The following is an excerpt from commencement remarks made by Ms. Rosa Rodrigues, who served four years as Chief of Staff to President Delores Hernandez (2033–2041).
Looking back over the last 28 years, it is amazing how much has changed, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Back in 2014, despite continuing high unemployment and underemployment, rising poverty, increasing inequality of income and wealth, and accumulating evidence of the detrimental effects of saturating the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases along with other indicators of environmental stress, the U.S. political system was paralyzed with inaction.
To be sure, most of the fault lay at the feet of the ultra-right wing and their supporters in the U.S. Congress, who used every pretext and occasion to prevent the government from mitigating the consequences of decades of accumulating ecological debt, among other problems. The conservatives’ obstructionism was abetted by a Supreme Court that allowed the super-rich to invest unlimited funds in political campaigns, and, after decades of being told that government could do no good and only wasted their tax dollars, a dispirited citizenry emerged. However, part of the blame also lay with liberals and others on the center-left, who shared with the right a fundamental belief that (material) economic growth was essential to progress and offered no positive vision that could inspire the American people to act.
Gridlock in any other country would not be such a big problem, but the US, with the largest economy in the world and the second largest emissions of greenhouse gases (and largest by far on a per capita basis), was a major obstacle to any international initiatives. Consequently, over the more than 20 years from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and 17 years from the Koyoto Protocol of 1997, scant progress was made. In fact, looking forward from 2014, there was much to suggest that we would be losing ground: Canada had withdrawn from the Koyoto Protocol in order to exploit its extensive deposits of tar sands and, in the United States, new methods of extracting natural gas and oil through new technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing threatened to make any possibility of achieving the reductions necessary to forestall the most serious consequences of climate change slim to none at all.
It has been quite a struggle and we must be vigilant for no progressive accomplishment is ever completely secure. But now, in the year 2042, the United States has managed to reduce its per capita carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases by 90 percent from the base year of 1992. One of the obstacles to change in the early part of the century was the perceived cost to the economy of substantially reducing the use of fossil fuels. The typical citizen, as contrasted with the rich and super-rich, depended on a job to keep shelter over their head and food on the table, to get around, send their children to college, and to provide a bit of comfort and leisure in their lives. There was wide-spread fear, encouraged by the energy industry, that any reduction in the use of fossil fuels, whether through capping or taxing carbon emissions, would increase the cost of doing business throughout the economy, reduce growth, and perhaps even result in a net reduction in employment. There is a saying in economics: “Everyone’s cost is someone else’s income.” Advocates for the environment often did not get this.
Things started to change in the spring of 2014. At the top of the best-seller list was a dense book, Capital in the Twenty First Century by Tom Piketty, which highlighted how market economies, in the absence of conscious intervention, created increasing inequality. That same spring, a report was released that indicated climate change was already having significant effects on every continent and on the world’s oceans. Then further evidence indicated that the Western Antarctica ice sheet was melting and no action could be taken to prevent it. But bad news is never sufficient to transform the political dynamic, and it wasn’t this time either. Rather it was a collection of novel ideas and new approaches to doing politics that got the change going.
The first novel idea was to get a half-million baby boomers to sell their houses on the East and West Coasts, take their windfall profits, and move into congressional districts in the interior of the country where a swing of 10,000 to 20,000 votes could elect a progressive Democrat where there was currently a conservative (but not crazy) Republican. Conceived too late to work in the midterm election of 2014, this idea was put into action in the presidential election of 2016 with enough success to bring the Democrats into the majority. This made possible some badly needed legislation. However, even with Democratic control of Congress and the presidency, the professional politicians would not take the necessary bold initiatives that the challenges of the times demanded, without continuing pressure from external social movements.
What really set things in motion was the emergence of the Campaign for Democratic Renewal (CDR), which drew some inspiration from Battleground Texas, a grassroots effort, begun in 2013–14, with a long-term plan to make the Lone Star State competitive and then turn it from red to blue.
The CDR was founded in late 2017 by a coalition of environmental groups, unions, civil rights organizations, and others representing the full spectrum of activists and progressives as well as academic theorists frustrated with the lack of action from Congress and the Democratic-led administration. The name of the organization was taken from the document “Creating a Campaign for Democratic Renewal,” which had been circulating in activist circles, though no one knew who the authors were. However, the ideas were both intriguing and revolutionary.
