We need a compelling vision for a new future, a vision of a better country—America the Possible—that is still within our power to reach.
The deep, transformative changes sketched in the first half of this manifesto provide a path to America the Possible. But that path is only brought to life when we can combine this vision with the conviction that we will pull together to build the necessary political muscle for real change.
This article addresses both the envisioning of an attractive future for America and the politics needed to realize it. A future worth having awaits us, if we are willing to struggle and sacrifice for it. It won’t come easy, but little that is worth having ever does.
By 2050, America the Possible will have marshaled the economic and political resources to successfully address the long list of challenges, including basic social justice, real global security, environmental sustainability, true popular sovereignty, and economic democracy. As a result, family incomes in America will be far more equal, similar to the situation in the Nordic countries and Japan today. Large-scale poverty and income insecurity will be things of the past. Good jobs will be guaranteed to all those who want to work. Our health-care and educational systems will be among the best in the world, as will our standing in child welfare and equality of women. Racial and ethnic disparities will be largely eliminated. Social bonds will be strong. The overlapping webs of encounter and participation that were once hallmarks of America, “a nation of joiners,” will have been rebuilt, community life will be vibrant, and community development efforts plentiful. Trust in each other, and even in government, will be high.
Today’s big social problems—guns and homicides, drugs and incarceration, white-collar crime and Wall Street hijinks—will have come down to acceptable levels. Big national challenges like the national debt, illegal immigration, the future of social security, oil imports and the shift to sustainable energy, and environmental and consumer protection will have been successfully addressed. U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will have been reduced to a tiny fraction compared to today.
Internationally, the United States will assume the role of a normal nation. Military spending will be reduced to a level close to Europe’s today; military interventions will be rare and arms sales small. The resources thus freed up will be deployed to join with other nations in addressing climate change and other global environmental threats, nuclear proliferation, world poverty and underdevelopment, and other global challenges. The U.S. will be a leader in strengthening the institutions of global governance and international regulation, and we will be a member in good standing of the long list of treaties and other international agreements in which we do not now participate.
Politically, implementation of prodemocracy reforms will have saved our politics from corporate control and the power of money, and these reforms will have brought us to an unprecedented level of true popular sovereignty. Moreover, government in America will again be respected for its competence and efficiency. And, yes, taxes will be higher, especially for those with resources.
Overall, the economy will be governed to ensure broadly shared prosperity and to preserve the integrity and biological richness of the natural world. It will simply be assumed that the priority of economic activity is to sustain human and natural communities. Investment will concentrate in areas with high social and environmental returns even where not justified by financial returns, and it will be guided by democratically determined priorities at the national and local levels. Corporations will be under effective public control, and new patterns of business ownership and management—involving workers, communities, and other stakeholders—will be the norm. Consumerism will be replaced by the search for meaning and fulfillment in nonmaterial ways, and progress will be measured by new indicators of well-being other than GDP.
This recitation seems idealistic today, but the truth is we know how to do these things. Our libraries are full of plausible, affordable policy options, budget proposals, and institutional innovations that could realize these and other important objectives. And today’s world is full of useful models we can adapt to our circumstances.
Many thoughtful Americans have concluded that addressing our many challenges will require the rise of a new consciousness, with different values becoming dominant in American culture. For some, it is a spiritual awakening—a transformation of the human heart. For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself. But for all, the possibility of a sustainable and just future will require major cultural change and a reorientation regarding what society values and prizes most highly.
In America the Possible, our dominant culture will have shifted, from today to tomorrow, in the following ways:
We actually know important things about how values and culture can be changed. One sure path to cultural change is, unfortunately, the cataclysmic event—the crisis—that profoundly challenges prevailing values and delegitimizes the status quo. The Great Depression is the classic example. I think we can be confident that we haven’t seen the end of major crises.
Two other key factors in cultural change are leadership and social narrative. Leaders have enormous potential to change minds, and in the process they can change the course of history. And there is some evidence that Americans are ready for another story. Large majorities of Americans, when polled, express disenchantment with today’s lifestyles and offer support for values similar to those urged here.
Another way in which values are changed is through social movements. Social movements are about consciousness raising, and, if successful, they can help usher in a new consciousness—perhaps we are seeing its birth today. When it comes to issues of social justice, peace, and environment, the potential of faith communities is vast as well. Spiritual awakening to new values and new consciousness can also derive from literature, philosophy, and science. Consider, for example, the long tradition of “reverence for life” stretching back over twenty-two hundred years to Emperor Ashoka of India and carried forward by Albert Schweitzer, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry, E. O. Wilson, Terry Tempest Williams, and others.
