Gus Speth Envisions America the Possible (Podcast)

TreeHugger: Can you talk a bit about that relationship between GDP, growth, quality of life, and how you envision a healthy society?

Gus Speth: If there’s one area of transformation that is probably riper than almost any of the others that I listed a moment ago it’s the need for new indicators of national well being. In 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a great speech–his last speech, I think–in which he pointed out the total misleading nature of GDP as a measure of well being and progress. We’ve known for a long time that this was a terribly flawed measure. People have tried to make some corrections to GDP, to take out the negative things in there that are added up along with the positive things, as well as make some other adjustments and come up with something that has been called a genuine progress indicator.

GPI is a measure of sustainable economic well being rather than GDP. And if you look at it, it’s flat-lined for decades now. So GDP per capita has been going up, but this genuine progress indicator hasn’t been going up. We’re really no better off. And of course wages have flat lined, too, during that same period. And meanwhile, we simply keep invoking this growth fetish to try and solve all our problems, and it just doesn’t.

Look over the past several decades, we’ve had tons of growth in GDP and GDP per capita. And during that time, life satisfaction flatlined in the country, jobs fled our borders, inequality mounted, poverty mounted, and the environment declined sharply. We need to deal with these issues, but simply turning to growth to do it is not going to solve the problem, and there are a lot of ways to address these issues other than that.

TH: How do these sorts of issues become something that both left and right can relate to? Do you think that’s important?

Speth: I think that the right in our country has moved so far to the right. You’ve got a huge portion of the right basically rejecting climate science and the notion of doing anything about this horrendous problem. I’m trying to aim a little further down the road. Let’s develop an understanding of what it really is going to take to solve these problems, and in the meanwhile, begin to build that force.

I think one thing the tea party does show is that you can go from protest to movement to power pretty quickly. I think that we need a progressive uprising in the country.

Progressive communities have not come together in the way that the right has come together, frankly, and we need environmentalists to be part of that. So part of the next article in Orion that will be out in the May/June issue is a plea to come together, to start a process of political reform in the country, of pro-democracy political reform. That to me is our priority number one because if we can’t save our country from politics, our democracy from all of this money, and from so many glitches in the voting process, then not much else is going to be possible at the national level.

So I developed an agenda of political reform. It’s not highly original; other people have these ideas as well, of course. But at the core of it is a campaign finance reform proposal. It has a good bit of support in the congress. The idea is to have a combination of small donor and government funding for elections. We have this creeping corporatocracy, this creeping plutocracy in the country, and we’ve really go to push back on that and revitalize real democratic processes if we’re going to succeed.

And I think that is an agenda that can engage more broadly than perhaps some of the ideas that I’m also advocating. A lot of people sense that our politics is badly out of whack, and can come together to try to do something about it.

TH: You’re arguing that things are on a downward slope in a lot of respects. But then again, isn’t ethical business booming, and aren’t millennials more concerned about big issues and deep values than previous generations? Aren’t citizens more engaged in the political process via what Lawrence Lessig would call the read/write or open source democracy? How do you reconcile those signs of hope with these declining metrics of the overall health of our democracy?

Speth: I think there are a lot of hopeful signs. As I said, there’s growing support for pro-democracy political reform, including the financing issues that I talked about. There is a lot of activism around the Rebuild the Dream movement that MoveOn and Van Jones and others have started. There’s the whole Occupy effort and the 99 percent movement. People are active today in a way that is very encouraging.

And then, we shouldn’t overlook the really exciting things that are going on in communities, because while we need to have national efforts to deal with these big national problems, we also need to be building the future from the bottom up in communities around the country. And you see a lot of that going on with transition towns, revitalized communities, special efforts at creating new business models that are locally owned or co-ops. There are some very, very exciting things going on around the country.

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