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Gus Speth '64 on "Changing America's Mind"

Gus Speth, our classmate and former dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, wrote the following essay.

Towards New Consciousness in America: Roles for Grantmakers

James Gustave Speth
Consultative Group on Biological Diversity
Lake Tahoe, June 22, 2010

I want to summon you to a task that has been badly neglected: changing America's mind. By this I do not mean bringing more Americans to appreciate that climate change is real and threatening, or that we are impoverishing the planet's biota at an unprecedented pace, as important as these would be. No, I want to challenge you to help catalyze nothing less than a transformation of consciousness in America.

We need America to writhe free of its dominant culture, its values and habits of thought and find a new consciousness that affirms the priority, indeed the preciousness, of the community of life, humans and nature. And we need it soon.

This transformation in values and consciousness is not something merely to dream about and hope for. It is, far more than we might think, a practical task that can be pursued and supported by grantmakers. Indeed, I will identify ten areas for your attention and support. I know that for some this area falls outside your current program guidelines, but I urge you to make room for it! Interestingly, most of the things I will identify for your possible support are things that merit support for other reasons too.

Let me explain why I believe this cultural transformation is essential. First, everyone here probably appreciates that we are now headed deeper and deeper into trouble. By we, I mean both our country and the human society on this planet. I will not recount here the abundant evidence of the interacting set of environmental, economic, social, and political troubles we face. But, to highlight the environmental challenge briefly, here is one measure of the problem: All that human societies have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to future generations is to keep doing exactly what is being done today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels — they are accelerating dramatically. It took all of history to build the $7 trillion world economy of 1950; recently, economic activity has grown by that amount every decade. At typical rates of growth, the world economy will now double in size in less than 20 years. We are thus facing the possibility of an enormous increase in environmental deterioration, just when we need to move strongly in the opposite direction.

If we are headed into deeper and deeper trouble, the next question is: how do we reverse course? Here is my assessment of what we must do. If we are going to avoid our own ongoing decline today, we need to begin in earnest the process of economic and political transformation — not incremental change but systemic change. Central to this transformation is the move to a new economy, a sustaining economy where sustaining human and natural communities — sustaining people and planet — is the true and overriding priority. We need to shift to a new economic paradigm.

It is not difficult to identify the transitions that will be needed in order to move to this new, sustaining economy. Here are the needed transitions:

  • In the market: from laissez-faire to strict regulation and market governance in the public interest; from misleading prices to environmentally honest ones;
  • In the corporation: from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy, from one ownership and motivation model to many;
  • In social conditions: from economic insecurity to security, from vast inequities to fundamental fairness and social justice;
  • In economic growth: from growth fetish to post-growth society, from mere GDP growth to growth in human welfare and democratically determined priorities;
  • In indicators of progress: from GDP to accurate measures of social and environmental health and quality of life;
  • In consumerism: from consumerism and affluenza to sufficiency and mindful consumption;
  • In communities: from ruthless runaway enterprise to vital local economies, from rootlessness to rootedness and solidarity;
  • In politics: from weak democracy to strong, from undue corporate influence to true popular sovereignty;
  • In global vision: from economic globalization to a planetary civilization worthy of the name, from invidious division to global citizenship;
  • In foreign policy and the military: from American exceptionalism to interdependence, from hard power to soft, from war economy to peace economy.

Identifying these transitions may be straightforward; making them happen is another matter. Each will be difficult; together, they will require unprecedented effort, commitment, and struggle. What is the key to making them happen? Here is where consciousness change comes into the picture, and it comes to the fore in a major way. Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that transitions like these will require the rise of a new consciousness. 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 of what society values and prizes most highly.

The father of the land ethic, Aldo Leopold, came to believe "that there is a basic antagonism between the philosophy of the industrial age and the philosophy of the conservationist." Remarkably, he wrote to a friend that he doubted anything could be done about conservation "without creating a new kind of people."