Education, of course, can also contribute enormously to cultural change. Here one should include education in the largest sense, embracing not only formal education but also day-to-day and experiential education as well as the fast-developing field of social marketing. Social marketing has had notable successes in moving people away from bad behaviors such as smoking and drunk driving, and its approaches could be applied to larger cultural change as well.
A major and very hopeful path lies in seeding the landscape with innovative, instructive models. In the United States today, there is a proliferation of innovative models of community revitalization and business enterprise. Local currencies, slow money, state Genuine Progress Indicators, locavorism—these are bringing the future into the present in very concrete ways. These actual models will grow in importance as communities search for visions of how the future should look, and they can change minds—seeing is believing. Cultural transformation won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either.
High on any list of our duties to future generations must be the imperative to keep open for them as many options and choices as possible. That is our generation’s gift of freedom. Here, the first order of business is to preserve the possibility of a bright future by preventing any of today’s looming disasters from spinning out of control or otherwise becoming so overwhelming that they monopolize resources of time, energy, and money, thus foreclosing other options. My list of biggest threats includes the following:
Much ink has been spilled warning us about these threats, and we must take them very seriously. In America the Possible, these warnings have been taken seriously and the threats avoided. We can already see the problems leading to all of the threats listed, but we are not yet fated to experience their worst.
Even with disaster averted, there are still powerful constraints and limits on future options. And there are the lessons from positive psychology about what contributes to happy, fulfilling lives. In fact, three sets of developments are coming together and are pushing us to nothing less than a new way of living: the imperative to protect the climate and the earth’s living systems; the need to adjust to the rise of scarcities in energy and other resources; and the desire to shift national priorities to things that truly improve social well-being and happiness.
If we manage these factors well, the result could be a blessing in disguise, leading us to a new and better place—and a higher quality of life both individually and socially. Life in America the Possible will tend strongly in these directions:
RELOCALIZATION. Economic and social life will be rooted in the community and the region. More production will be local and regional, with shorter, less complex supply chains, especially for food. Business will be more rooted and committed to the long-term well-being of employees and their communities, and they will be supported by local currencies and local financial institutions. People will live closer to work, walk more, and travel less. Energy production will be distributed and decentralized, and predominantly renewable. Socially, community bonds will be strong; relationships with neighbors will be unpretentious and important; civic associations and community service groups plentiful; levels of trust and support for teachers and caregivers high. Personal security, tolerance of difference, and empathy will be high, and violence, fear, and hate low. Politically, local governance will stress participatory, direct, and deliberative democracy. Citizens will be seized with the responsibility to sustainably manage and extend the commons—the valuable assets that belong to everyone—through community land trusts at the local level, for example, and an atmospheric trust at the national level.
NEW BUSINESS MODELS. Locally-owned businesses, including worker-owned, customer-owned, and community-owned firms will be prominent, as will hybrid business models such as profit-nonprofit and public-private hybrids. Cooperation will replace or moderate competition. Business incubators will help entrepreneurs with arranging finance, technical assistance, and other support. Enterprises of all types will stress environmental and social responsibility.
PLENITUDE. Consumerism, where people find meaning and acceptance through what they consume, will be supplanted by the search for abundance in things that truly matter and that bring happiness and joy—family, friends, the natural world, meaningful work. Status and recognition will go to those who earn trust and provide needed services. Individuals and communities will enjoy a strong rebirth of reskilling, crafts, and self-provisioning. Overconsumption will be replaced by new investment in civic culture, natural amenities, ecological restoration, education, and community development.
MORE TIME; SLOWER LIVES. Formal work hours will be cut back, freeing up time for family, friends, hobbies, continuing education, skills development, caregiving, volunteering, sports, outdoor, exploring nature, and participating in the arts. Life will be slower, less frenetic; frugality and thrift prized and wastefulness shunned; ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption avoided; mindfulness and living simply prized.
NEW GOODS AND SERVICES. Products will be more durable and versatile and easy to repair, with components that can be reused or recycled. Production systems will be designed to mimic biological ones, with waste eliminated or turned into useful inputs elsewhere. The provision of services will replace the purchase of many goods; sharing, collaborative consumption, lending, and leasing will be commonplace.
