31 May 2011: Opinion

Off the Pedestal: Creating a
New Vision of Economic Growth

The idea of economic growth as an unquestioned force for good is ingrained in the American psyche. But a longtime environmental leader argues it’s time for the U.S. to reinvent its economy into one that focuses on sustaining communities, family life, and the natural world.

by james gustave speth

Is anything in America more faithfully followed than economic growth? Its movements are constantly watched, measured to the decimal place, deplored or praised, diagnosed as weak or judged healthy and vigorous. Newspapers, magazines, and cable channels report endlessly on it. Promoting growth may be the most widely shared and robust cause in the United States today.

If the growth imperative dominates U.S. political and economic life, what happens when growth hits some serious stumbling blocks?

When I was in school in England, the dean of my college told us when we first arrived that we could walk on the grass in the courtyard — but not across it. That helped me love the English and their language. Here is another creative use of prepositions: there are limits to growth, and there are limits of growth.

Let’s first take up the limits of growth. Despite the constant claims that we need more growth, there are limits on what growth can do for us. The ecological economist Herman Daly has reminded us that if neo-classical economists were true to their trade, they would recognize that there are
The case is strong that growth in the affluent U.S. is now doing more harm than good.
diminishing returns to growth. Most obviously, the value of income growth declines as one gets richer and richer. Similarly, growth at some point has increasing marginal costs. For example, workers have to put in too many hours, or the climate goes haywire. It follows that for the economy as a whole, we can reach a point where the extra costs of more growth exceed the extra benefits. One should stop growing at that point. Otherwise the country enters the realm of “uneconomic growth,” to use Daly’s delightful phrase, where the costs of growth exceed the benefits it produces.

There are some, myself included, who believe that the U.S. is now experiencing uneconomic growth. If one could measure and add up all the environmental, security, social and psychological costs that U.S. economic growth generates at this point in our history, they would exceed the benefits of further ramping up what is already the highest GDP per capita of any major economy.

Though not widely accepted, the case is strong that growth in the affluent U.S. is now doing more harm than good. Today, the reigning policy orientation holds that the path to greater well-being is to grow and expand the economy. GDP, productivity, profits, the stock market, and consumption must all go up. This growth imperative trumps all else. It can undermine families, jobs, communities, the climate and environment, and a sense of place and continuity because it is confidently asserted and widely believed that growth is worth the price that must be paid for it.

But an expanding body of evidence is now telling us to think again. The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy is ruining the environment; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; it hollows out communities; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs. Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues — for doing things that would truly make us and the country better off.

It is time for America to move to post-growth society where the natural environment, working life, our communities and families, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth; where the illusory promises of ever-more growth no longer provide an excuse for neglecting to deal generously with our country’s compelling social needs; and where true citizen democracy is no longer held hostage to the growth imperative.

Another way of pointing out the limits of growth is to consider the long list of public policies that would slow GDP growth, thus sparing the environment, while simultaneously improving social and individual well-being. Such policies include: shorter workweeks and longer vacations, with more time for children and families; greater labor protections, job security and benefits, including generous parental leaves; guarantees to part-time workers and combining unemployment insurance with part-time work
Today’s huge world economy is consuming the planet’s available resources on a scale that rivals their supply.
during recessions; restrictions on advertising; a new design for the twenty-first-century corporation, one that embraces re-chartering, new ownership patterns, and stakeholder primacy rather than shareholder primacy; incentives for local and locally-owned production and consumption; strong social and environmental provisions in trade agreements; rigorous environmental, health and consumer protection, including full incorporation of environmental and social costs in prices; greater economic and social equality, with genuinely progressive taxation of the rich (including a progressive consumption tax) and greater income support for the poor; heavy spending on neglected public services; and initiatives to address population growth at home and abroad. Taken together, these policies would undoubtedly slow GDP growth, but well-being and quality of life would improve, and that’s what matters.

Of course, it is clear that even in a post-growth America, many things do indeed need to grow: growth in good jobs and in the incomes of the poor and working Americans; growth in availability of health care and the efficiency of its delivery; growth in education, research and training; growth in security against the risks of illness, job loss, old age and disability; growth in investment in public infrastructure and in environmental protection and amenity; growth in the deployment of climate-friendly and other green technologies; growth in the restoration of both ecosystems and local communities; growth in non-military government spending at the expense of military; and growth in international assistance for sustainable, people-centered development for the half of humanity that live in poverty. These are all areas where public policy needs to ensure that growth occurs.

