Saturday, October 12, 2013

America the Possible

America The Possible: Manifesto For A New Economy
 by James Gustave Speth
 Yale University Press 2012

 James Speth is a veteran environmentalist, and this is the latest book by an environmental veteran about how Americans can successfully address a future dominated by climate change. But his subtitle is not deceptive: he identifies the economy as the crucial element.

 The book is divided into four parts: what’s wrong now, a vision for a better future, what changes are required to get there, and how to build a political force to make those changes. The future he’s writing about is not far off— 40 or 50 years. The climate change he’s assuming is caused by the greenhouse gases that have already been spewed into the atmosphere, plus what’s added as we reduce to 40% of 1990 levels at mid-century. If greenhouse pollution is not reduced and acceleration becomes uncontrollable, or there’s unforeseen abrupt climate change, then the farther future looks more like slow motion nuclear war.

 Balancing “realism and hopefulness,” Speth is nevertheless convinced (and he is hardly alone in this) that addressing even the climate change that’s pretty definitely coming will require major political and economic transformation. He identifies precedents and experiments that show promise, but he believes that only an aroused citizenry can create the pressure necessary for fundamental change. (Once called the “ultimate insider,” Speth now returns to Washington as a protestor.)

 The good news is that changes needed to cope with the climate crisis--different economic values, restructured institutions (including corporations), etc.-- are both needed anyway for other reasons (including oil depletion), and are likely to make for a better country and a better world. Such transformations may seem impossible, but they’ve happened before.

 Speth’s prose is lean and non-academic. This book is clearly organized and well sourced. For covering so much ground it is amazingly short: under 200 pages of double-spaced print, with another 36 pages of notes. So apart from coping with possible emotional shock, it is readable and re-readable.

 On first reading, I’d identify two particular virtues. One is a specific point: Speth recognizes that an economically stronger middle class is essential to its ability to cope with what’s coming, including higher prices for just about everything.

 The general virtue is that he shows how interrelated the problems are, and how comprehensive the change must be. He doesn’t dance around this, and his knowledge is itself reassuring. The ideas he discusses aren’t usually original, but how they might work together is what’s important. Such conundrums as a steady state economy have been studied in more detail than the last time I checked into the subject. That's another reassurance: a lot of work in each separate area is being done. It just takes putting them together and acting.

 Some of those previous books (Down to the Wire, Eaarth, etc.) also suggested this. But Speth is perhaps both more concrete and succinct, folding everything into a comprehensive vision. But that very level of analysis, as well as the extent of the tasks, can be overwhelming.