A New Economics for a New Environmentalism

In his lecture “A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy,” delivered in January to the National Council for Science and the Environment, Gus Speth argues  that if environmentalists are to achieve their goals, they must join with social activists, cultural innovators, and neighborhood advocates in creating a new economics—one that shares wealth, encourages diversity and decentralization of production, is responsible to the environment, and puts community accountability ahead of profits.

James Gustave Speth has devoted much of his professional life to care of the environment.  He is the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy at Yale where he served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 1999 to 2009. Dean Speth was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group, founder and president of the World Resources Institute, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, and senior attorney and cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As a long time environmentalist, he is concerned.   He, as others, sees that all the increased professionalism, all the resources, all the sophisticated techniques, all the advances of the modern environmental movement have failed to save our fragile ecosystems.  He has come to realize that the elephant in the room raising havoc with our climate and waters and soil quality and biodiversity is the current economic system fed on excessive consumption and growth.

This New Environmentalism is as much a political movement as an economic one.  It will take rethinking policies at the national, state, and local levels to encourage a “sustaining” economy.  It can be done.  At least Gus Speth feels we have no choice but to make the effort. This passion has put him at the head of multiple initiatives to define a new economics and implement a new economy.

We are delighted to welcome Gus Speth to the board of the Schumacher Center.  His lecture “A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy” delivered in January to the National Council for Science and the Environment is excerpted below for your interest.  The full text may be read here.


Excerpts from “A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy” by James Gustave Speth, January 21, 2010


…A sense of planetary limits is palpable. The country’s growth fetish comes under attack as analysts see the fundamental incompatibility between limitless growth and an increasingly small and limited planet. Advocacy emerges for moving to an economy that would be “nongrowing in terms of the size of the human population, the quantity of physical resources in use, and [the] impact on the biological environment.” Joined with this is a call from many sources for us to break from our consumerist and materialistic ways – to seek simpler lives in harmony with nature and each other. These advocates recognize that, with growth no longer available as a palliative, “one problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations.” They also recognize the need to create needed employment opportunities by stimulating employment in areas long underserved by the economy and even by moving to shorter workweeks. And none of this seems likely, these writers realize, without a dramatic revitalization of democratic life.

You can see that the world we are imagining is one of high hopes and optimism that the job can and will be done. It is also a world of deep searching for the next steps that will be required once the immediate goals are met.

Now, at this point, I suspect there may be a generational divide in the audience. Those of you of my vintage have probably realized that this is not an imaginary world at all. You do not have to imagine this world – you remember it. It is the actual world of the early 1970s. That is really what President Nixon said to the Congress in 1970. Congress really did declare that air pollution standards must protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety and without regard to the economic costs. The revolutionary Clean Water Act really did seek no discharge of pollutants, with the goals of restoring the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters and making our waters fishable and swimmable for all by the mid-1980s. Many scientists, economists and activists supported the longer term thinking about growth and consumerism that I just mentioned, and they recognized the ties to social equity issues. They saw the challenge all this posed to our system of political economy.

…It was in many respects a great beginning. Not perfect, not to be romanticized, but still a remarkably strong start. And now four decades have passed. So let us fast forward to the present and take stock. What do we find today?

We opted to work within the system and neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.

And it is here that we arrive at the central issue – the paradox which every U.S. environmentalist must now face. The environmental movement – we still seem to call it that – has grown in strength and sophistication, and yet the environment continues to go downhill, fast. If we look at real world conditions and trends, we see that we are winning victories but losing the planet, to the point that a ruined world looms as a real prospect for our children and grandchildren. And the United States is at the epicenter of the problem. So, a specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists – the specter of failure. The only valid test for us is not membership, staff size, or even our victories but success on the ground – and by that test we are failing in our core purpose. We are not saving the planet. We have instead allowed our only world to come to the brink of disaster. Some who look at the latest science on climate change and biodiversity loss would say we are not on the brink of disaster, but well over it.

The size of the world economy doubled since 1960, and then doubled again. World economic activity is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. At recent rates of growth, the world economy will double in size in two decades. It took all of human history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by that amount in a decade! We thus face the prospect of enormous environmental deterioration just when we need to be moving strongly in the opposite direction.

It seems to me one conclusion is inescapable. We need a new environmentalism in America. The world needs a new environmentalism in America. Today’s environmentalism is not succeeding.

We must build a new environmentalism in America. And here is the core of the new environmentalism: it seeks a new economy. And to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics.

But the new environmentalism will not get far if it is focused only on greening the economy, as important as that is… the new economy – the prime objective of the new environmentalism – must be about more than green. We need a broader, more inclusive framing of our goal. We need to answer the probing question posed by John de Graaf in his new film: What’s the economy for anyhow? The answer, I believe, is that we should be building what I would call a “sustaining economy” – one that gives top, over-riding priority to sustaining both human and natural communities. It must be an economy where the purpose is to sustain people and the planet, where social justice and cohesion are prized, and where human communities, nature, and democracy all flourish. Its watchword is caring – caring for each other, for the natural world, and for the future.

Beyond the generalities, it is fair to ask for more on how this new economy might look. As an early step in building a new economy, I believe we must begin to question the current centrality of economic growth in our economic and political life, what Clive Hamilton has called our “growth fetish.”

…The new environmentalism must be about more than green. Mainstream American environmentalism to date has been too limited. In the current frame of action, too little attention is paid to the corporate dominance of economic and political life, to transcending our growth fetish, to promoting major lifestyle changes and challenging the materialistic and anthropocentric values that dominate our society, to addressing the constraints on environmental action stemming from America’s vast social insecurity and hobbled democracy, to framing a new American story, or to building a new environmental politics. The new environmentalism must correct these deficiencies.

I have concentrated [in the full lecture] mostly on needed policies, I suppose because that is my background. But there is another hopeful path into a sustainable and just future. This is the path of “build it and they will come” and “just do it.” One of the most remarkable and yet under-noticed things going on in our country today is the proliferation of innovative models of “local living” economies, sustainable communities and transition towns and for-benefit businesses which prioritize community and environment over profit and growth…The seeds of the new economy are already being planted across our land.

The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals — indeed, writing a new American story, as Bill Moyers has urged. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. People like me. It has been too wonkish, out of touch with Main Street. . .  . Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.

And indeed we are. The world’s religions are coming alive to their environmental roles – entering their ecological phase, in the words of religious leader Mary Evelyn Tucker. And just last year, the American Psychological Association devoted its annual gathering to environmental issues. The Earth Charter text and movement are providing a powerful base for a revitalization of the ethical and spiritual grounds of environmental efforts. The Charter’s first paragraph says it all: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms, we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Toward this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

The new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, towns and cities seeking to revitalize and stabilize themselves, and other groups of complementary interest and shared fate. The “silo effect” still separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment, but we are all in the same boat.

And the new environmental politics must build a powerful social movement… demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, protesting, and taking steps as citizens, consumers and communities to realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.

And, finally, remember that most of the ideas I have sketched this evening are not new. As we saw, they actually take us back to where we began, in the 1960s and 1970s. They gained prominence then and they can again. Perhaps they are now, belatedly, ideas whose time has come. We can’t recreate the 1960s and the 1970s; we shouldn’t even try. But we can learn from that era and find again its rambunctious spirit and fearless advocacy, its fight for deep change, and its searching inquiry.