Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions: Time to Talk About the Next System

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Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions: Time to Talk About the Next System

"Our current system," explains Speth, "is simply not programmed to secure the well-being of people, place, and planet." (Image: NextSystem.org)

The following essay first appeared at The Leap, the recently launched blog for the This Changes Everything project:

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know that we’re facing a profound crisis. It is a crisis that encompasses almost all aspects of national and international life. We are surrounded by tragic failures—environmental, social, economic, and political. Your interest in Naomi Klein’s work also suggests that, in addition to recognizing the scale of the challenges we face, you are also interested in finding out how we might address them.

After over forty years of working in the environmental movement, I have come to the conclusion that our largest problems—including climate change—are deeply rooted in our fundamental political-economic system. Working within it to achieve incremental changes, however valuable, will never be enough. Our current system is simply not programmed to secure the well-being of people, place, and planet. Its priorities instead are GDP growth, corporate profits, and the projection of national power—typically military.

If we are to escape the crisis now unfolding around us, we must create a new system of political economy capable of taking us to a very different place, where outcomes that are truly sustainable, equitable, and democratic are commonplace. This is, I believe, the most important task we can engage in at this moment in history.

In an effort to do my part, I have helped to establish an ambitious, multi-year project that aims to bring a range of thinking about systemic alternatives to the forefront. The historian and political economist Gar Alperovitz, based at the Democracy Collaborative, is co-chairing it with me. This project, which we have called the Next System Project, officially launched on March 31st with the release of a statement that outlines the systemic nature of the crisis and calls for systemic solutions. Originally signed by 350 prominent activists, scholars, practitioners, labor leaders, and business people, more than 5,000 others have now added their names in support. 50,000 people have viewed our short film. We have also released a first report, which explains the goals and thinking behind the project in greater depth.

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The Next System Project launched this short video today from economist Juliet Schor, explaining the structural links between the inequality and climate crises—and why mindlessly expanding the economy is not the solution.

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 The good news is that we certainly aren’t starting from zero. As the Beautiful Solutions Gallery and Lab wonderfully illustrates, many concrete examples and theoretical models for how we might reach our goal of a healthy, sustainable future already exist. These include campaigns to make the renewable energy transition impactful at many levels of society, including—but not limited to—the public or community ownership of the new sector. Such ownership forms would not only inject some much-needed democracy into our system, but could also contribute to social and economic revitalization. As many are already doing, we need to bring the future into the present, starting in our own communities.

Naomi is certainly right that meeting the climate challenge will require deep, systemic change. As long as society’s real priorities remain growing GDP, generating corporate profits, increasing the incomes of those who already have plenty, and sustaining our consumerist lifestyles, addressing climate disruption will be like trying to run up a very fast down escalator. Speaking out about such connections will help to mainstream the debate around the systemic nature of the crisis, which is one of the principal goals of our project.

Over the coming months and years, we at the Next System Project intend to launch a rigorous exploration of solutions, and to share our findings through published reports, working papers, and videos. We also hope to hold conferences, develop activist training materials, and provide other platforms where people can engage and interact with one another. People will be joining this debate at different points, and coming with many different perspectives and experiences. Our efforts will require collaboration with communities already engaged in a wide range of complementary work, which I suspect will include many of you reading this. We already have plans to collaborate with Naomi and her team.

As a first step, and to make contact with us and show your support, please consider signing our statement at thenextsystem.org, and getting involved in the work of the project. I am very excited to see where it will lead. The future is full of possibilities.

James Gustave Speth

James Gustave Speth

James Gustave Speth is a professor at Vermont Law School and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization. His most recent book is, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. A former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he also co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was founder and president of the World Resources Institute, and served as administrator of the United Nations Development Program. His previous books include: The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.

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