Review Of James Gustave Speth's America The Possible: Manifesto For A New Economy

Oct. 23, 2012 11:37 AM ET4 Comments
Hazel Henderson profile picture
Hazel Henderson

By Hazel Henderson

Author James Gustave Speth is one of the most prominent, knowledgeable, global environmentalists of our time. A quintessential insider, Speth began as an anti-nuclear activist in the 1970s and later chaired President Jimmy Carter's Council on Environmental Quality. In the 1980s, he founded and led the influential World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, and in the 1990s became the administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). He promoted the understanding that global environmental sustainability rested on alleviating poverty, promoting human rights, economic and social justice, better education and health, stabilizing populations, expanding the rule of law, protecting our global commons and addressing conflicts with more diplomacy and fewer weapons.

Speth's enlightened leadership at the UNDP promoted better metrics beyond GDP for measuring human development in their ubiquitous Human Development Reports and its index, which spawned similar approaches in regions and countries worldwide. Speth also focused the UN, the World Bank, IMF and international agencies on the need for good governance, transparency, reducing conflicts of interest, corruption, tax havens, all of which are now standards monitored and watched by NGOs including Transparency International, Amnesty International, Global Financial Integrity, Tax Justice Network, Development Alternatives, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, WWF and World Social Forum. By the 2000s, Speth became dean of Yale's School of Forestry and is now a professor at Vermont University Law School, and on the board of the UN Foundation set up by media mogul Ted Turner.

Speth, finding his agenda blocked in the U.S.A., has now morphed into a protester, demonstrating against the XL Pipeline to export oil through the U.S.A. from Canada's tar sands, for which cause Speth spent two nights in a Washington jail. He has become a prolific author: of America the Possible and earlier volumes. This book, based on voluminous global statistics, measures the decline of the U.S.A. by almost every international indicator of social and economic performance: from the rise of inequality, poverty, drug abuse, epidemics of chronic illness, obesity, incarceration, to crumbling infrastructure, rotting rust-belt cities, pollution of air and water, as well as failing education. All this malaise is contrasted with rising military and "security" budgets and bloated financial markets. Speth sees, as does Sheila Bair, Bull by the Horns - and Neil Barofksy, Bailout - the domination of politics and regulatory capture by the rising share of income and wealth of the top quartile and its richest 1%.

Speth traces this U.S. decline since the 1970 to the ascent of the right, domination by corporations and organized incumbent business interests blocking progress and new technologies disruptive of their privilege. In my six years in Washington as a science policy wonk, I witnessed the same influences, as well as corporate-friendly policies driving "free" trade, globalization, outsourcing jobs and manufacturing.

These have grown worse as more money flooded into elections, free market fundamentalism flourished, augmented by consumerism and advertising-driven media. The politicizing of science began with hired intellectual mercenaries fronting for fossil fuels, big pharma, agribusiness, finance, military contractors and commercial media and communications industries. Like Speth, I became disenchanted and frustrated with Washington's lobbyists, legislative machinations, media spin by front groups and finally, today's polarization and gridlock. I fear the looming un-governability of my beloved adopted country as does author Speth. Interestingly, a popular investment guru, Stansberry's Investment Advisory (December 2011) examines "The Corruption of America" in similar terms - but simply advising his readers to buy gold, silver and commodities, while moving their money offshore.

However, in America the Possible, the author pierces the gloom with many positive signs of renewal at the state and local levels, in the rise of localism, Transition Towns, new corporate forms, from B Corps to cooperatives, groups including the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and the American Sustainable Business Council (of which Ethical Markets Media is a member company). Speth also cites local currencies, such as Berkshares, credit unions, public banking and community-based banks - all below the radar of mainstream media and national political debate. I have covered all these overlooked trends since I discovered them researching Creating Alternative Futures (1978) and see these possibilities as driven by the decline of the unsustainable U.S. culture. They are leading toward an inevitable transition to the Green Economy and the Transforming of Finance which we track at Ethical Markets, along with all the new indicators Beyond GDP and our EthicMark Award to call advertising to move beyond propagandizing consumerism, waste and "greenwashing."

In America the Possible, author Speth focuses on the powerful role of media and advertising and how giant media conglomerates now influence education on public issues and shape opinions and politics - now so evident in the U.S. presidential election of 2012. Unlike in most other mature democracies, U.S. politics, flooded with money, feeds mass media profits with millions of attack ads - in absurdly long, tedious campaigns with politicians now spending more than a third of their time "dialing for dollars" from rich special interest contributors.

