Wednesday, January 02, 2013

America the Possible

I recently read Gus Speth's new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. It's a good, fresh read on where we are in terms of achieving sustainability -- the massive challenges that remain, and the kinds of transformations that are needed to get there.

Many in the sustainability field will recognize the references and concepts explored, but I certainly picked up some new insights, as well as new authors, books, organizations to check out. The explicit focus on the US and the current challenges give the book strong direction. After running through the big challenges (with good coverage of the social dimensions of sustainability, not just environmental) and the possible solutions, Speth lays out the transformations that need to take place to achieve sustainability - transforming communities, corporations, consumption, measurements of well-being, finance and foreign affairs.

Like his previous book, The Bridge at the End of the World, this one calls for dramatic changes to our economic system and ways of thinking. It wrestles with how to get ourselves out of the growth trap, so we can increasing value and well-being without constantly needing to produce and consume more energy and materials. It also spends quite a bit of time on important technical changes that need to be made to the economy, like better ways of measuring success than GDP. As the subtitle suggests, much of the book is focused on creating the new economy, which I think is probably the most critical leverage point for achieving sustainability.

But Speth recognizes that these types of changes to the economic system, will require deep social and political change. The book wraps up with chapters on realizing democracy (from campaign finance reform to increasing participation in voting and other aspects of civic life); and the need for a more coordinated, broad movement, where groups historically focused on specific issues (e.g. 'environment' or 'tax reform' or 'equity' or 'trade') align efforts to create a prosperous sustainable future. Addressing the need for these changes up front, he states early on: "the prospects for systemic change will depend mightily on the health of our democracy and the power of the social and political movement that is built." 

He notes (as many have, particularly in the past few years), that "we environmentalists have been too wonkish and too focused on technical fixes. We have not developed the capacity to speak in a language that aims straight at the American heart, resonates with both core moral values and common aspirations, and projects a positive and compelling vision... Now we need to hear more from the preachers, the poets, the psychologies, and the philosophers." 

A strategic approach to sustainability is built around building compelling visions, and the belief that a positive "pull" towards something desirable is more effective in making big changes over the long term than negative "push" away from something scary or bad.

All in all, well worth the read. I recommend checking it out.

Stay going.

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