The phrase “you’ve come a long way, Gus” kept bouncing around in my head as I read Gus Speth’s surprising new book America the Possible (Manifesto for a New Economy). The man whom Time called the “ultimate insider” tells how he was arrested in front of the White House in August 2012 and spent a couple days in the District of Columbia jail for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Speth began writing America the Possible to clarify his thoughts for his grandchildren, focusing mostly on climate change, but his understanding quickly became almost revolutionary in its implications:
After more than thirty years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet’s climate, I found myself at the end of my proverbial rope. Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America’s economic and political system had failed us all…. My conclusion in August  was and still is that working inside the system is insufficient. We have to step outside America’s broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it… “system change, not climate change” (ix-x).
There is little that is completely new in America the Possible for long-term Monthly Review readers, but Speth’s breathtaking admission of the futility of expecting change from working inside the establishment is totally believable. Who, after all, could be better qualified to say “Been there, done that?”1 What is the most useful in Speth’s book is the detailed catalogue of specific proposals which, if implemented, would revolutionize (not Speth’s word) U.S. society from top to bottom. He believes such an outcome is possible by the year 2050 if progressives agree on what they want and learn to work together when the inevitable crises of legitimacy from diminished living standards, environmental devastation, and citizens’ rights begin to bite.
Many of the proposals are culled from progressive writers and think tanks. Authors and works cited include Gar Alperowitz, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols (The Death and Life of American Journalism), Andrew Bacevich, Chalmers Johnson, Eric Alterman, Herman Daly, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (Winner-Take-All Politics), and Robert Kaiser (So Damn Much Money). Speth even manages to shoehorn in articles from active-duty Navy Captain Wayne Porter and Marine Corps Colonel Mark Mykleby, which support his argument that a reemphasis on “development and diplomacy” might work better than the military approach to many of the problems the United States faces.
Thinkers and advocates like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, C. Wright Mills, Paul Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, and John Bellamy Foster (The Vulnerable Planet, as well as The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth) are left out, along with Breaking New Ground, Gifford Pinchot’s 1947 socially progressive end-of-life memoir. (Pinchot, who founded the Yale School of Forestry and served as the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, was a rare progressive during his two terms as Republican governor of Pennsylvania, sympathetic to coal miners’ unions, a strong advocate of public ownership of electric utilities, and a constant thorn-in-the-side to the Mellon political machine in Pittsburgh.2)
A weakness of Speth’s book is his slighting of labor issues, though he is very aware of the beating labor has been taking since the 1940s. (Many labor advocates return the favor to environmentalists, unfortunately.3) To drive home the importance of constant resistance to oppression, Speth quotes the iconic lines of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress…. Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will.” For Speth, a white man born and raised in South Carolina, the accomplishments of the civil rights movement constitute the chief example of the kind of changes that have proven possible in recent years, and in an interview this spring he expressed a nostalgia for the social ferment of the 1960s.4
Gus Speth believes passionately in the necessity of a steady-state economy with a radical equalization of pay and reductions in worktime, and argues that constant growth without social justice will lead to repeated socioeconomic crises and to the physical destruction of the planet as a safe home for humans. He advocates for nearly every democratic election reform which makes it easier to vote, including a proposed national holiday on election day, and strongly urges reforms which would limit the flood of corporate and banker money to buy elections and lobby lawmakers. (His team of student researchers at the Vermont Law College has diligently helped cover the literature.) Speth posits a “broad coalition of environmental, consumer, business, religious, labor, and civil rights organizations” which might favor such reforms (170–71). (How these groups might be expected to pull together is left unclear, but it is unfair to expect one Manifesto to supply answers to all the problems plaguing the country today). Elsewhere Speth says, “The next big step…is for progressives of all stripes to come together to forge a movement demanding prodemocracy political reforms. We’ve got to save our democracy from creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy, and we’ve got to do it soon.”5
What is surprising is how radical Speth’s ideas have become in the last few years. His enemies are the enemies of socialists and other progressives: the big banks and corporations, the fossil-fuel mega-giants (think the Koch brothers), and the “military-industrial complex,” which have combined to create the frightening future we must confront on behalf of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Despite its revolutionary message (it is a Manifesto after all), the author’s tone is oddly dispassionate, almost polite. You get the impression that Speth feels uncomfortable hurting people’s feelings, and that as a former insider he instinctually, in his soft Carolina accent, smooths over differences and carefully seeks common ground.
I have not taken the time to check on the reviews of America the Possible in the establishment press, but Speth may find out that he crossed an unstated line in his analysis and advocacy and can no longer count on mainstream divulgation of his new, radical points of view. His last chapter, after all, is called “The Movement.” For most of us who have read Monthly Review over the years, Speth’s conclusions are unsurprising. What I hope is that mainstream liberals and environmentalists, who are joined at the hip to the Democratic Party, will see themselves in Speth and not dismiss him as “just another radical.”
A small disappointment in America the Possible was the absence of a critical analysis of the role of mainstream environmental organizations like the National Resources Defense Council, which he helped to found, and his World Resources Institute, which has always sought direct corporate support for some of its projects, as well as the constraints of his role as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry itself. Maybe Speth will feel more comfortable writing about establishment players in a personal memoir. Certainly his insider experience, upon reflection, helped teach him some bitter lessons regarding the limits of private corporate and insider establishment support for environmental and social change. Progressives and socialists should welcome Speth’s change of heart and help him follow up on the ideas so ably presented in his Manifesto.
- ↩Gus Speth graduated from Yale and Yale Law, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, clerked for Justice Hugo Black, went on to co-found the National Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, chaired President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and headed up the United Nations Development Program, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
- ↩See, for example, Pinchot’s self-published monographThe Power Monopoly: Its Makeup and Its Menace (Milford, PA: np, 1928).
- ↩See chapter 6, “Labor, Solar, and the Energy Economy,” in Dan Berman and John O’Connor,Who Owns the Sun? (People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy) (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1966), 135–70, for a discussion of why relations between labor unions and environmentalists are often difficult.
- ↩“A Conversation with James Gustave Speth” (video), January 25, 2013, http://youtube.com.
- ↩“A Conversation with Gus Speth,” July 27, 2012, http://americathepossiblethebook.com.