Speth presents the deepest analysis so far of how to reform the U.S. political system, from abolishing the Electoral College, ending "gerrymandering" of districts to publicly funded elections and registering all citizens to vote at birth. He proposes proportional representation and restoring responsibilities of mass broadcast media to provide Fairness Doctrine free time to candidates (repealed under the Reagan administration). Speth's list of necessary and achievable reforms would break the two-party duopoly I called the "Republicrats," i.e., two football teams owned by the same owner in my The Politics of the Solar Age (reviewed in the New York Times in 1981). These reforms and those for the green economy are still bottled up in small third parties from Libertarians to Greens and the Occupy Wall Street movement which has now re-emerged in its Debt Resistor's manual and in local campaigns nationwide for breaking up banks and preventing more foreclosures. The Tea Party's similar agenda was hijacked by large donors including Koch Industries and lobbyists for incumbent industries including former Congress Speaker Dick Army and PACs which shifted the Republican agenda to the right, along with Mitt Romney. Indeed, Speth's agenda for renewal is similar to that of Harvard physician Dr. Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party - disallowed from participating in TV debates along with other minority candidates.

What will break the gridlock in U.S. politics and allow all the new disruptive green technologies, new ideas and paradigms to finally emerge? Global geopolitics and demographics inevitably will continue driving change, from the G-20 to UN agreements including the Declaration of Rio+20's Earth Summit in 2012 where 191 countries agreed to move toward the agenda of the global Green Economy Coalition. This includes phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels and curbing finance and speculation with full-cost pricing, internalizing all "externalized" costs and reforming markets and metrics (also our mission at Ethical Markets Media).

This will require going beyond economics toward multi-disciplinary, systemic policy tools, such as the complexity science of NECSI and Doshisha Business School, technology assessment and reinstating the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and behavioral science approaches to human decision-making, as I outline in my paper "Transitioning to the Solar Age" (ICAEW). Thus, I cannot agree with Speth and so many of my colleagues who still call for a "new economics." We need a new economy yet all our answers lie beyond economics, most of which core tenets have now been invalidated, as I document. Even economists admit that macroeconomics is now defunct, still based on Arrow-Debreu models of "general equilibrium" and "market completion" while our human societies continue to evolve ever more rapidly.

America the Possible is exhaustively researched and contains all the elements needed to foster a rebirth of a more realistic U.S.A. Speth sees this country once more joining the international community as a more cooperative, peaceful member, contributing to the emergence of responsible societies. Many new similar models, from the Earth Charter, Forum 2000, to the UN's Global Green New Deal, lay out principles suitable for addressing the new issues. In our Anthropocene Age, no nation alone can address these unprecedented challenges, where weapons fail and where sovereignty must be pooled and knowledge and resources shared more deeply. This book is vital reading for policy makers and concerned global citizens from local to national, worldwide.

AMERICA THE POSSIBLE: MANIFESTO FOR A NEW ECONOMY by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 2012

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

This article was written by

Hazel Henderson profile picture
Hazel Henderson D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, is the founder of Ethical Markets Media, Certified B Corporation and producer of its TV series. She is a world-renowned futurist, evolutionary economist, a worldwide syndicated columnist, consultant on sustainable development, and author of The Axiom and Nautilus award-winning book Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy (2006) and eight other books. Her editorials appear in Wall Street International Magazine and many other media partners, including Other News, and her book reviews appear on Her articles have appeared in over 250 journals, including (in the USA) Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor; and Challenge, Mainichi (Japan), El Diario (Venezuela), World Economic Herald (China), LeMonde Diplomatique (France) and Australian Financial Review. Since becoming a full-time media executive in 2004, Hazel has stepped down from many of her board memberships, including Calvert Social Investment Fund (1982-2005), the Social Investment Forum and the Social Venture Network. She has been Regent's Lecturer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Horace Albright Chair in Conservation at the University of California-Berkeley, and advised the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Science Foundation from 1974 to 1980. She remains on the International Council of the Instituto Ethos de Empresas e Responsabilidade Social, Sao Paulo, Brasil; serves on the Program Council of FORUM 2000, Prague, Czechoslovakia, founded by the late President Vaclav Havel; is a World Business Academy Fellow; an active member of the National Press Club (Washington DC), and a member of the Association for Evolutionary Economics. She is an Honorary Member of the Club of Rome. She shared the 1996 Global Citizen Award with Nobelist A. Perez Esquivel of Argentina. In 2007, she was elected a Fellow to Britain’s Royal Society of Arts, founded in 1754. She leads the Transforming Finance initiative, created the Green Transition Scoreboard®, co-developed with Calvert the GDP alternative renamed the Ethical Markets Quality of Life Indicators, co-organized the Beyond GDP conference for the European Commission, and funded three Beyond GDP surveys, finding strong support worldwide for ESG metrics in national accounting. In 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014, she was honored as a "Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior" by Trust Across America. In 2012, she was honored with the Reuters Award for Outstanding Contribution to Development of ESG & Investing at TBLI Europe. In 2013, she was inducted into the International Society of Sustainability Professionals Hall of Fame.  Her 2014 monograph, Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age, published by ICAEW and Tomorrow’s Company, UK, is available for free download from

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