The following is an excerpt from a new book by James G. Speth, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (Yale University Press, 2012). Speth envisions a future America in which citizens have created a sustainable and desirable society, and lived up to our present challenges. The vision is focused on America, but the lessons are relevant for many parts of the modern world.
If we manage well, we can achieve 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 but not only in food supply. Enterprises will be more committed to the long-term well-being of employees and the viability of their communities and will be supported by local, complementary 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; connections to neighbors will be genuine and unpretentious; civic associations and community service groups plentiful; support for teachers and caregivers high. Personal security, tolerance of difference, and empathy will be high. Local governance will stress participatory, direct, and deliberative democracy. Citizens will be seized with the responsibility to manage and extend the commons—the valuable assets that belong to everyone—through community land trusts and otherwise.
New business models. Locally owned businesses, including worker-, customer-, and community-owned firms, will be prominent. So, too, will hybrid business models such as profit/nonprofit and public/private hybrids. Cooperation will moderate competition. Investments will promote import-substitution. 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 will be supplanted by the search for abundance in things that truly 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 to the community. Individuals and communities will enjoy a strong rebirth of re-skilling, crafts, and self-provisioning. Overconsumption will be considered vulgar and will be replaced by new investment in civic culture, natural amenities, ecological restoration, education, and community development.
More equality. Because large inequalities are at the root of so many social and environmental problems, measures will be implemented to ensure much greater equality, not only of opportunity, but also of outcomes. Because life is simpler, more caring, and less grasping, and people are less status-conscious, a fairer sharing of economic resources will be possible. Livelihoods will be secure.
Time regained. Formal work hours will be cut back, freeing up time for family, friends, hobbies, household productions, continuing education, skills development, caregiving, volunteering, sports, outdoor recreation, and participating in the arts. Life will be less frenetic. Frugality and thrift will be prized and wastefulness shunned. Mindfulness and living simply with less clutter will carry the day. As a result, social bonds will strengthen. The overlapping webs of encounter and participation that were once hallmarks of America, a nation of joiners, will have been rebuilt. Trust in each other will be high.
New goods and services. Products will be more durable, versatile, and easy to repair, with components that can be reused or recycled. Applying the principles of industrial ecology, the negative impacts of products throughout their life cycles will be minimized, and production systems will be designed to mimic biological ones, with waste eliminated or becoming a useful input elsewhere. The provision of services will replace the purchase of many goods, and sharing, collaborative consumption, and community ownership will be commonplace. Fewer people will own, and more will prefer to lend and lease.
Resonance with nature. Energy will be used with maximum efficiency. Zero discharge of traditional pollutants, toxics, and greenhouse gases will be the norm. Green chemistry will replace the use of toxics and hazardous substances. Organic farming will eliminate pesticide and herbicide use. Prices will reflect the true environmental costs of the products we consume. Schools will stress environmental education and pursue “no child left inside” programs. Nearby natural areas and zones of high ecological significance will be protected. Environmental restoration and cleanup programs will be focuses of community concerns. There will be a palpable sense that all economic and social activity is nested in the natural world. Biophilic design will bring nature into our buildings and our communities.
Growth off the pedestal, children on. Growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and its local and regional variants 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. Special attention will be given to children and young people. Their education and receipt of loving care, shelter, good nutrition, and health care, and an environment free of toxins and violence will be our measures of how well we’re doing as a nation.
Resilience. Society and economy and the enterprises within them will not be too big to understand, appreciate, or manage successfully. A key motivation will be to maintain resilience, the capacity to absorb disturbance and outside shocks without disastrous consequences.
Glocalism. Despite the many ways life will be more local, and in defiance of the resulting temptation to parochialism, Americans will feel a sense of citizenship at larger levels of social and political organization, even at the global level. In particular, there will be a deep appreciation of the need to bring political accountability and democratic control to the many things that can be done only at national and international levels.
I cannot do better than to close with a quote from the remarkable John Maynard Keynes. He was also thinking about possible futures in his 1933 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” He envisioned the day when the “economic problem” was solved. Struggling though the developed world is at the moment, many have been freed from the immediate wants of the past. He wrote,
For the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy [his] leisure . . . how to live wisely and agreeably and well. . . .
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. The love of money as a possession . . . will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists. . . .
I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue—that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honor those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things. . . .
Chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance.
To most, the life depicted here will seem like a corner of paradise. Others may find the local focus a bit confining. But I believe we can rest assured that Americans will always find ways to keep things exciting, interesting, and amusing. There will be no shortage of challenges in America the Possible.
As e. e. cummings almost said, there’s a hell of a good country next door: let’s go!