The main idea was to create a complete grassroots campaign that would contest offices at every level: from city council, school board, and county commissioner, to the state legislatures, governorships, Congress, and the presidency. Initially without any candidates! The goal was to get four million or more participants who would make small monetary contributions, ranging from $5 to $20 per month, and put in from two to five hours a week of work on the campaigns. Even more importantly, every participant had to attempt to bring new members, drawn from their neighbors, fellow workers, children’s teachers, bowling team members, congregants of their church, synagogue or mosque, and so on. The CDR document referred to this as “doing Amway politics.” All meetings were made to be fun: they always started with a home-cooked meal, music, and talk before business. They started on time and ended on time and everyone had a voice. The campaign also had a job for every member and a member for every job. These included new tech jobs such as data mining, production of videos, and creation of social media apps as well as old-fashioned outreach. When certain milestones were met in terms of members and finances, the campaign advertised for candidates. Some were nominated, whereas others put their own names forward. Candidates for local offices were vetted at neighborhood meetings, while those for state and national offices were chosen at virtual conventions in which every member could participate. The first cohort, in 2020, was a mix of politicians and non-politicians, with the latter drawn from individuals with a record of community activism and accomplishment.
Reluctantly, for lack of better candidates, the Campaign supported the re-election of the incumbent president, but it also managed to elect a large number of representatives and senators whose presence over the next four years emboldened the administration, which finally began to do something about climate change. Significantly, the campaign was also exceedingly successful at the local and state level.
The breakthrough occurred in 2024 when the CDR elected a large majority of the U.S. House and Senate and the presidency. Over the next eight years, important legislation was passed to address climate change and to ensure genuine full employment so that every action taken that might eliminate some jobs had to be balanced by measures that created new ones of equal or greater quality. These changes were further consolidated when the Campaign elected Delores Hernandez, a pediatrician with no prior experience of holding office, president in 2032.
Let’s now turn to how we actually achieved such a reduction in greenhouse gases. The easy steps, involving technical changes, were the result of a combination of actions. One piece of low-hanging fruit was to increase efficiencies in our devices through the introduction of digital technology. This was stimulated by the introduction of carbon taxes. These went into effect starting in 2022 and increased steeply every subsequent year, thus encouraging innovation. A second element was support for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. Already by 2018, improvements in design and production had reduced the cost of solar installations by 85 percent and made them competitive when contrasted with fossil fuels and nuclear power. Even more dramatic improvements were made possible as a consequence of government-funded research that resulted in substantial increases in electric storage capability. Alternative energy businesses were also incentivized with generous investment tax credits. But most important were the qualitative changes in the economy. To give an example, 28 years ago, nearly everyone was a consumer of culture: They watched movies and TV on their entertainment centers, played games on digital consoles like the Xbox, listened to purchased music on devices such as Ipods, and so on. Occasionally, they went to live performances that became increasingly expensive as culture became a winner-take-all market. Now, people consume more locally produced culture, much of it self-created.
Fundamentally, the transformation was made possible by recognizing the centrality of work to achieving a sustainable and desirable society. Work is a very revealing lens on the values and priorities of a society and an economy: describe who is working and who is not and what they are working at—the number of teachers, healthcare workers, youth coaches, persons assisting the elderly and disabled, those caring for young children, artists, musicians, those who maintain and restore natural habitats as contrasted with the number of those in mining and other extractive industries, manufacturing, sales, and retail—and one can tell whether or not it is a just society and it is paying down or accumulating environmental debt.
No longer is the U.S. economy primarily organized around the production and sale of physical things, such as cars, entertainment centers, game consoles, and computers (though it still produces lots of stuff). Increasingly, since the political changes of the mid-2020’s the main activity that people are employed in is helping other people. Thus, the goal of the economy is no longer material growth but rather the satisfaction of human needs—for security, understanding (making sense of the world), usefulness, belonging, meaning, competence, hope, excitement, and creativity.
Not only have we achieved incredible reductions in the use of fossil fuels, but we have done so through a transition to a full-employment economy—and without inflation! To be precise, according to the latest figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is now the equivalent of 210 million full-time jobs (defined as working 32 hours per week/46 weeks a year). These positions are shared by 95 percent of the 275 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 90 who are working and an additional 30 million “kids” between the ages of 13 and 19.
To put some flesh on the bone, the U.S. population is now at about 375 million (about 30 million less than what was projected 30 years ago). Approximately 100 million people are under 20 years of age, 200 million are between 20 and 64, and about 70 million are over 65 but less than 90. Altogether, there are about 300 million people working, with about 90 million doing professional or technical work. This includes 25 million as health workers, 30 million as teachers, five million as digital and computer specialists, 10 million as engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians, six million as artists and entertainers, five million as social workers, and nine million as recreational specialists. Twelve million people, a majority of them youth, work in environmental restoration. There are far fewer lawyers, accountants, financial planners, and sales workers then there were 30 years ago, despite the growth in population and participation in the labor force. Far more people, 30 million, now work in some aspect of food production than in 2014. This has been made possible in part by the de-emphasis of private car ownership, which opened up vast portions of cities for community gardens, urban farms, and other uses. Now, much of the food consumed in cities is grown nearby rather than trucked in from distant industrial farms. There are also 40 million people involved in crafts and small-scale manufacturing while the number in large-scale industrial manufacturing is about 15 million (down considerably from 30 years ago, which can be explained by increased automation and reduced demand for material goods), primarily producing smart and energy-efficient devices for the home on the one hand and solar and wind systems and public transportation vehicles on the other.
