Dream a Little Dream

America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy
By James Gustave Speth
Yale University Press, 2012, 272 pages

In Review

Gus Speth has been around the block – cofounder of the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Program, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at Yale. He’s been a busy man, and more importantly, he’s an honest one. While not repudiating his past efforts, he readily admits that, at least when it comes to “the existential threat of climate change,” they‘ve come to “ashes.” These days, civil disobedience is at the top of his very crowded agenda.

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Speth’s particular talent – evident here as in his earlier books – is that he’s a kind of encyclopedist. As Herman Daly says on the book’s blurbs page, America the Possible offers a “selective, judicious, and integrated” narrative that brings together “the best current thinking on the American political economic crisis.”

The selections are generally excellent, and animated by their integration into Speth’s overall argument – that when we collect our best ideas, and then fit them together in the right way, we can construct a coherent vision of a new and far better America. Such an argument is not in itself new, but Speth’s version is so wide-ranging that after a while you realize that he’s trying to summarize the shared ambitions of the progressive American green movement as a whole. This is a Big Ask, but Speth is remarkably successful. Even the book’s weaknesses don’t seem his alone, but rather the shared weaknesses of, well, the progressive American green movement.

Despite the book’s capaciousness, it’s remarkably concise. The “Transforming the Corporation” section is all of 12 pages long, and it’s nothing but excellent – there are dozens of books out there that say a whole lot less and take a lot more space doing it. The section on institutional reform – from voting to the media – is similarly outstanding. Other sections aren’t quite as impressive. In particular, I found Speth’s examination of “growth” to be a bit thin, and a bit prone to whistle a happy tune. But I also got the sense that this was deliberate. He’s decided to take a common-sense approach to the problem. No fancy, discouraging talk about “the end of growth” here.

Discouraging isn’t Speth’s style. The goal of this volume is to communicate a sense of possibility. Speth argues that we really do know what we’re doing. And what we’re doing is finding our way past the old environmentalism, and past the old Left, and putting together a story that has a future. For example:

We have heard for decades that America must keep growing, or, otherwise, we will face the need for income redistribution. Well, for the most part America has kept growing, and the need for redistributive policies has only grown more acute. The growth-instead-of-redistribution agrument has failed in practice, and in a wold where growth will be increasingly constrained, it also fails in theory. It’s time for America to face the need explicitly and directly to redistribute incomes.

I’d buy Speth a drink for that one! Though once it was in front of him, I’d have bones to pick. For one thing, there’s too much localism here for me. I can see the logic of it, of course. Speth says “we all live local lives” and this is undeniable. Nor do I deny that grassroots renewal is keystone stuff. But from where I sit, the overarching need – aside from democratic rebirth and green-tech revolution – is robust international cooperation. And, frankly, solidarity in the face of what is certainly going to be a rather iffy century. While I’m sure Speth would agree (and besides, his book is “America the Possible” not “Another World Is Possible”), the overall silence on global economic injustice and the future of development is way too loud for me. And it’s as loud here as it is anywhere. Which is a problem, because we have to decarbonize the entire global economy, and we have to do it fast, while billions of people are still stone poor. Tough as this will be in the US, it will be easier here – we are, as a nation, as rich as Midas – than it will be in Africa.

And there are other holes. There is no real strategy, and no particular sense of priority, and no sense of agency. It’s not clear who’s going to drive these transformations, and what would move them to do so. Still, America the Possible is a keeper. Speth has an orderly mind and a generous touch. When, for example, was the last time you read a nice crisp paragraph on economic justice as a necessary precondition of successful full-cost pricing? Ten dollars a gallon for gas? This would be a lot closer to the “honest price” – but, as Speth writes, “in America today half the families are in no position to deal with major increases in gasoline and other prices.” It’s an obvious point, and a critical one. It’s also one we rarely hear, and therein lies the rub.

See page 107 for the paragraph. It’ll be easy to do after you buy the book.

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