Two leading scientists, Stanford's Paul Ehrlich and Donald Kennedy, note that "it is the collective actions of individuals that lie at the heart of the [environmental] dilemma," and that "analysis of individual motives and values should be critical to the solution." They call for a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior "to conduct an ongoing examination and public airing of what is known about how human cultures (especially their ethics) evolve, and about what kinds of changes might permit transition to an ecologically sustainable, peaceful, and equitable global society. . . . What we are asking for is a cultural change; we know that cultures evolve, and our hope is that the very process of debate will speed that process and encourage change in a positive direction."

Paul Raskin and his Global Scenario Group have developed many scenarios of world economic, social, and environmental conditions, including scenarios where there are no fundamental changes in consciousness and values. But without a change in values, all their scenarios run into big trouble. (I suspect that is true of MEA scenarios too. Real success in saving biodiversity depends on value change.) Raskin's team urges a future where society turns "to non-material dimensions of fulfillment. . . the quality of life, the quality of human solidarity and the quality of the earth. . . . Sustainability is the imperative that pushes the new agenda. Desire for a rich quality of life, strong human ties and a resonant connection to nature is the lure that pulls it toward the future." The revolution Raskin and his colleagues envision is primarily a revolution in values and consciousness.

Two of the leading authorities on religion and ecology, Yale's Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, believe that to meet the environmental crisis, "we are called to a new intergenerational consciousness and conscience" and that "values and ethics, religion and spirituality" are important factors in "transforming human consciousness and behavior for a sustainable future."

Erich Fromm believed that the only hope was a "New Man" and called for "a radical change of the human heart." "The need for profound human change emerges not only as an ethical or religious demand, not only as a psychological demand arising from the pathogenic nature of our present social character, but also as a condition for the sheer survival of the human race. . . . [O]nly a fundamental change in human character from a preponderance of the having mode to a predominantly being mode of existence can save us."

The cultural historian Thomas Berry has described forging a new consciousness as our "Great Work." "The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans. . .

"Consistently we have difficulty in accepting the human as an integral part of the Earth community. We see ourselves as a transcendent mode of being. We don't really belong here. But if we are here by some strange destiny then we are the source of all rights and all values. All other earthly beings are instruments to be used or resources to be exploited for human benefit."

Berry believes what is required is "a profound reversal in our perspective on ourselves and on the universe about us. . . . What is demanded of us now is to change attitudes that are so deeply bound into our basic cultural patterns that they seem to us as an imperative of the very nature of our being."

What these authors and many others are saying is that today's challenges require a rapid evolution to a new consciousness. That is a profound conclusion. It suggests that today's problems cannot be solved with today's mind, to paraphrase Einstein's famous dictum.

I would never say that no progress towards sustainability can be made until American culture has been transformed. But I do believe that we won't get far in the transition to sustainability unless there is a parallel, ongoing transformation in values and culture.

So, for starters, we need to understand better the wellsprings of cultural transformation. Grantmakers can help here. I suspect, for example, that Paul Ehrlich's MAHB project and similar efforts have ideas and would welcome your support. This is area No. 1 for your attention: fund efforts that will help us understand better the process of cultural change and the need for it.

It is hard to doubt the need for the new consciousness. That being the case, two important questions emerge. First, what are the dimensions of the change in consciousness required by today's circumstance, and, second, what can be said about forces that can drive cultural and consciousness change of the type and on the scale needed?

Here is how I would describe the changes in consciousness now needed to move successfully from today to tomorrow:

  • from seeing humanity as something apart from nature, transcending and dominating it, to seeing ourselves as part of nature, offspring of its evolutionary process, close kin to wild things, and wholly dependent on its vitality and the finite services it provides;
  • from seeing nature in strictly utilitarian terms, humanity's resource to exploit as it sees fit for economic and other purposes, to seeing the natural world as having intrinsic value independent of people and having rights that create the duty of ecological stewardship;
  • from discounting the future, focusing severely on the near term, to empowering future generations economically, politically and environmentally and recognizing duties to yet unborn human and natural communities well into the future;
  • from hyper-individualism, narcissism, and social isolation to powerful community bonds reaching from the local to the cosmopolitan and to profound appreciation of interdependence both within and among countries;
  • from parochialism, sexism, prejudice and ethnocentrism to tolerance, cultural diversity, and universal human rights;
  • from materialism, consumerism, getting, and the primacy of possessions, to personal and family relationships, leisure play, experiencing nature, spirituality, giving, and living within limits;
  • from gross economic, social and political inequality to equity, social justice, and human solidarity.

