Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I listened to Gus Speth talk about his new book, America the Possible, yesterday afternoon. This is his third book in what might be called a trilogy, with echoes to John Dos Passos’s massive USA trilogy of the 1930’s, The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. Dos Passos’s novels, written in a highly unconventional style, depicted the lives of a group of families struggling to become rooted in the US society of the early 20th century. It is impossible to capture the work in a few words, but here goes.The theme relevant for this blog is how the social and political system of that period thwarted the dreams and aspirations of the characters. The issues were different, socialism played a major role, but the stories have a ring of contemporaneous truths to them. Like the Vietnam War changed the reality for many Americans, WWI had the same effect for Dos Passos and his fiction. It has been years since I read this trilogy and others of his works, but I have a strong image of very pessimistic artist, looking at a country unable to fulfill the dreams of its citizens.
If this sounds familiar, it is meant to be. If I had to capture the feelings about America today, I would say something like we are (and have been) living through the destruction of the American Dream, mythical as it is and was forever. Speth’s book is a manifesto of how to restore the health of the country by transforming the current capitalistic political economy. Dos Passos was a writer and portrayed the ills through the lives of his characters, interspersing their stories with tidbits of real news. Speth is a scholar and activist and uses real facts to point to the ills of today. I have extracted a few pages from the beginning of his book. Taken together, these data are so stark that they may seem unreal, and I am sure the apologists for the US might say they are selective and trumped up. But they are not, and here they are.
So let’s look at the present, and at a group of advanced democracies, specifically the major countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-twenty in all, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Nordics, Japan, Canada, and others. They can be thought of as our peer countries. What we see when we look at these countries is that compared with them, the United States now ranks at or very near the bottom in a host of important areas. America now has:
- the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
- the greatest inequality of incomes;
- the lowest government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) on social programs for the disadvantaged;
- the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of children”;
- the worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index;
- the lowest social mobility;
- the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, and yet the highest infant mortality rate, prevalence of mental health problems, obesity rate, percentage of people going without health care due to cost concerns, and consumption of antidepressants per capita, along with the shortest life expectancy at birth;
- the third lowest scores for student performance in math and middling scores in science and reading;
- the second highest high school dropout rate;
- the highest homicide rate;
- the largest prison population, both absolutely and per capita;
- the highest water consumption per capita and the second-highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita;
- the lowest score on the Yale-World Economic Forum’s Environmental Performance Index, and the second largest Ecological Footprint per capita;
- the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
- the third-lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
- the highest military spending in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
- the largest international arms sales.
Need I say more!