The Joyful Economy
Excerpt from a podcast with Gus Speth and The Next System project
As we talk about your latest work, “The Joyful Economy”—part of the Next System’s models papers. You said environmentalists have go beyond just protecting biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions, and should be equally concerned about things like gerrymandering and campaign finance reform. How does the environmental movement and positive environmental outcomes link in your mind to positive or effective democratic institutions?
Gus Speth: I’ve put it this way, you have to ask again now, anew, what is an environmental issue. When you ask that question, one broad answer is it’s a list of things like air pollution, and climate change, but another way to answer it is to say that an environmental issue is whatever has a big impact on environmental outcomes. Anything that really affects environmental prospects, environmental outcomes, ought to be thought of as an environmental issue. When you think about it that way, what you see right away is that the health of your political system, our failing democracy, the great power of money and corporations in our political life, that’s an environmental issue. It has a huge impact on environmental results.
These gaping inequalities, these insecurities in our society, these have a huge impact on environmental outcomes. People are scared. People are easily motivated by their concerns about jobs, and prices, and the health of the economy—so-called. The social conditions in a country are a huge factor in environmental outcomes. Our own consumerism and lifestyles are huge factors in environmental outcomes. The nature of the corporation, the motivational structure of the corporation. What are businesses striving to do? To make a profit and grow, and that has a huge impact on environmental outcomes.
All of a sudden, we have this realization that environmental success is dependent on changing all of these things, and not merely on putting a regulation on the price of carbon, although that would be nice. When you realize that if the environmental outcome is dependent on all of these factors, it is also true that environmental problems are really the outcome of a series of features, key features, of our system of political economy. The political economy that we have today, those features that I’ve mentioned are the root of environmental problems. If you really want to do something about environment, much bigger than we’ve done so far, we’re going to have to change the system.
Adam Simpson: This is I think one of the first arguments you make in “The Joyful Economy,” is this constructive criticism of where environmental groups, or the environmental movement, has started and where it is today. We have all these regulations, and you say ”you shudder to think what would happen if they weren’t there.” But beyond that we have to move—the environmental movement must move—to questioning the underlying systemic foundation, which destruction and harm is built on.
Gus Speth: Well we’ve run a 40-something year experiment on whether working within the system can succeed. What we’ve learned is that we can do some modest things to clean up the most acute problems. We’ve done that. We’ve also learned that we’re on the cusp of ruining the planet after 40 years of effort of working within the system. It’s time to change the system. I’ve talked to many environmental organizations about this, and there are some that I think understand this, but some of the major organizations are very, very slow to change and to adopt a broader approach. I think the easiest thing for them to do would be to get into politics a lot more than they have.
This means, first off, reforming our political system before its too late—rolling back Citizens United, doing the other dozen things that need to be done, to reform the system—but also fielding candidates and getting into electoral processes. They really need to be there, the Tea Party showed what could be done. I think environmentalists need to join with other progressives and be sure that, particularly now, that 2018 is a year in which we are running progressive candidates all over the country and winning.
Adam Simpson: Right. I’m also curious when it comes to, when we think about systems and how our current system of capitalism, what do you see as the main systemic things that lead us to environmental harm. How do we articulate the systemic causes of ecological destruction?
Gus Speth: When you talk about changing the system, it is true that some people’s eyes glaze over. It is a big thing. It’s awfully hard to get your head around the whole picture. What I’ve tried to do is to break it down into a dozen areas where we need to make a transition. They’re still big areas, but you can see the path in each of these areas and then mutually reinforce it. One of them is political reform, reform of the political system. One of them is to inject a far more democratic control on investment decisions. I think this is a critical area that’s been badly neglected. Right now, the banks and the big corporations make almost all the investment decisions. Sometimes government is in the picture, but usually to their benefit.
Adam Simpson: Beyond policy changes, you also note a change in values is essential and seemed to be a very important part of your model as I read your paper. I was wondering how you view, what kind of cultural or mental shifts you see as critical to informing the system change?
Gus Speth: People tend to think about cultural change or value change as something that is that you can’t do anything about. It either happens or it doesn’t happen. Things evolve or they don’t evolve. I think that’s wrong. I could give a list of ways in which we can affect cultural change and value change, but on the directionality of that change we clearly have moved to a hyperindividualism where people are expected to perform on their own or sink, where the sense of solidarity and community has been diminished. It’s been well documented now and captured in the phrase “bowling alone.”