RESONANCE WITH NATURE. Environmental protection regulations will be tough and demanding, and energy used with maximum efficiency. Zero discharge of traditional pollutants, toxics, and greenhouse gases will be the norm. Directly or indirectly, prices will reflect the true environmental costs. Schools will stress environmental education and pursue “no child left inside” programs. Natural areas and zones of high ecological significance will be protected. Green chemistry will replace the use of toxics and hazardous substances. Organic farming will eliminate pesticide and herbicide use. Environmental restoration and cleanup programs will be major focuses of community concern. There will be a palpable sense that economic and social activity is nested in the natural world and that we are close kin to wild things.
MORE EQUALITY. Because large inequalities are at the root of so many social and environmental problems, measures to ensure greater equality—not only of opportunity but also of outcomes—will be in place.
Because life is simpler, more frugal, more caring, and less grasping, and people will be less status conscious and possessive, there will be more to go around and a high degree of economic equality. Special programs will ensure that seniors have income protections and opportunities to pursue their passions in second and third careers.
CHILDREN CENTERED, NOT GROWTH CENTERED. Overall economic growth will not be seen as a priority, and GDP will be seen as a misleading measure of well-being and progress. Instead, indicators of community wealth creation—including measures of social and natural capital—will be closely watched, and special attention will be given to children and young people—their education and their right to loving care, shelter, good nutrition, health care, a toxic-free environment, and freedom from violence.
HUMAN SCALE AND RESILIENT. The economy and the enterprises within it will not be too big to understand, appreciate, and manage successfully. A key motivation will be to maintain resilience—the capacity to absorb disturbance and outside shocks without disastrous consequences. We can think of today’s American economy as a giant, unitary system—highly complex and thoroughly integrated and interdependent, so that the failure of one component such as banking causes a cascade of failures throughout the system. The economy in America the Possible is, by contrast, diverse and decentralized, a collection of more self-reliant but interacting units that provide redundancy and resilience.
GLOCALISM. Despite the many ways life will be more local, and the resulting temptation toward parochialism and provincialism, Americans will feel a sense of belonging and citizenship at larger levels of social and political organization, and will support global-level governance in the numerous areas where it is needed, such as environmental issues.
It is simply unimaginable that American politics as we know it today will deliver the transformative changes needed. Political reform and building a new and powerful progressive movement in America must be priority number one. Above all else, we must build a new democratic reality—a government truly of, by, and for the people.
A foundation of democracy is the principle that all citizens should have a right to participate as equals in the actual process of governing.
All should have a right to vote, to have access to relevant information, to speak up, associate with others, and participate. Votes should coun equally, the majority should prevail, subject to respect for basic rights, and the issues taken up should be the important ones society faces. These are ideals by which America’s current situation as well as our political reform agenda should be judged. Viewed this way, we are coming up far short on democracy and political equality. What we are seeing instead is the steady emergence of plutocracy and corporatocracy.
That the list of most-needed reforms to our political system is so long is testimony to how flawed the current system actually is.
Beyond these changes in the rules of American politics, other changes are needed to strengthen both journalism and government transparency, to restore disinterest to the courts, to rebuild large membership institutions like labor unions that can magnify the strength of the otherwise isolated voter, and to rebuild competency in our oft-maligned and now depleted civil services.
We won’t get far in addressing the challenges we now face unless we are a competent nation with a competent government. And this competence in turn requires, above all, education and public integrity. Education is essential not just for building the skills needed in today’s high-tech economy, but also for building a capacious understanding of the world in which we live. Public integrity includes not just integrity at the personal level, but also the capacity to elevate the public good over private gain.
When one considers all the ways in which our politics begs for change and reform, it is easy to see why so little of what is needed is actually accomplished. A prodemocracy agenda like the one described here must move to top priority. Such an agenda should be a priority for all progressive communities, and should draw support from Americans across the political spectrum.
Let us never forget that faith in democracy and fighting for it are acts of affirmation. In democracy, we affirm that we trust our fellow citizens—that we count on each other. Whether we win or lose the coming struggle for democracy in America, we claim that high ground.
But to drive real change in politics and in public policy, we need to build a powerful, unified progressive movement. Few of the measures our country needs are likely to get very far without a vigorous social and political movement that we don’t now have. In today’s America, progressive ideas are unlikely to be turned into action unless they are promoted by powerful citizen demand.
Successful movements for serious change are launched in protest against key features of the established order. They are nurtured on outrage at the severe injustices being perpetrated, the core values being threatened, or the undesirable future that is unfolding. And they demand real change. Here one is reminded of Frederick Douglass’s famous 1857 statement about the challenge to slavery: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If progressives hope to succeed, then the movement must capture the spirit of Frederick Douglass.
