Want to fix the climate? First, we have to change everything

Monday, April 6, 2015

by Brentin Mock

There was an important launch earlier this week where a bunch of high-profile figures came together to sign on to a new game-changing enterprise. No, I’m not talking about the gathering where Jay-Z, Beyonce, Madonna, and a dozen other artists announced their new music streaming service Tidal. I’m talking about The Next System, a project that seeks to disrupt or replace our traditional institutions for creating progressive change. Its backers include Greenpeace President Annie Leonard, clean energy champion Van Jones, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, climate activist (and Grist board member) Bill McKibben, and Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, and hundreds of others.

What the Next System will actually achieve remains to be seen. For now, there’s a website and a declaration. Here’s an excerpt:

Today’s political economic system is not programmed to secure the wellbeing of people, place and planet. Instead, its priorities are corporate profits, the growth of GDP, and the projection of national power. If we are to address the manifold challenges we face in a serious way, we need to think through and then build a new political economy that takes us beyond the current system that is failing all around us. However difficult the task, however long it may take, systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Helping head this up is the historian and political economist Gar Alperovitz, 78, former legislative aide to Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who helped spur Earth Day into reality in the late 1960s. Alperovitz was around for that and also the halcyon era of the 1960s and ’70s when Congress was able to pass effective civil rights and environmental legislation. More recently, he helped start the Democracy Collaborative, “a research center dedicated to the pursuit of democratic renewal, increased civic participation, and community revitalization.”

With the Next System, Alperovitz is hoping to shepherd discussions around what new systems and institutions can be created to help heal what political and corporate systems have desecrated. He also seeks to elevate the new systems that are already in place but could use some scaling up.

One major focus of the project is on expanding business models that grant company ownership to workers. It’s actually similar to the kind of thinking behind what Jay-Z is seeking for Tidal: granting musical artists the opportunity to help generate more wealth for themselves, rather than companies, when we stream their music online. It’s a sign that people aren’t only waking up, but are also trying to do something about the fact that current business models aren’t empowering laborers.

If millionaires like Jay-Z are the wrong example for this, then consider instead what Cesar Chavez sought to achieve for farmworkers: more rights, better compensation, ownership. These are the kinds of discussions Alperovitz wants to build upon through the Next System.

“Sophisticated discussions,” though, said Alperovitz, when I met with him at his home in D.C. last month. “No slogans.”

Here’s more from our conversation on how we get the Next System moving:

Q. There are some some strong people-power movements growing right now — the People’s Climate March, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays — but in a post-Citizens United world, where money increasingly influences politics, are those movements enough?

A. No. If you look at the way social movements developed historically, you have to lay three or four decades on the table to see real change. They always look weak in the beginning. Right now, I’m interested in the civil rights movements of the 1930s and ’40s. It was minuscule. [African Americans during that time] said they were going to get the vote, and if they weren’t hung from a tree they were regarded as crazy by their neighbors for saying it. It takes two or three decades for that kind of social movement development, not two-to-three months or two-to-three years. So we’re currently in that kind of process. Today, there is an anger building up in different sectors, and pain and social discontent. What’s happening in Ferguson is part of it. There’s more and more anger in the environmental movement, over climate change issues. The power base always wins the first rounds.

Q. Is there any component that’s missing today that made movements effective in the ’60s and ’70s?

A. Well, the piece that we have to take seriously is the institutional question. The liberal regime that I worked in during the 1960s depended not only on the civil rights and environmental movements, but also on labor unions. Back then, they controlled 35 percent of the labor force. They had money and power and organizational strength. It was a power base and you could use that muscle to elect people. This is why [in recent years] Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker first went after the unions, and I think they’ve already won that one. What’s interesting about the new economy movement is that it’s trying to build new institutions: worker co-ops, land trusts, municipal-owned electric utilities. All of that is very primitive now, but the moral and economic pain we’re feeling can be used to drive people. But you don’t play this game without throwing at least three decades on the table.

( read full interview at Grist.org )

~ Gar Alperovitz serves as New Economy Advisor to the President at the Green Shadow Cabinet