Gus Speth Envisions America the Possible (Podcast)

TreeHugger: In your recent piece in Orion magazine you open with the argument that despite America’s claims to supremacy, we’re actually leading the developed world in many of the wrong things.

Gus Speth: Well, it’s pretty easy to see. If you look at the top 20 advanced democracies, and then you look at the 30 different indicators, as I did in the piece, of where the US stands among these countries, what you find is that we’re really right at the bottom of this group. We have the most inequality of incomes, the most poverty, the lowest social mobility, the worst treatment of children according to the UN’s index of material well being of children, the bottom of the UN’s gender inequality index, and healthcare issues I won’t even go into.

The list goes on and on. In the environmental arena we have the lowest score on the international and environmental performance index, and the second largest ecological footprint per capita in the whole group. So this is not a pretty picture. Our country has been sliding down towards the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) now for several decades. And meanwhile we have these inane debates in Washington about strange things, and nobody is really listening to these problems. Thank goodness for the Occupy movement, which has begun to put some of these issues on the map again, where they certainly belong.

TH: Obviously you think Occupy is a significant point of leverage in changing this discourse.

Speth: I certainly do. When you’ve got encompassing problems, when big, serious issues are popping up across the whole spectrum of national life, whether it’s environment or economy or society or politics, it can’t be due to small reasons. There’s something fundamental wrong here. You began by saying I’d cast a broader net here than the strictly environmental one, and that’s precisely right because I think we’re only going to deal successfully with these problems over time if we engage in a process of deep, systemic change; transformative change in the nature of the political economy.

We need a new system of political economy because the one that we’re running on now, our current operating system, is giving us bad results across this whole front of issues. And there are things we haven’t talked about yet, like the vast sums of money going into the military, and the nearly one thousand military sites we maintain around the world today, and things like that.

So the list does go on, and it’s very troubling. So we need transformative change. The good news is that there are people working in these various areas of transformation, which I identify in the article. There are people who are trying to define what the corporation of the future should look like and to build those corporations from the bottom up.

There are people who are working to transform our system of money and finance and take banking away from Wall Street and bring it back to Main Street. There are people who are working on deep change to try to promote more social equality and justice in our country. To change consumerism and other big issues, including this growth fetish. We continue to invoke growth as a solution to every problem, and it just doesn’t deliver. The economy is actually back to where it was before the recession, and we still have this vast unemployment out there, and 15 percent of the country can’t find real full time jobs.

So growth isn’t really the answer if we want to deal with these problems. We have to deal more directly with them. And on the environmental front, look at it this way. How can we make sustained progress on the environment when almost half the country is just getting by? Almost half the country lives within twice the poverty threshold. Studies have been done about the failing of the middle class and how vulnerable 40 percent of America’s families are today. And with all this vast insecurity, economic insecurity, it’s very hard to get real sustained attention on environment. And then politically, if we don’t save our failing political system, we’re going to keep losing on the environmental front as well.

And so my overall message to those who are concerned about environment is we’ve got to form a broader agenda together with other progressives, and build a mighty force in our politics from the grass roots up. We need to get serious about politics, get serious about candidates, about running candidates, get serious about raising political money as long as we don’t have public financing. And really take on the system. And that does mean protesting. It does mean demonstrating. It does mean non-violent civil disobedience on occasion.

I ended up spending three days in the central cell block of the DC jail not too long ago in August protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

TH: Yes, this was with Bill McKibben and many other prominent scientists, activists, and policy people, right?

Speth: Well, yes. We were the first wave, and they thought that they could discourage the next two weeks of protest by treating us to the Full Monty. So we ended up in the jailhouse for two nights and three days with leg irons and all kinds of other things. It was quite a scene, but it did just the opposite, I think, by the time the protests were over. Thousands of people had been arrested.

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