Tax and the environment
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A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy
copyright by James Gustave Speth
The 10th Annual John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture
National Council for Science and the Environment
Washington, D.C., January 21, 2010
To begin, I would like to invite you to join me in a journey of the imagination. I want you to join me in visiting a world very different from the one we have today.
As the new decade begins in this world, the President, early in his first term, stands before Congress to deliver his State of the Union address. He says the following:
"In the next ten years we shall increase our wealth by fifty percent. The profound question is does this mean that we will be fifty percent richer in a real sense, fifty percent better off, fifty percent happier?...
"The great question is, shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water?
"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.
"The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field ever in the nation's history.
"The argument is increasingly heard that a fundamental contradiction has arisen between economic growth and the quality of life, so that to have one we must forsake the other. The answer is not to abandon growth, but to redirect it.
"I propose, that before these problems become insoluble, the nation develop a national growth policy. Our purpose will be to find those means by which Federal, state and local government can influence the course of growth so as positively to affect the quality of American life."
And Congress acts. To address these challenges, it responds with the toughest environmental legislation in history. And it does so not with partisan rancor and threats of filibusters but by large bipartisan majorities.
In this world that we are imagining, the public is aroused; the media are attentive; the courts are supportive. Citizens are alarmed by the crisis they face. They organize a movement and issue this powerful declaration: "We, therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct toward an environment that is rising in revolt against us. Granted that ideas and institutions long established are not easily changed; yet today is the first day of the rest of our life on this planet. We will begin anew."
Meanwhile, the nation's leading environmental scholars and practitioners, and even some economists, are asking whether measures such as those in the Congress will be enough, and whether deeper changes are not needed. GDP and the national income accounts are challenged for their failure to tell us things that really matter, including whether our society is equitable and fair and whether we are gaining or losing environmental quality.
A sense of planetary limits is palpable. The country's growth fetish comes under attack as analysts see the fundamental incompatibility between limitless growth and an increasingly small and limited planet. Advocacy emerges for moving to an economy that would be "nongrowing in terms of the size of the human population, the quantity of physical resources in use, and [the] impact on the biological environment." Joined with this is a call from many sources for us to break from our consumerist and materialistic ways to seek simpler lives in harmony with nature and each other.
These advocates recognize that, with growth no longer available as a palliative, "one problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations." They also recognize the need to create needed employment opportunities by stimulating employment in areas long underserved by the economy and even by moving to shorter workweeks. And none of this seems likely, these writers realize, without a dramatic revitalization of democratic life.
Digging deeper, some opinion leaders, including both ecologists and economists, ask, "whether the operational requirements of the private enterprise economic system are compatible with ecological imperatives." They conclude that the answer is "no." Environmental limits will eventually require limits on economic growth, they reason.
"In a private enterprise system," they conclude, "[this] no-growth condition means no further accumulation of capital. If, as seems to be the case, accumulation of capital, through profit, is the basic driving force of this system, it is difficult to see how it can continue to operate under conditions of no growth." And thus begins the thought: how does society move beyond the capitalism of the day?
You can see that the world we are imagining is one of high hopes and optimism that the job can and will be done. It is also a world of deep searching for the next steps that will be required once the immediate goals are met.
Now, at this point, I suspect there may be a generational divide in the audience. Those of you of my vintage have probably realized that this is not an imaginary world at all. You do not have to imagine this world you remember it. It is the actual world of the early 1970s. That is really what President Nixon said to the Congress in 1970. Congress really did declare that air pollution standards must protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety and without regard to the economic costs. The revolutionary Clean Water Act really did seek no discharge of pollutants, with the goals of restoring the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the nation's waters and making our waters fishable and swimmable for all by the mid-1980s.
Many scientists, economists and activists supported the longer term thinking about growth and consumerism that I just mentioned, and they recognized the ties to social equity issues. They saw the challenge all this posed to our system of political economy. I have quoted John Holden, Paul and Anne Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, opinion leaders in this era, but there were many others, including Kenneth Boulding who famously noted, "Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
It was in many respects a great beginning. Not perfect, not to be romanticized, but still a remarkably strong start. And now four decades have passed. So let us fast forward to the present and take stock. What do we find today?
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We opted to work within the system and neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.
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And it is here that we arrive at the central issue the paradox which every U.S. environmentalist must now face. The environmental movement we still seem to call it that has grown in strength and sophistication, and yet the environment continues to go downhill, fast. If we look at real world conditions and trends, we see that we are winning victories but losing the planet, to the point that a ruined world looms as a real prospect for our children and grandchildren. And the United States is at the epicenter of the problem.
So, a specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists the specter of failure. The only valid test for us is not membership, staff size, or even our victories but success on the ground and by that test we are failing in our core purpose. We are not saving the planet. We have instead allowed our only world to come to the brink of disaster. Some who look at the latest science on climate change and biodiversity loss would say we are not on the brink of disaster, but well over it.