That’s one case against growth — the argument that we should no longer prioritize growth, much less fetishize it as we do now. I believe this case will be pressed with increasing urgency in the years ahead, and I doubt we’ll miss our growth fetish after we say good-bye to it. We’ve had tons of growth — growth while wages stagnated, jobs fled our borders, life satisfaction flatlined, social capital eroded, poverty mounted, and the environment declined.

The case that there are limits to growth — not that we shouldn’t grow but that we can’t grow — is based on the reality that we are entering a new age of scarcity and rising prices that will constrain growth. The world economy, having doubled in size three times since 1950, is now phenomenally large — large even in comparison with the planetary base that is the setting for economic activity. Today’s huge world economy is consuming the planet’s available resources on a scale that rivals their supply, and it is releasing almost all of those resources, often transformed and toxic, back to the environment on a scale that is beyond the environment’s assimilation capacities, thus greatly affecting the major biogeophysical cycles of the planet. Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, and the planet’s sinks for absorbing waste products are already exhausted in many contexts. According to the Ecological Footprint analysis, Earth would have to be 50 percent larger than it is for today’s economy to be environmentally sustainable.

In effect, humans have entered a new geological epoch — the anthropocene. As Paul Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl explained in an article on Yale Environment 360: “It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age called the Holocene. The Anthropocene — human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth — is already an undeniable reality.”

If we now live in a world where the natural resources and environmental sinks needed for economic activity are becoming more scarce across a wide front, we should see prices rising. And indeed we do. Prices of many things
It makes no sense to separate the two challenges: energy supply and climate change must be dealt with together.
are rising rather rapidly: oil, coal, food, and numerous non-fuel minerals. Lithium and rare earths are probably not far behind.

If these patterns hold, as seems likely, and one factors in the economic losses due to climate disruption and the higher energy prices due to climate protection policies, it’s hard to imagine that economic growth won’t be slowed. Moreover, as noted earlier, the increasing scarcity of the atmospheric sink for greenhouse gas emissions is going to challenge growth among the affluent countries. Reducing carbon emissions at required rates may not be possible in national economies that are stressing growth maximization.

Author Richard Heinberg and many others have been calling attention to the looming challenge of peak oil. After much controversy, the reality of peak oil is now widely accepted. Oil production did actually reach its all-time high in 2005 and has plateaued since. Peak oil, the point of maximum production after which production begins to decline, may thus have already happened, but, if not, a widely held view today is that oil will have peaked and begun to decline before 2030, perhaps a decade or so hence.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy released the now-famous “Hirsch Report,” Peaking of World Oil Production, which warned that “the problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past ‘energy crisis’ experience will provide relatively little guidance.” But the report recommended accelerating development of oil sands and coal liquefaction and other steps that would send the world rushing down a path that would exacerbate the already grave challenges of global warming. Clearly, it makes no sense to separate the two challenges: energy supply and climate change must be dealt with together — and soon. Clearly, today we are not prepared or preparing for either.

Many who have looked at the combined challenge of energy and climate change have concluded that our civilization, having completed its exuberant, flamboyant phase, is headed toward a dramatic simplification and re-localization of life and the end of economic growth as we have known it. Some even see the collapse of modern civilization as just a matter of time.

In The Transition Handbook, the bible of the fast-growing Transition Town movement, Rob Hopkins identifies three scenarios: adaptation, which assumes “we can somehow invent our way out of trouble”; evolution, which requires a collective change of mindset, but assumes that “society, albeit in a low-energy, more localized form, will retain its coherence”; or collapse, which assumes that “the inevitable outcome of peak oil and climate change will be the fracturing and disintegration, either sudden or gradual, of society as we know it.”

The eventual outcome will likely involve elements of all three of these scenarios, occurring at different times and different places. Hopefully, the “evolution” scenario will predominate.

