Book Review: America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy

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

Gus Speth has been around the block — cofounder of the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, senior environmental advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Program, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at Yale, and a whole lot more. 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. His footnotes hold surprises (I was particularly amused to see Peter Barnes and Tony Negri sharing a citation). He’s well worth reading.

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 are animated by their integration into Speth’s overall argument, which is that when we collect and organize our best ideas, and then fit them together in just the right way, we can construct a coherent vision of a new and far better America, one that’s ready to prosper even amidst the coming storms. Such arguments have, of course, been made before, 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 of course a Very Big Ask, but all told Speth is remarkably successful. Which is not to say that there aren’t some real holes in his argument. But even the book’s weaknesses don’t seem his alone, but rather the shared weaknesses of, well, the progressive American green movement.

All told, it’s quite a digest. But despite the book’s capaciousness, it’s remarkably concise. The “Transforming the Corporation” section is all of 12 pages long, and it’s nothing other than 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, and there are many others that are very good. Others, alas, aren’t quite as impressive. In particular, I found Speth’s examination of “growth” to be a bit thin, and a bit too prone to whistle a happy tune. But I also got the sense that this optimism was deliberate. He’s decided to take a common-sense approach to the really core problems of capitalism and sustainability, and frankly, it wasn’t a bad decision. We’re going to have to feel our way forward. And there’s 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 new story — a story that has a future.

Thus, 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 argument has failed in practice, and in a world 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 the truth is that, once it was in front of him, I’d have a few bones to pick. For one thing, there’s way 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 contest his view that grassroots renewal is keystone stuff. But from where I sit, the overarching need — aside from democratic rebirth and post-neoliberal economics and green-tech revolution and all the rest of it — is international cooperation. Robust international cooperation and, frankly, solidarity in the face of what is certainly going to be a rather difficult century. And while I’m sure that Speth would agree (and besides, his book is “America the Possible” not “Another World is Possible”), the overall movement silence on global economic injustice, and particularly on the future of development, is way too loud for me. And it’s as loud in this volume as it is anywhere else in the US “new economy” movement. Which is a very serious 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. And as tough as emergency decarbonization may be in the US of A, the job will be a lot easier here – we are, as a nation, as rich as Midas – than it will be in, say, Africa.

There are other holes as well. Most particularly, there’s no real strategy here, no sense of the priority initiatives that should take center stage, the ones that would open space for all the others. And there’s no real sense of agency. It’s not exactly clear who’s going to drive all these great transformations, and what exactly would move them to do so. Or let me say, rather, that while I was heartened by the range of analyses and initiatives that Speth so ably summarizes, I was not convinced that they’ve already cohered. There’s a lot here, and it almost gels. Almost, but not quite.

Still, America the Possible is a keeper. I’m going to put it on my reference shelf. Speth has an orderly mind and a generous touch. And he’s done with the old divisions. Pragmatic enviros in this corner and frustrated progressives in that – what’s the point? We do so much better when we look at the situation as a whole.

Let me end with an example.

When was the last time you read a nice crisp paragraph on economic justice as a necessary precondition of successful full-cost pricing? To be sure, we’d all be a lot better off with “honest prices” that internalize social and environmental costs. We’ve known this for years. But Speth is rare among writers, if not among activists, when he adds that “in America today half the families are in no position to deal with major increases in gasoline and other prices.” It’s a critical point, particularly today, as the policy spotlight turns to carbon taxes – as not only a fix for the climate, but as a response to the deficit panic. In this context, the goal ceases to be proper climate policy — which must of necessity be built upon economic justice — and becomes, instead, “revenue neutrality ” And the limits of old-line environmentalism become all too dangerous.

Be clear here. Carbon taxes have to be done right. If they’re not, they will be a disaster. The bottom line: phasing out carbon-based fuels in time is going to be expensive, and the fossil cartel’s counter-attack to our “war on carbon,” when it comes, which it will, is going to be that the enviros are hurting the poor. We need to get out in front of this attack, and say loud and clear that the rich, not the poor, must pay the costs of the transition, however large or small these costs turn out to be.

Regressive carbon taxes would be a disaster, and it’s frankly terrifying that many enviros still do not seem to see this, or to care. Speth, fortunately, is not among them. In this regard, and in many others, he has moved on.