James Gustave Speth: Survival Depends on Transition to a New, Sustainable Economy

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Posted June 12, 2013

Excerpt of speech by environmental activist James Gustave "Gus" Speth, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus


For more than 40 years, James Gustave "Gus" Speth has been one of America's environmental leaders as co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, as environmental adviser to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Speth, who's now 73, teaches at the Vermont School of Law. But over the past several years, he's broadened his focus to construct an overall critique of 21st century society, and the deep changes required if humans – and many other species – are to survive on Earth.

Speth was one of the keynote speakers at the Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro, Vt., from June 5-7, a gathering focused on sustainable living, resilient communities and the personal, inner transformations that are necessary for both. What follows is an excerpt of Speth’s talk on transitioning to a new economy.

GUS SPETH: We know that the country today isn't delivering – socially, environmentally, politically, economically – for us. And when we have encompassing problems across such a broad spectrum, it can't be for small reasons. We have encompassing problems because we live and work in a system of a political economy that's wired for certain priorities and not others. So let's define this new economy we want in contrast to the political economy we have today. We can define the new economy that we want as one where the true and actual purposes of economic life are to sustain and strengthen people, place and planet, and no longer to give overwhelming priority to profit and product – as in gross domestic – and power, the projection of international power. If we take that definition, if you will, of the economy that we want and should be striving for, the question comes up: How do we transition to it? And I haven't been able to find a better way to describe this mega-transition, this daunting and very large transition, except by doing the following: and that is to first identify what are the features of the current system that are giving rise to the problem, and secondly, how do we change those features into something, into a set of arrangements and policies and institutions that really do prioritize people, place and planet?

And the best way to do that, I think, is to identify a set of sub-transitions, so to speak, of transformations that undermine these current structures and replace them with new structures, and when we do it that way it becomes a more tangible and workable project. For example, I want to list some of these now in this transition that are part of this meta-transition.

First, in economic growth, we need to move from our current growth fetish to a post-growth society, from focusing on mere GDP growth to concentrating on growth of human welfare and democratically determined priorities. A transition in the market from this market fundamentalism and this near laissez-faire that we have to powerful market governance in the public interest, from dishonest prices to honest ones, from commodification to reclaiming the commons. A transition in the corporation from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy, from mainly one ownership and motivational model to alternative business models and the democratization of capital and wealth – co-ops. A transition in money and finance, from Wall Street to Main Street, from money created almost all by bank debt to money created by government. A transformation in social conditions, from economic insecurity to real security, as Franklin Roosevelt urged strongly in his final State of the Union address in his second Bill of Rights. From these vasts inequities that we have today to fundamental fairness. In indicators, from GDP – that's Grossly Distorted Picture – to accurate measures of social and environmental conditions and the quality of life. In our consumerism and our affluenza, to move from that to sufficiency, and mindful consumption and from more to enough. In our communities, where many of you are currently engaged, from runaway enterprises and throwaway communities to vital local economies, from social rootlessness to rootedness and solidarity at the community level.

In our dominant cultural values, from having to being, from getting to giving, from richer to better, from separate to connected, from apart from nature to part of nature, from transcendent to interdependent, from near-term to long-term. In our politics, from weak democracy to strong, from this creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy to true popular sovereignty, and in foreign policy and the military, from this runaway American exceptionalism to America as a normal nation, from hard power to soft, from military prowess to real security.

Gustave Speth's most recent book is titled, "America the Possible." This segment was recorded and produced by Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus. For more information on the Slow Living Summit, visit SlowLivingSummit.org/.

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