MORE FROM YALE e360

Living in the Anthropocene:
Toward a New Global Ethos

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A decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen first suggested we were living in the “Anthropocene,” a new geological epoch in which humans had altered the planet. Now, Crutzen and coauthor Christian Schwägerl explain why adopting this term could help transform the perception of our role as stewards of the Earth.
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“Within this century, environmental and resource constraints will likely bring global economic growth to a halt…,” Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this year. “We can’t live with growth, and we can’t live without it. This contradiction is humankind’s biggest challenge this century, but as long as conventional wisdom holds that growth can continue forever, it’s a challenge we can’t possibly address.”

So there we have it: the traditional solution that America has invoked for nearly every problem — more growth — is in big trouble. If we are going to move beyond growth, we will need to build a different kind of economy. We Americans need to reinvent our economy, not merely restore it. We will have to shift to a new economy, a sustaining economy based on new economic thinking and driven forward by a new politics. Sustaining people, communities and nature must henceforth be seen as the core goals of economic activity, not hoped for by-products of market success, growth for its own sake, and modest regulation. That is the paradigm shift we must now begin to pursue and promote.

POSTED ON 31 May 2011 IN Business & Innovation Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Asia North America 

COMMENTS


Thank you so much for saying what has needed to be said for a long time. Now if we could just get one politician to think these thoughts- and dare I say- utter them?

Posted by John Dyer on 31 May 2011


Great analysis of why growth-as-usual is sputtering. I wonder if the green movement can stimulate the necessary political movement by recognising (as politicians must) that continuing growth in economic activity isn't the same as growth in planet-consuming activity. It seems that pretty much everything that greens dream of, if enacted everywhere, would allow economic activity to surge with all the real-world activity involved in switching from planet-consuming to planet-revival. So no need to keep pushing politicians into their bunkers by attacking growth as an icon? See http://bit.ly/switch1

Posted by James Greyson on 31 May 2011


The issue is not whether "growth" is a flawed concept. Growth itself is a vague term that has a wide variety of meanings from individual to individual and is generally viewed as "a good thing"; however, the emphasis of compounding growth as a national economic policy measured by the Dow Jones Average or Gross National Product may not encompass all the desired attributes of growth.

Capitalism has embraced the growth virus, compounding interest. The quantification of debt wrongfully applies the algebraic concept of exponential growth - compounding interest - upon money. The distinction between usury and interest is an arbitrary legal determination with no basis in mathematics. Nothing can grow forever at an ever-increasing rate. As time moves on, the emphasis of ever-increasing growth becomes omnipresent, is quantified and institutionalized in the societal structure, encouraging over consumption, over development, and excessive expectations, pushing economic stress to its upper limit of expansion, eventually inciting conflict and spawning War to insure growth.

Economic systems of capitalism, communism, socialism, imperialism, colonialism, totalitarianism, fascism, nazism, monarchism, corporatism, and all other centralist monetary-isms maintain the monopolized control of money, and hence the control of society itself, through their own brand of Legal Tender that excludes other forms of money from the Market, while embracing debt and it handmaiden compounding interest.

Posted by mammon on 31 May 2011


Thank you Professor Speth. It is nice to know you still condemn injustice in what seems to be an indebted, declining nation-state of militant, ecocidal, globalized, corporate plutocracy - based on poisonous economics of the fuels of war and unlimited greed.

American citizens can still dream the impossible. Sometimes in the past we have even acted on those dreams for a better world.

You are certainly correct that we must not restore this "economy" but reinvent it, reinvent economics as if our lives depended on it. The word itself begins with eco. Yet destruction of our "home" is becoming pervasive as we now live in a time of consequences.

Perhaps we could consider placing Health Costs, not as asset in the GDP, but as liability. We seem to need to change some (economic) signs for this new century. As you understand, there are many, many others if we wish to sustain civilization. Otherwise, we seem to be headed in a very wrong direction, since we may be counting liabilities as assets, or even "toxic assets."

Posted by James Newberry on 31 May 2011


Mr. Speth is astute, articulate and right. Others have expressed this point of view, but he has a big soap box and life time of experience working on these issue, so I hope a lot of people will listen. It would be nice if we could phase out capitalism, as it is currently practiced, before it phases us out. Let's make a choice before there is no longer a choice to make.