Levels of trust have gone down, and so has the kind of communitarian vision of people looking out for each other and being part of a powerful community that sticks together, both at local levels and other higher levels like the national level. That’s certainly one big area of change. I think we’re severely anthropocentric people. We have this view that the rest of nature and its creatures are here for us as our resource—that they somehow are in a lower order than we humans are, and that they don’t have rights. I think we have to transcend this anthropocentrism, and the philosophy of Aldo Leopold, in his Sand County Almanac, is often the reference point for this. In the logging world it comes up with the question “should trees have standing to sue?” That’s a second area. The third area of value change is our extraordinary materialism.
Adam Simpson: Continuing consumption.
Gus Speth: Endless consumption. I think we have to realize that consumption is absolutely necessary up to a point, but when you start trying to meet non-material human needs by buying more stuff, or with more materialism, all the studies show that fails. People are left in an endless cycle of not getting to the realization of their higher aspirations and needs—because you can’t meet non-material needs with more material things. At that point what you have is consumerism. Consumerism is very different from consumption. It’s basically a misdirected enterprise that will fail us and is failing us. Pleasures are very fleeting.
People habituate almost instantly to new gadgets and new things. A lot of consumerism is driven by status gains and when everybody begins to get the same thing that you have you no longer have that extra status. All this has been thoroughly studied in many disciplines. I think, there are many of these area of value change. I would say another is what artfully is called contempo-centrism, which is an extraordinary fixation on very short term things. It’s in our business models, it’s in our politics. It’s in our lives. It’s the opposite of caring about the future, about caring for future generations. I was in government, we wanted to have a seminar on caring for future generations, and somebody said: future generations, what have they done for us? On we go. There is a list of cultural dispositions, cultural habits of the mind that keep leading us astray.
Adam Simpson: My final two questions are really about the theory of change in your work. Part of it involves being prepared for crisis, because part of our current system is the reproduction of crisis. I was wondering if you might say a little bit about crisis and how you situate it in a theory of change. Obviously no one can predict a bubble until it bursts—but I’m wondering if you foresee any particular areas where people should be prepared for a kind of crisis of some kind?
Gus Speth: I think that crisis-driven systemic change, the kind of crisis that delegitimizes the system is going to be essential to making big changes. I wish I could be more optimistic than that, but I think we are highly likely to see these kind of crises happen. If we look to the, just recent past, we see that the extraordinary recession in 2008 led to the occupy movement, and that had a lot of spinoffs even though some of the particular occupations have faded away, but it certainly put the 99% mantra and the 1% ers out there.
A similar thing has happened around the crisis of physical insecurity and murder in black communities by the police—giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are seeing the outpouring, really, of a climate justice movement and Native American rights movements from events like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and other things. I think events will drive us to launch movements. The important thing that I see happening now, and it may be the one good thing coming out of the Trump administration, is that people from different points of view and with different issues are mobilizing together. I think there are over 6,000 groups that have organized, and the country as part of this follow up to this Indivisible report, and there are at least two fairly major efforts now to support young candidates running for office.
So there’s a lot of fusion of progressive forces now. A lot of it is resistance, but I would think that as things move forward, it will go beyond resistance to positive things in terms of electoral politics and joining forces to get some very important initiatives done.
Adam Simpson: This actually goes perfect to my final question is that, the Trump administration, the thing that frightened me about where progressives were heading is they kept talking about how we defend what we’ve already got, but it seems to me there are many movements that are moving to okay so what do we actually want. Not just how do we keep what we have. How do we get to where we want to go? That leads us to bright spots in this fusion that you’ve talked about. That’s mainly how I wanted to end this is what you see as those bright spots are. I know you enumerated, for instance, the Occupy movement after 2008, the Black Lives Matter movement, but what other bright spots do you see emerging as kind of levers of action in democratic change?
Gus Speth: Yeah. All these things are coming and I think they are people who are seeing the commonality, the platforms now that most people are using online to build this connectivity. We’re going to see the web of webs evolve. I think it will develop and take leading shape in terms of the need to elect better representatives in our federal government, but also these other groups are also talking about building the bench.
Getting young people to get into electoral office it’s a local level and things like that. I think this is the great thing that’s happening right now. I think the other thing that is related in terms of getting positive is that the time that we are losing thanks to the Trump administration, is going to cause people to think about deeper solutions. Just take the climate issue. We’re going to have to do things in the climate area in a more far reaching, more or substantial way when we get back into a position to do those things because we will have lost that time, and that time on these issues is precious.
Adam Simpson: Sure. Well that’s all the questions I have for you today Gus. Thanks for joining us today.
Gus Speth: My pleasure.
Adam Simpson: I hope we can do it again sometime.
Gus Speth: I hope so.
Adam Simpson: We’ll see everyone next time on the Next System podcast.