How is it possible that so many people are working? Let’s start with the youth: young people have always worked. When the economy was primarily agricultural, they were additional hands and brawn on the family farm. As economies made the transition to industry and factory production, many children were drafted into the industrial workforce and made to labor long hours for low wages under appalling conditions. Subsequently, after minimum age laws and other legislations to protect children from exploitation were passed, many children (primarily middle-class) nonetheless worked at odd jobs like mowing lawns, shoveling snow, babysitting, and in fast food restaurants and retail outlets, mostly to earn some extra money. Youth from minority communities, who needed the money but did not have the same opportunities because they lacked sponsorship and because there were fewer small businesses in their neighborhoods, alternatively worked in the underground economy. Nearly all this work was tangential to their ultimate careers, which they began much later and often entered abruptly, and after many years of schooling. By way of contrast, young people now enter the “real” labor force gradually: a few hours at first, then slowly increasing with each year. They get the opportunity to try different things and experiment with what they would ultimately like to do. The work is coordinated with their learning programs at school so that they get both practical experience and didactic training, and the work is consequential. Some examples of the kinds of work you might find young people doing include assisting the elderly to stay in his/her home and remain independent, working with very young children, working as an aid on public transit, and so on.
The work life of the aging population has also changed considerably as contrasted with the first decades of the 21st century. Now, as people age, rather than abruptly leave the labor force through retirement, the norm is to gradually do so over many years (and for some to never completely leave). This has created many benefits as we have discovered. First of all, this has eliminated all poverty among the elderly. Poverty was substantially eliminated in the 1960s with increases in Social Security payments and the introduction of Medicare. Still, for many of the elderly, a significant fraction of whom were not able to save much over the course of their working lives, retirement meant a substantial reduction in income. Now, by gradually reducing work hours, the elderly maintain their income at 90 percent or more of their peak earnings. This has reduced the burdens on Social Security and insured (along with the vast overall increase in the labor force) the long-term solvency of this essential program. Additionally, it has been found by longitudinal studies going back to 2020 that, as contrasted with retirees from the early decades of this century and the previous one, the elderly who continue to work are substantially healthier (both physically and mentally), which has dramatically reduced the growth in the costs of Medicare. The findings of these studies do indicate that not just any kind of work achieves these outcomes—work that is demeaning, isolating, overly physically demanding and work that does not seem to have apparent value has the opposite effect. Luckily, this kind of work has been discouraged to the point of disappearing.
The phasing-in of youth and the phasing-out of the aging population is just one of the ways in which the work world has been transformed over the last three decades. Another transformation is how advancement has become much fairer. People today are evaluated on the basis of performance, not credentials or the particular school they attended. In lots of instances, professional careers have been organized in a vertical ladder in which each rung involves more complex responsibilities. For example, to become a teacher today, an aspiring applicant would first serve as a teacher’s assistant by fulfilling assignments given him/her by the supervising classroom teacher, such as small-group and one-to-one instruction and tutoring. Subsequently, the teacher’s assistant would be promoted to Assistant II, then an associate, a classroom teacher, a supervising teacher, and finally, a mentor teacher.
The work is also organized so that it is gratifying to the people who perform it. It provides financial security through a living wage and benefits package as well as other forms of security. The person doing the work also gets genuine feelings of competence and a sense of belonging. The work creates real value (i.e. it makes other peoples’ lives better) and provides opportunities to be creative, among other things. It also supports a livable earth through a conscious effort to minimize physical throughput (depletion and pollution) and through the millions of people employed in some form of environmental rehabilitation. Finally, the work supports quality of life and the satisfaction of human needs for others.
There have been many positive secondary effects of this transformation of the U.S. economy. One such effect has been the reduction in crime and incarceration of prisoners, with a particular steep decline among minority populations, especially the youth. There are multiple explanations for this: with the conscious effort to generate a sense of belonging in the different arenas of life, many young people no longer seek membership in a gang as a way of achieving this fundamental need. Moreover, by being employed in an activity that helps others, these young people get a sense of competence, mastery, and usefulness. This promotes genuine self-esteem and with it a corresponding reduction in self-destructive activity. In a similar vein, unwanted pregnancies, particularly, teen pregnancies (and, correspondingly, abortions) have been reduced for many of the same reasons.
At the global level, with the U.S. no longer an obstacle but rather a model for the reduction in carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels, the rest of the advanced economies soon followed its lead and adopted similar measures. Consequently, the most dire predictions are not expected to occur, though some negative effects have had to be mitigated. For the developing countries of Africa and, to a lesser extent, Asia and South America, it has meant greater access to material resources that have been used to build up critical infrastructure so they can deliver essential services and goods. According to the United Nations, we recently passed the milestone of 90 percent of worldwide households having access to clean water and a diet with both variety and a sufficient amount of protein and almost 80 percent have cloud-computing accounts. To summarize, we’ve come a long way—but we’re not done yet.