Posted by Chris Pratt on 01 Jun 2011


What is blatantly missing from the zero-economic-growth debate is a discussion about what actually constitutes "growth". All sides of the debate accept the flawed premises that growth inevitably stems from extraction from the environment. Tell me, how has Jackson Pollock harmed or extracted from the environment when his painting sells for $140 million?

Such examples are probably few compared to the many examples of riches gained from industries based on fuel and other environmental goods. My point is this: growth does not necessarily entail more extraction or more environmental harm. We can better society, and "grow", in directions we've just begun to take now: green buildings, cities built for bicycles, renewable energy, etc. Doesn't environmental economics teach us that if we consider wider environmental (and other) impacts, economics can still help guide us?

We still need to think about "growth", but we're getting distracted. Instead of arguing about whether growth is bad or good, let's talk about how we can continually improve our lot and that of the world's; how we can still "grow" when we see "growth" with much wider visions.

Posted by Alexander Shenkin on 02 Jun 2011


Let's put this excellent article into perspective. Gaia trumps mere human economics. Growth, it is now being suggested, will become not merely undesirable, but impossible as nature rapidly changes conditions on Earth. This is thanks to the many feedback loops which are accelerating the change from an interglacial average temperature of 11 degrees centigrade to the next stable temperature average, more than 14 degrees on average.

There are only three possibilities - A cool Earth, as we had during the ice ages, a warm Earth as we have now in this interglacial, and a hot Earth as was last experienced 55 million years ago in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. There is no way to set the thermometer anywhere in between these three stable states. 350 ppm or 500 ppm are not stable. 180 and 280 are stable levels of CO2 but we will probably not be able to reach either for at least 200,000 years from now.

There is an excellent article by Alder Stone Fuller at http://74.54.191.130/~aldersto/?page_id=433 entitled "Why large-scale climate change (probably) cannot be stopped (& we must, thus, increase our adaptability)" add to this http://www.endgame.org.uk/2011/02/why-climate-change-probably-cannot-be-stopped/ and all the attendant links in both articles and you get a grim picture indeed. Endgame says:

"We need to be collectively far angrier, intellectually more incisive and offer realistic alternative routes to the future which take on board the realities of the size and complexity of the global population and don’t retreat into endless (intellectual discussion) about ideals that just are undeliverable."

So what are we to do? Here are my IMHO suggestions:

First, we must meet in person and/or online and strategize. We must agree to TELL THE TRUTH, loudly and stridently, and in very simple terms to the media and to every student in every school in every country, at every level of education from elementary through graduate levels. Stop beating around the bush that we can just make incremental changes and everything will be fine.

Second, we must insist through mass movements (boots on the ground like Tahrir square not polite clicking "like" on Facebook) that politicians make this the number one priority for humankind in every society on the Planet. We should insist that our collective preparations "to increase adaptability should include personal & community planning to facilitate a transition to a new kind of civilization that promotes planetary healing (but not geoengineering) as well as planning for water, food, shelter, health care, energy, transportation and security in a world with a climate that humans have never experienced in our million year history characterized by the words extreme, chaotic, unpredictable and violent."

Third, we must lead by example by creating "Transition Town" type communities starting with the neighborhoods where we find ourselves today, blooming where we are planted, working with one another on sustainability and adaptation as well as continuing to push through with mitigation in the (futile) hope that we are wrong and that we can somehow slow or stop the train.

Fourth, even though it is bleak, we must not ever despair or quit. That is not the way humans adapt to change. I bring to your attention Lawrence Gonzales’ 12 Rules of Survival:

1. Perceive and believe. Don’t fall into the deadly trap of denial or of immobilizing fear.

2. Stay calm – use your anger. In the initial crisis, survivors aren’t ruled by fear - they make
use of it.

3. Think, analyze and plan. Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline.

4. Take correct, decisive action. Survivors are willing to take risks to save themselves and
others.

5. Celebrate your success. Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes.

6. Be a rescuer, not a victim. Survivors are always doing what they do for someone else.

7. Enjoy the survival journey. Even in the worst circumstances, survivors find something to enjoy.

8. See the beauty. Survivors are attuned to the wonder of their world, especially in the face of mortal danger.

9. Believe that you will succeed. The survivor’s will to live becomes firmly fixed.

11. Do whatever is necessary. Survivors believe that anything is possible and act accordingly.

12. Never give up. Survivors are not easily discouraged by setbacks. http://www.deepsurvival.com/

As Alder Stone Fuller says "We cannot afford fear, despair and denial. We must inform ourselves about what we face, and do the work that must be done to prepare for it."