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The size of the world economy doubled since 1960, and then doubled again. World economic activity is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. At recent rates of growth, the world economy will double in size in two decades. It took all of human history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by that amount in a decade! We thus face the prospect of enormous environmental deterioration just when we need to be moving strongly in the opposite direction.
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It seems to me one conclusion is inescapable. We need a new environmentalism in America. The world needs a new environmentalism in America. Today's environmentalism is not succeeding.
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We must build a new environmentalism in America. And here is the core of the new environmentalism: it seeks a new economy. And to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics.
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But the new environmentalism will not get far if it is focused only on greening the economy, as important as that is. As David Korten, John Cavanagh and I and others in the New Economy Working Group are saying, the old economy has actually given rise to a triple crisis, and they are tightly linked. The failure of the old economy is evident in a threefold economic, social, and environmental crisis.
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. . . the new economy the prime objective of the new environmentalism must be about more than green. We need a broader, more inclusive framing of our goal. We need to answer the probing question posed by John de Graaf in his new film: What's the economy for anyhow? The answer, I believe, is that we should be building what I would call a "sustaining economy" one that gives top, over-riding priority to sustaining both human and natural communities. It must be an economy where the purpose is to sustain people and the planet, where social justice and cohesion are prized, and where human communities, nature, and democracy all flourish. Its watchword is caring caring for each other, for the natural world, and for the future. Promoting the transition to such an economy is in fact the mission of the New Economy Network, which I'm now working with many others to build. It will be a broad, welcoming space for all those pursuing diverse paths to these goals.
To build the new economy we need innovative economic thinking and new models. There is today wide-spread dissatisfaction with much of current economic orthodoxy. Enter the New Economics Institute, which is now being launched in the United States. The new economy needs a new economics. The new economy also needs a journal to focus our attention beyond problems to solutions, and I applaud Bob Costanza for launching the new journal Solutions.
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Beyond the generalities, it is fair to ask for more on how this new economy might look. As an early step in building a new economy, I believe we must begin to question the current centrality of economic growth in our economic and political life, what Clive Hamilton has called our "growth fetish." With recent books like Peter Victor's "Managing Without Growth," Tim Jackson's "Prosperity Without Growth," and the New Economics Foundation's "The Great Transition," this is no longer as quixotic a cause as it was when I wrote my "Bridge" book just a few years ago. Peter Brown's wonderful book, "Right Relationship," also deserves mention in this context.
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. . . . The new environmentalism must be about more than green. Mainstream American environmentalism to date has been too limited. In the current frame of action, too little attention is paid to the corporate dominance of economic and political life, to transcending our growth fetish, to promoting major lifestyle changes and challenging the materialistic and anthropocentric values that dominate our society, to addressing the constraints on environmental action stemming from America's vast social insecurity and hobbled democracy, to framing a new American story, or to building a new environmental politics. The new environmentalism must correct these deficiencies.
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I have concentrated [in the full lecture] mostly on needed policies, I suppose because that is my background. But there is another hopeful path into a sustainable and just future. This is the path of "build it and they will come" and "just do it." One of the most remarkable and yet under-noticed things going on in our country today is the proliferation of innovative models of "local living" economies, sustainable communities and transition towns and for-benefit businesses which prioritize community and environment over profit and growth.
The work that Gar Alperovitz and his colleagues are doing in Cleveland with the Evergreen Cooperative is a wonderful case in point. An impressive array of new economy businesses has been brought together in the American Sustainable Business Council, and a new Fourth Sector is emerging, bringing together the best of the private sector, the not-for-profit NGOs, and government. The seeds of the new economy are already being planted across our land.
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The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals < size="1">Gus Speth may be reached at:
James Gustave Speth has devoted much of his professional life to care of the environment. He is the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy at Yale where he served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 1999 to 2009. Dean Speth was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group, founder and president of the World Resources Institute, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, and senior attorney and cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As a long time environmentalist, he is concerned. He, as others, sees that all the increased professionalism, all the resources, all the sophisticated techniques, all the advances of the modern environmental movement have failed to save our fragile ecosystems. He has come to realize that the elephant in the room raising havoc with our climate and waters and soil quality and biodiversity is the current economic system fed on excessive consumption and growth. He argues that if environmentalists are to achieve their goals, they must join with social activists, cultural innovators, and neighborhood advocates in creating a New Economics -- one that shares wealth, encourages diversity and decentralization of production, is responsible to the environment, and puts community accountability ahead of profits.
This New Environmentalism is as much a political movement as an economic one. It will take rethinking policies at the national, state, and local levels to encourage a "sustaining" economy. It can be done. At least Gus Speth feels we have no choice but to make the effort. This passion has put him at the head of multiple initiatives to define a New Economics and implement a New Economy.
We are delighted to welcome Gus Speth to the board of the E. F. Schumacher Society as the organization transforms into the New Economics Institute. His lecture "A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy" delivered in January to the National Council for Science and the Environment is excerpted below for your interest. The full text may be read at: