I recently attended the NCSE’s New Green Economy Conference in Washington, DC. Since my travels home I have been trying to let everything from the conference settle, but I wanted to bring up on great part that gave me hope for a post growth society: the Chafee Memorial Lecture given by James Gustave “Gus” Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World.
I commented in a previous post on my blog that Speth’s lecture was inspiring, though long-winded, but this particular portion of his speech gave me goose-bumps. He started by tipping his hat at the previous speaker, Herman Daly, who accepted his (much deserved) Lifetime Achievement Award and then invited the crowd of nearly 1100 conference attendees to take a journey of the imagination… with a great twist in the end!
“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 ‘non-growing 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 under-served 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.‘”
Today the problems faced in the 1970s are even more paramount, pressing our society into a “triple crunch,” as the new economics foundation calls it. We’ve set out to do it before, we can do it again. We can pick up where we left off in the 1970s, using the last 40 years of growth and consumption as a lesson of what went wrong.