This is humankind's biggest challenge ever and our biggest opportunity. Whatever we become as individuals and collectively as societies at the end of this abrupt, chaotic, extreme, violent, rapid process will be established by what we decide to do now - today.

I bring to your attention two quotes I've used for the past 30 years of my 70 - "The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do."
-- Henry Moore

and "Set a goal to achieve something that is so big, so exhilarating that it excites you and scares you at the same time. It must be a goal that is so appealing, so much in line with your spiritual core, that you can't get it out of your mind. If you do not get chills when you set a goal, you’re not setting big enough goals."
-- Bob Proctor

This cannot be a safe intellectual exercise or an ivory tower campaign. Let us move forward together on this futile yet vital mission to develop a strategy to TELL THE TRUTH.

Posted by Dave Finnigan on 02 Jun 2011


And apropos to my long post above here is another heavy dose of recently exposed and academically derived truth to tell. It is crying for popularization. Only the media, politicians, the education system, and the carbon lobby stand in the way.

"Royal Society Special Issue on Global Warming Details ‘Hellish Vision’ of 7°F (4°C) World —Which We May Face in the 2060s!"

http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/06/02/234291/royal-society-7f-4c-world/

Where is the outrage that this vital story predicting massive ecosystem collapse has been entirely overlooked by the media?

Keeping with Prof. Speth's theme "Off the Pedestal," our response cannot be a safe intellectual exercise or an ivory tower campaign. We need to find or develop our rabble rousers, and we have to protect them too. Nice to have a law school connection in the family.

When we do TELL THE TRUTH publicly and forcefully there will be massive and potentially brutal resistance from the Carbon Empire. Where are our leaders and how can we protect them once the real battle for the future of the Planet is joined?

"Politics ain't beanbag: 'tis a man's game..." Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne)

Posted by Dave Finnigan on 02 Jun 2011


I don't wan't growth. Nobody I know wants growth. What most of us want is good food, pleasant jobs, nice homes in safe locations, relaxing holidays, entertaining recreational activities, secure retirement and a chance to give our children the life opportunities they deserve.

Now, if you can give that to me, and everyone else who wants it, without growth, then go ahead. And after that you can do the trick with loaves and fishes.

Posted by Jon Jermey on 03 Jun 2011


Since all money is loaned into existence in the currently prevailing global fiat money systems --
principle AND INTEREST must be paid back. Ergo, there must be a perpetually growing economy on this finite orb.

We need an economics of qualitative growth and we need it fast.

One of the enduring challenges is that we tend to look at this situation as a problem to be solved. It is way more complicated than that -- in truth it is a predicament to be adapted to!

Posted by John Adams on 03 Jun 2011


Politicians are the problem. They are also (part) of the solution. We need to decarbonise our society quickly and in an equitable and democratic manner. Politicians beholden to corporations will not let that happen if the status quo remains. Common people need to build a movement based on democracy, solidarity and direct action not just to pressure politicians, but to build the kind of world we desire.

Posted by Michael on 03 Jun 2011


Excellent article by a well read and authority on the subject james gustave speth.

Limits to Growth is a 1972 book modeling the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies, commissioned by the Club of Rome. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems. The book echoes some of the concerns and predictions of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).
Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 05 Jun 2011


Perhaps it's helpful to distinguish "growth" from "development." Aside from a few stray space
rocks, the planet has not "grown" for eons - the same molecules have cycled over and over. Yet Earth has developed an awe-inspiring richness and diversity, far beyond anything humans can devise.

Our human economy, a subsystem of the planet, could learn to adopt this same dynamic. Growth is inherently limited by the laws of physics. Our potential for development may be limitless.

Posted by David Foley on 06 Jun 2011


Thank you Herman Daly and Gus Speth. Let us consider the people and nations upon which we North Americans depend as we live in our enlarged "Ecological Footprint". The process of learning, understanding, and taking action is getting traction slowly in some of my workplaces in some 40 countries. Yet we are knocking off our resources so rapidly. How to raise the alarm together with the clear messages to repair and replenish, that is a manageable challenge. We have done it before in times of crisis. We need the text and illustrations to offer solutions -- solutions which we are all begging for.

Posted by Patrick Duffy on 07 Jun 2011


A nice view through rose-colored lenses. Those at the top of the financial structure who own the politicians, bought and paid-for lock stock and barrel, are terminally ill with greed, and care not what the results of their avarice produce, and even less for those they trample under in their sick persuit of ever more wealth. As long as the world is run by human greed, human good will ever be a casualty.

Posted by Dave G on 08 Jun 2011


I thoroughly agree with the author, as well as with nearly all the comments. But the passionate response of Dave Finnigan was special.

I don't see America as having any option other than to make an unbelievably radical turn towards green. America's carbon footprint has always been correlated with its economic dominance. Ergo, as China (which has now outstripped our energy use) and India continue to follow our pattern, we will not only be left behind in energy consumption; we will fall behind in economic dominance too.

AS LONG AS WE ARE PARTY TO THE GROWTH PARADIGM THAT HAS DEFINED US TILL NOW.

I'm an American exceptionalist, and believe that our nation can achieve ANYTHING it sets its mind to. I also believe in American global dominance through its immense SOFT POWER.
So we either create for ourselves, and export worldwide, the kind of lifestyle that gets us to 350 ppm (or less) of CO2 emissions...or we're likely, indeed, to collapse.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 10 Jun 2011


Although I posted my thoughts back on May 31, I feel Mr. Burrowes comment must be responded to. Why does the U.S. need to be economically dominant? I really don't care if the economic output of China is more than the U.S., I mean they have a heck of a lot more people than us. It's like 'he who dies with the most toys wins'!

I think the goal is to live within our environment and have a healthy and sustainable lifestyle without the problems that consumerism brings. This may involve some protectionism. This competition among countries is I believe a source of some of our problems.

Posted by John Dyer on 10 Jun 2011


To John Dyer:

Bertrand Russell advocated for a world dominate by one or the other of the two (at that time) super powers. While I have resisted this view as too definite and sharp, I'm gradually coming to see that it accords with reality.

I'm not in a position to give a presentation on world governance and cohesion. I can only say that, although we don't talk about it, world order as we know it, depends on hegemony of sorts. This subject has been addresses countless times, and you can look into the subject elsewhere if you're interested.

America has been, and still is, the global hegemonic power. As you rightly say, the way this has been achieved is grossly destructive on many levels, and may no longer be working for us. But if world order (another subject) depends on hegemony, whose hegemony should it be? The Chinese are flexing their muscles, but they really don't want to, nor can they, take our place.

All I'm saying is that the world currently runs on American ( mostly very destructive, but magnetizing) values and ideas. And I offer that the world should continue to run on American ideas and values...only that these should be radically counter to what they have been. America must be the creator of an exportable lifestyle that gets global AGG down to 350 PPM or (preferably) considerably lower.

This is valuable, planet-saving work. It is the mission impossible that Mr Finnigan spoke about. It is not so much an appeal to American quietude as it is the to the incredibly creative can-do spirit that made America dominant (albeit employing the wrong methods).

Nature abhors a vacuum. If we don't lead, someone else will. But no one else has our lofty goals of freedom and justice for all. The fact that we have not attained this doesn't deter the young all over the planet from trying to see it come to fruition where they live.

I don't believe I specifically spoke about us being economically dominant. I emphasized us maintaining the lead in world affairs, but doing so in a different way. So we need an economic order that ensures our basic strength and security. It means that the bounty we create have to be distributed throughout the world, such that there is no sense of them and us. It means that we make a sustainable planetary lifestyle so compelling--think our magnificent soft power--that everybody everywhere, wanting to follow us as they now do, will feel that they are virtually American...without losing their sense of history and uniqueness.

I don't know how to do this--and if you read Mr. Finnigan's comment, it entails setting goals that no person in their right mind would think achievable. Yet, there is no other way to do great things (barring which, Planet Earth is doomed), however far short from our shining goals we may fall.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 10 Jun 2011


I must also say, thank you professor Speth. Yes, American citizens can still dream the impossible. Sometimes in the past we have even acted on those dreams for a better world. You are certainly correct that we must not restore this "economy" but reinvent it, reinvent economics as if our lives depended on it. The word itself begins with eco. Yet destruction of our "home" is becoming pervasive as we now live in a time of consequences. Our human economy, a subsystem of the planet, could learn to adopt this same dynamic. Growth is inherently limited by the laws of physics. Our potential for development may be limitless.