With these directions for changes in mind, we can turn to the second question: what might spur American sensibilities in these directions? We must be about forging cultural change, not waiting on it. Here, the insight of Daniel Patrick Moynihan is helpful: "The central conservative truth is that culture, not politics, determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." In short, Moynihan is saying that cultural change is something we can bring about. So, what do we know about what causes cultural change?

Unfortunately, we know well one sure path to widespread cultural change: a cataclysmic event — the crisis — that profoundly affects shared values and delegitimizes the status quo and existing leadership. The Great Depression is a classic example. I believe that both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina could have led to real cultural change in the United States, both for the better, but America lacked the inspired leadership needed. So here is area No. 2 for your attention and support: helping the American public anticipate the profound calamities that await us if we continue with business as usual. We need a sense of imminent crisis, for that is the reality we face. You can help educate Americans in this regard.

Will the Gulf disaster be different from Katrina and 9/11? Here is area No. 3 for unallocated resources you may have: How can you invest quickly in supporting those trying to make the Gulf catastrophe a period of cultural epiphany and social learning? This is a teachable moment. Let's teach.

One thorough look at the possibilities opened up by crises is Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down. He argues "that our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome's in key ways. Our societies are also becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid. This is happening partly because we're trying to manage―often with limited success―stresses building inside our societies, including stresses arising from our gargantuan appetite for energy. . . . Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses may become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown will occur. . . .

"In coming years, I believe, foreshocks are likely to become larger and more frequent. Some could take the form of threshold events―like climate flips, large jumps in energy prices, boundary-crossing outbreaks of new infectious disease, or international financial crises." He wrote before the current Great Recession and, of course, BP.

Homer-Dixon argues that foreshocks and breakdowns can lead to positive change but only if the ground is prepared. "We need to prepare to turn breakdown to our advantage when it happens―because it will," he says. Homer-Dixon's point is critically important. Breakdowns, of course, do not necessarily lead to positive outcomes; authoritarian ones and Fortress World are also possibilities. And recall what Milton Friedman perceptively observed about such preparation: "Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."

Homer-Dixon's and Friedman's assessments suggest a fourth area for your attention: developing the ideas and proposals that will be needed when crises occur, as they surely will. You can support preparing the ground for the crises ahead.

Two other key factors in cultural change are leadership and narrative. Harvard's Howard Gardner stresses this potential of true leadership in his book Changing Minds: "Whether they are heads of a nation or senior officials of the United Nations, leaders of large, disparate populations have enormous potential to change minds. . . and in the process they can change the course of history.

"I have suggested one way to capture the attention of a disparate population: by creating a compelling story, embodying that story in one's own life, and presenting the story in many different formats so that it can eventually topple the counterstories in one's culture. . . . [T]he story must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences."

There is some evidence that Americans are ready for another story. Bill Moyers, a powerful force for good in our country, has written that "America needs a different story. . . . The leaders and thinkers and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people." Large majorities of Americans, when polled, express disenchantment with today's lifestyles and offer support for values similar to those discussed here. But these values are held along with other strongly felt and often conflicting values, and we are all pinned down by old habits, fears, insecurities, social pressures and in other ways. A new story that helps people find their way out of this confusion and dissonance could help lead to real change. So a fifth area for your attention is supporting those who are trying to frame and promote this new story. So, support those trying to forge a new American dream.

Another source of value change is social movements. Social movements are all about consciousness raising, and if they are successful they can usher in a new consciousness. We speak casually about the environmental movement. Well, we need a real one, and it can't be just about environment this time. The current economic crisis and Washington's response reveal a system of political economy that is profoundly committed to profits and growth but concerned with average people and the environment mainly when required by law to do so. So it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject values of fairness, social justice, and sustainability into the system. But our efforts here commonly fail because our politics are too enfeebled and Washington is increasingly in the hands of powerful interests and concentrations of great wealth. The best hope for a successful movement and real change in America is a fusion of progressive forces. Bring those concerned about environment, social justice, and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force.

Environmentalists must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty movement. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals. Using climate as the entry point, groups like 350.org and 1Sky are among the new leaders in bottom-up movement building, and efforts like those of Annie Leonard and John de Graaf are pioneering ways of communicating a holistic perspective to a large public.

The new movement must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women's movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the "silo effect" that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.

So this is the sixth area where grantmakers can get involved — help us develop a true grass-roots, bottom-up, inclusive movement for real change in America. Help us achieve progressive fusion. Help us build the movement.

Another way forward to a new consciousness should lie in the world's religions. Mary Evelyn Tucker has noted that "no other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions," and that "the environmental crisis calls the religions of the world to respond by finding their voice within the larger Earth community. In so doing, the religions are now entering their ecological phase and finding their planetary expression." The potential of faith communities is enormous, and they are now turning attention with increasing strength to the environment. In a seventh area for your attention, I hope you will support those seeking to build a strong bridge between our religious communities and those promoting the transition to a new economy and new consciousness. It should be a very natural bridge given the teachings of the world's great religions. Help us build it.

Next, there is the great importance of sustained efforts at education. Here one should include education in the largest sense, embracing not only formal education but also day-to-day and experiential education. This includes also 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 these themes as well. This is the eighth area I encourage you to embrace. Help us build the capacity for social marketing.

Another hopeful path is seeding the landscape with innovative models. One of the most remarkable and yet under-noticed things going on in the United States today is the proliferation of innovative models of "local living" economies, sustainable communities and transitions towns, and for-benefit businesses that prioritize community and environment over profit and growth. Local currencies, slow money, state Genuine Progress Indicators, localvores — these are also in this category. These models will grow in importance as communities search for answers on how the future should look and can work. As we say, seeing is believing. In other words, and this is the ninth area for your attention: support those who are bringing the future into the present in very concrete ways. For new business and community models, see, e.g., www.asbcouncil.org; www.fourthsector.net; www.bcorporation.net; www.evergreencoop.com; www.smallisbeautiful.org; http://transitiontowns.org; www.onthecommons.org; www.communityindicators.net.

Finally, I believe the years ahead are a period where new organizations and institutional arrangements will be essential. Existing groups, including mainstream environmental groups, can carry some of the load, but in many ways their plates are full with worthwhile work, and their orientation towards incremental reform is not suited to promoting the integrated, systemic transformation now needed. It is for this reason that I personally am now working with a series of "new economy" organizations and initiatives that are committed to linking these issues and forging new strengths for systemic change. Among these initiatives are the New Economy Network, (www.neweconomynetwork.org), the New Economics Institute (www.neweconomicsinstitute.org), the New Economy Working Group, the 3rd Millennium Economy Project, and the Capital Institute (www.capitalinstitute.org). Cultural change is also integral to projects seeking to move America beyond consumerism and to dethrone GDP, efforts where Demos, the Center for a New American Dream and numerous others are involved. Support for initiatives like these is the tenth area I hope you will consider supporting. Support those trying to build the new economy.

To conclude, let me pull this together. What if the following occurred? Are the following occurring today? A decline in legitimacy as the system fails to deliver social and environmental well-being, together with a mounting sense of crisis and great loss, both occurring at a time of wise leadership, and accompanied by the articulation of a new American narrative or story, by the appearance across the landscape of new and appropriate models, and by the projection of a powerful set of new ideas and policy proposal previously "laying around" and confirming that the path to a better world does indeed exist — were all these to come together, real change would be possible. And prospects would be enhanced and advanced by a new social movement, powerful and inclusive. The best hope for such a new dynamic is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and true democracy into one progressive force. We are all communities of shared fate. We will rise or fall together, so we'd better get together.

Friends, a new consciousness in America is not a utopian dream; rather, it is a practical necessity. And it is one American grantmakers can help make happen as a practical matter.

Thank you.