What must now be built with urgency is a unified progressive community. The silos separating the various progressive communities must be breached. To succeed, there must be a fusion of progressive causes, the forging of a common agenda, and the building of a mighty force on the ground, at the grass roots. Progressives of all stripes must come together to build a true community of outlook, interest, and engagement, as well as the organizational infrastructure to strengthen the progressive movement on an ongoing basis.
Our best hope for real change is a movement created by a fusion of people concerned about environment, social justice, true democracy, and peace into one powerful progressive force. We have to recognize that we are all communities of a shared fate. In particular, progressives must focus on electoral politics far, far more than they have in the past. The 2008 Obama campaign shows what can be done. For the progressive movement to secure a powerful place in American politics, it will require major efforts at grassroots organizing, strengthening groups working at the state and community levels, reaching out to broaden membership and participation, and developing motivational messages and moral appeals. It will also require building partylike organizations, creating political action committees (PACs), and fielding candidates.
Regarding the language we use and the messages we seek to convey, I can see clearly now that we environmentalists have been too wonkish and too focused on technical fixes. We have not developed well the capacity to speak in a language that goes straight to the American heart, resonates with both core moral values and common aspirations, and projects a positive and compelling vision. Throughout my forty-odd years in the environmental community, public discourse on environment has been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists—people like me. Now we need to hear a lot more from the preachers, the poets, the psychologists, and the philosophers. And our message must be one that is founded on hope and honest possibility.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local,” and a progressive movement must stress building locally, from the bottom up. We all live local lives, and if more and more people are to become engaged politically, engaging them locally is imperative. When we add that most of the promising things happening in America today are happening at the community level, the case is compelling for linking progressive initiatives at the local level to building a national progressive movement—community action melded to a national strategy.
Movements gather strength when people realize that they are being victimized and that there are many others in the same boat, and it helps when they are able to identify and point to those responsible—the villains of the story. Many on the right work hard and with consummate cynicism to raise the specter of “class warfare” when, for example, efforts are launched to tax the rich a bit more. With admirable candor, businessman Warren Buffett, an advocate for fairer taxes and one of the wealthiest men in America, has said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” In 1936, Harold Lasswell wrote Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How.
He declared that “the study of politics is the study of influence and the influential... the influential are those who get the most of what there is to get.... Those who get the most are elite; the rest are mass.” Today, the elite have gotten about all there is to get, and the great mass of people have gotten the shaft.
An invigorated American progressive movement must also embrace the accumulated knowledge that generations of thoughtful scholars have made possible. With the right seemingly disavowing good science at every turn, it is doubly important that progressives draw heavily on the contributions of our impressive scientific community. Nothing against faith, but the scientific content of public policy issues is increasing steadily, and progressives won’t be leading in the right directions without such an embrace. And while progressives should both appeal to moral values and kick up a ruckus, it remains important to ground appeals and campaigns on solid analysis, accurate history, and facts. They go together well. As Stephen Colbert has quipped, “The facts have a well-known liberal bias.”
In the end, the most meaningful changes will almost certainly require a large-scale rebirth of marches, protests, demonstrations, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience. Protests are important to dramatize issues, show the depth of concern, attract public and media attention, build sympathetic support, raise public consciousness, and put issues on the agenda. No one who followed events in Egypt or the Wisconsin State House, or who remembers the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, can doubt their importance. Author and social critic Chris Hedges urges that “civil disobedience, which will entail hardship and suffering, which will be long and difficult, which at its core means self-sacrifice, is the only mechanism left.” Those words ring true to those who have worked for decades to elicit a meaningful response to the existential threat of climate change and who find, after all the effort, only ashes.
There are ongoing historical trends that require the development of the progressive movement sought here. The widespread persistence of relative poverty at home and absolute poverty abroad; the growth of economic inequality now matching that of 1928; the rapid exhaustion of the planet’s renewable and nonrenewable resources; the impossibility of continuous exponential growth on a finite planet; the destruction of the climate regime that has existed throughout human civilization; the drift to militarism and endless war—these warn us that business as usual is not an option.
America the Possible awaits us, if we are prepared to struggle—to put it all on the line. If the future is to be one we wish for our grandchildren, we had better get started building this progressive movement without delay. Given the deplorable conditions on so many fronts, the day will surely come when large numbers of Americans will conclude, with Howard Beale’s character in Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The progressive movement must not only be ready for that day, it must also hasten its arrival.
James Gustave Speth teaches at Vermont Law School. This article, from the May/June 2012 issue of Orion Magazine, is the second in a two-part series, and based on his September 2012 book from Yale University Press, America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy.