that neglect could mean for our children and grandchildren.

Your new book provides a bit of historical perspective on this decline. How did we get to where we are today, as a nation?

America’s decline is the result of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society and our environment. Our political system has slowly been moving from a democracy to a plutocracy and corporatocracy, supported by the ascendancy of market fundamentalism and a strident antiregulation, antigovernment, antitax ideology.

One way we got here is by failing to build consistently on the foundations laid by the New Deal, by Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and his Second Bill of Rights, and by Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, we unleashed a virulent, fast-growing strain of corporate-consumerist capitalism. I refer here not to an idealized capitalism of the textbook but to the one we actually have. Corporations, long identified as our principal economic actors, are now also our principal political actors. 

The result is a combined economic and political system of great power and voraciousness, pursuing its own economic interests without serious concern for the values of fairness, justice, or sustainability that democratic government might have provided. Simultaneously, the Cold War and the rise of the American Empire have powerfully affected the nature of this system—strengthening the prioritization of economic growth, giving rise to the military-industrial complex, and draining time, attention, and money away from domestic needs and emerging international challenges.

Why is prioritizing economic growth, in itself, a bad thing?

The real problem is that our society prioritizes economic growth above all else—yet that growth isn’t delivering. We’ve had tons of growth in recent decades while wages stagnated, jobs fled our borders, life satisfaction flatlined, social capital eroded, poverty and inequality mounted, and the environment declined.

The never-ending drive to grow the U.S. economy undermines families and communities; it is leading us to environmental calamity; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting our deepest human needs. The dominant American values today are strongly materialistic, anthropocentric, and contempocentric. Today’s consumerism and materialism place high priority on meeting human needs through the ever-increasing purchasing of goods and services. Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues—for doing the things that would make us, and the country, better off.

Given these realities, are you optimistic that the country can reverse course and head in a better direction?

If you look at what’s happening around the country, you can make a case that good things are stirring, that there’s movement in the right direction—in certain areas. But you can also make the case that we’re a country lost in a sea of troubles. I like Dee Hock’s observation: “Things are much too bad for pessimism.” 

On the hopeful side, we’re seeing the birth of a lot of innovative and important things at the local level. As the old system enters its death throes, we are seeing the proliferation of models of “local living” economies, sustainable communities, and transition towns, as well as new business models, including social enterprises and for-benefit and worker-owned businesses that prioritize community and environment over profit and growth. These are scenes of the future, and they provide powerful inspiration. 

I’m also encouraged by the citizen protests across the country that gained momentum last year—such as the Occupy movement, labor and union activism, and the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, which I have taken part in. Progressives are also making efforts to build coalition movements, like Rebuild the Dream and The 99% Spring. The activism is out there, it just needs to grow and connect.

Which do you see as more effective in bringing about the change you feel is needed—changes in policies and legislation, or changes in individual behavior?

It is up to us as citizens to inject values of justice, fairness, and sustainability into this system, and government is the primary vehicle we have for accomplishing this. While pursuing reform within the existing system can help, what is now desperately needed is transformative change to the system itself.

At the core of this new operating system must be a sustaining economy based on new economic thinking and driven forward by a new politics. The purpose and goal of a sustaining economy is to provide broadly shared prosperity that meets human needs while preserving the Earth’s ecological integrity and resilience—in short, a flourishing people and a flourishing nature. That is the paradigm shift we must now seek.

In a recent article in Orion magazine, I wrote about 11 areas where we need transformational change, from moving to a post-growth society to adopting new business models, to shifting our consumer model from “more” to “enough.” The exciting thing is that, right now, there are a lot of people working in all of these areas.

One of the areas where transformation is most needed is change in our culture and values—change that begins at the individual level. It’s not either-or.

In addition to writing and speaking about these issues, how are you contributing to these wider efforts?

I’ve been working with organizations such as New Dream, as well as Demos, to help mainstream a vision of a “new economy.” We’ve also been trying to build new organizations that embrace the new economy theme in ways that haven’t happened yet. Three groups that I’ve been involved with starting up are the New Economy Network, the New Economy Working Group, and the New Economics Institute, which recently hired a new president (Bob Massie) and will be hosting an important conference on “Strategies for a New Economy” in June. To learn more about this vision, I’d also suggest reading Gar Alperovitz’s article in The Nation on “The New Economy Movement,” which provides a good overview of these themes.

You recently became a member of the board of the Center for a New American Dream. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in addressing the kinds of challenges you discussed above?

New Dream is one of the key organizations that has realized that business as usual is no longer going to work. Of course, the progressive community still needs to address many of the old issues related to the environment and social justice, but we also need to tackle new problems that we’ve identified for the country. 

New Dream does a good job in focusing on the values that are at the heart of individual and societal decision making, and on providing positive examples of how we can move forward. The organization is helping to advance three important themes that I see as crucial: redefining the American dream, challenging consumerism, and building a future from the bottom up. I believe that we can realize a new American Dream if enough of us join together in the fight for it.

ALSO: Watch a video interview with Gus Speth on "Rethinking Consumerism," on NPR's Marketplace

Gus Speth is Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont, and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York City. He was Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy at Yale University where he served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 1999 to 2009. From 1993 to 1999, Gus was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the UN, he was founder and president of the World Resources Institute, professor of law at Georgetown University, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, and senior attorney and cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Throughout his career, Gus has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment. Publications include The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008), Global Environmental Governance (2006)Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (2004), and America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy (Yale University Press, forthcoming).