TreeHugger Talks With James Gustave Speth: Green Consumerism, Taking Action & What Comes After Capitalism

How do we translate this sense of environmental urgency into terms that more people can grasp? We can show all the charts and graphs we want, but still there are plenty of people who just don’t get it or choose to believe it. How do we get this sense of urgency across?

Some of this has got to be generational. I grew up in a totally segregated town where basically there were a lot of racial divisions, tremendous racial divisions. I guess I became convinced that while there was room for a lot of change in people’s attitudes, for a lot of people that wasn’t going to happen.

We had to go ahead with integration, whether we liked it or not, and push it whether people liked it or not, but in the end the real changes in attitude about race were going to come with a new generation of people replacing these die-hards, that would never change, fundamentally. They may become less active politically or something but they would stay. But the new generation would be something entirely different. And now we have a black president! And places like North Carolina voted for Obama! Certainly I’m not saying in any way that racism is gone, that there’s not a lot of racial tension and discrimination left in our society, there is, but a transformation has occurred.

I think it will take some time for the deep changes I talk about in my book to really become dominant. But I’m pretty convinced they will.

You talk about the need to get beyond capitalism, but on TreeHugger when I bring up that idea, even in an offhand remark, I often get accused of advocating communism, socialism, or that we should all be grubbing around in the dirt for grubs wearing rags. You say specifically what comes next is not socialism. So what comes after capitalism? What would that economic system look like?

First we need a lot more work in that. We need a lot more envisioning. We need a new story that pulls us together. I think my book has made a contribution, but we have a long way to go. We need an alternative conceptualization of what the economy is really all about.

I’m attracted to the phrase ‘sustaining economy’: The economy should really be our instrument for sustaining communities, for sustaining human welfare, and for sustaining our natural environment. The economy ought to be structured and organized and geared to be a sustaining economy. Right now the economy really exists for its own sake....for the sake of the powerful. It doesn’t exist for our communities. It doesn’t really exist for us. We have to struggle to get human values injected into this huge growth machine...

But has the economy ever been different than this? Existing for the powerful? Is this any different than at any time in history?

Well, you know, I’m no historical anthropologist... But I would say that right now the good people of France are a lot closer to thinking in these ways than we are. I don’t know the situation intimately, but I do know that their protections in the labor force, their opting for leisure time, taking care of each other in health care systems, in things of this type, in education, is much deeper than ours is.

Capitalism and socialism are both concepts about the ownership of property. That struggle about who’s going to own the property is less important now than the struggle over what’s it all about. Who is the economy serving, really? That’s less a matter of ownership as it is who is being provided for by the economy, and they’re related...


My background is in writing and literature, with a heavy emphasis on poetry, so I was quite thrilled when you bring up how, in the past, the environmental movement was the purview of academics, of scientists, but now we really need to bring philosophers, psychologists, poets into this. And you’ve spoken before a bit about how we need to write a new future. How do we integrate these people into the environment movement?

It’s easy if you’ve lived it to see the need to move beyond. Because all these years, the decades really, the environmental conversation has been dominated by lawyers, economists, scientists. We went ahead with that discourse assuming that, basically, we had the public with us. And we did, in the 70s. But Reagan actually ran against the environment in 1980 and won.

We didn’t notice the need to change, particularly, because we had been so successful in the 70s with our traditional environmentalism and the traditional approaches. But we were losing our connection to people, to people’s lives, and our ability to lead.

What we didn’t recognize then, but I hope we see now, is that it really is all about motivation, about spirit, about caring. The sort of wellsprings of action which are psychological and philosophical. The arts, literature and poetry is a big part of that.



James Gustave Speth photo: Yale University; Genuine Progress Indicator Graph: Redefining Progress; Bhutan photo: Jean-Marie Hullot via flickr; Climate change camp protest photo: Andrew via flickr; Northern california coast photo: Matthew McDermott
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Tags: Activism | Carbon Footprint | Communities | Consumerism | Economics | Environmental Certifications | Green Jobs

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