Posted by invest on 11 Jun 2011


is there any alternative America already have planned, if the whole energy will vanished from the earth?

Posted by ahsandilshad on 12 Aug 2011


Does YFES even teach economics anymore? This whole piece uses a high school definition of
"growth."

If the US economy stopped growing in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970, etc., then the environment would clearly be worse off, much less the human quality of life around the world.

Posted by Andy McGill on 06 Oct 2011


"The idea of economic growth as an unquestioned force for good is ingrained in the American psyche."

How do you know that? Where's the evidence for such generalizations?

The American people have never been offered the chance to set basic economic priorities, which remain firmly in the hands of capitalists.

So, what do you think you're gaining by blaming everybody for that?

Posted by Michael Dawson on 06 Oct 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
james gustave spethABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Gustave Speth is a professor at Vermont Law School and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization. A former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he also co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was founder and president of the World Resources Institute, and served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. He is the author of six books, including the award-winning The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.
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This April marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that has attracted millions to environmental causes. But winning passage of meaningful legislation on climate change requires more than slogans and green talk — it demands intense, determined political action. 
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MORE IN Opinion


Animal ‘Personhood’: Muddled
Alternative to Real Protection

by verlyn klinkenborg
A new strategy of granting animals “personhood” under the law is being advanced by some in academia and the animal rights movement. But this approach fails to address the fundamental truth that all species have an equal right to their own existence.
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A Year After Sandy, The Wrong
Policy on Rebuilding the Coast

by rob young
One year after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast, the government is spending billions to replenish beaches that will only be swallowed again by rising seas and future storms. It’s time to develop coastal policies that take into account new climate realities.
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Why Pushing Alternate Fuels
Makes for Bad Public Policy

by john decicco
Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has backed programs to develop alternative transportation fuels. But there are better ways to foster energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than using subsidies and mandates to promote politically favored fuels.
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Should Wolves Stay Protected
Under Endangered Species Act?

by ted williams
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stirred controversy with its proposal to remove endangered species protection for wolves, noting the animals’ strong comeback in the northern Rockies and the Midwest. It’s the latest in the long, contentious saga of wolf recovery in the U.S.
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No Refuge: Tons of Trash Covers
The Remote Shores of Alaska

by carl safina
A marine biologist traveled to southwestern Alaska in search of ocean trash that had washed up along a magnificent coast rich in fish, birds, and other wildlife. He and his colleagues found plenty of trash – as much as a ton of garbage per mile on some beaches.
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Our Overcrowded Planet:
A Failure of Family Planning

by robert engelman
New UN projections forecast that world population will hit nearly 11 billion people by 2100, an unsettling prospect that reflects a collective failure to provide women around the world with safe, effective ways to avoid pregnancies they don't intend or want.
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As Extreme Weather Increases,
Bangladesh Braces for the Worst

by brian fagan
Scientists are predicting that warming conditions will bring more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. Their warnings hit home in densely populated Bangladesh, which historically has been hit by devastating sea surges and cyclones.
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As Final U.S. Decision Nears,
A Lively Debate on GM Salmon

In an online debate for Yale Environment 360, Elliot Entis, whose company has created a genetically modified salmon that may soon be for sale in the U.S., discusses the environmental and health impacts of this controversial technology with author Paul Greenberg, a critic of GM fish.
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Should Polluting Nations Be
Liable for Climate Damages?

by fred pearce
An international agreement to study how to redress developing nations for damages from climate change illustrates how ineffective climate diplomacy has been over the last two decades. But this move may pave the way for future court suits against polluting countries and companies.
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Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill
Fails to Face Coastal Realities

by rob young
As part of the sorely-needed aid package to help victims of Hurricane Sandy, Congress is also considering spending billions on ill-advised and environmentally damaging beach and coastal rebuilding projects that ignore the looming threats of rising seas and intensifying storms.
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