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Possible Scenarios for the Future: James Gustave Speth

James Gustave Speth is the U.S. author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. His book is a wide-ranging academic survey of post-capitalism ideas (including, but not limited to, Daly and Jackson), assembled from the point of view of a lifelong environmentalist. Precisely because Speth’s book is U.S.-centric, it is a very valuable big-picture analysis for us in this country.

Speth showcases a carefully selected array of the analysis of others. These fall into general categories:
• Real Growth – the well-being of people and nature, which necessitates alternative economic indicators;
• Consumption – the necessary downward adjustment, plus “inner transition” issues presented with far greater breadth than Jackson;
• The Corporation – a wealth of powerful top-down legislative and policy proposals which include eliminating corporate personhood, rolling back limited liability, eliminating shareholder primacy, and getting corporations out of politics.

In “A New Politics,” Speth’s political understanding comes to the fore as he, the veteran insider of two Presidential Administrations, explains precisely why we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for government solutions. Speth quotes Peter Barnes:

The reason capitalism distorts democracy is simple. Democracy is an open system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism is a gated system; its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses. Capital’s primacy thus isn’t an accident…. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.

Yet Speth still persists in his belief in the political system, figuring the transition from what we have now to that new future will be achieved via political action: “The new environmental politics must be broadened … to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a sharp focus on what society should actually be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a commitment to building what Alperovitz calls ‘the democratization of wealth’ and Barnes calls ‘capitalism 3.0.’ The new agenda should also incorporate advocacy of human rights as a central concern. … [It] should also embrace a program to address America’s social problems directly and generously. … A related issue to which the new environmental politics must turn major attention is the urgent need for political reforms – in campaign finance, elections, the regulation of lobbying, and much more.”

The chapter “Capitalism’s Core” presents alternatives to the capitalism we know today. After analysis of the wide variety of national economic systems that currently exist, and a definition of terms, Speth quotes Clive Hamilton that the focus should be to promote “the full realization of human potential through … proper appreciation of the sources of wellbeing. While [such a program] would … represent a profound challenge to capitalism as we know it, it cannot be characterized as socialist.” The chapter ends with a list written with blistering clarity of why Speth believes that “something new will be born though its gestation period will not be short.”

If I could find anything to fault in Speth’s work it would be that his analysis remains primarily a top-down, long-term view. He lacks the urgency that we within the Transition movement feel due to peak oil, and does not see the looming economic threats that infuse thinkers such as Stoneleigh and Prechter. Speth views Relocalization rather negatively as “the anti-globalization movement” and overlooks the limits I think peak oil will inevitably bring. Lastly, his book offers little in the way of practical suggestions to those of us in the trenches locally, to build resilience through collapse. But I have tried to extract ideas from his assemblage, folding them into Part III when possible.

I questioned how much power an appointed official …, an elected official … or even [the President] has to cut, reorganize, or radically change large government bureaucracies. The answer was not much unless one is willing to commit political career suicide.

The federal government and budget are burdened with hundreds of thousands of employees and organizations that are protected from change. Consequently, no matter which party is in power, budgets just go up and up and up. The only power an elected or appointed official has is to add, not subtract.

— Maria Rodale, Organic Manifesto