Seeking an Agenda for a Sustainable Future

You say you got a real solution,
Well, you know we’d all love to see the plan, oh yeah …
— John Lennon, 1968

Nearly a half-century later, there is still no plan. The current radical critics of “the system”–who mostly take a holistic rather than piecemeal approach–have yet to put forth a coherent public policy agenda to get us to a sustainable American and global future.

These critics are very good at analyzing our problems—peak oil, the long emergency, the stages of collapse, global warming and climate change, the financialization of the economy, the impossible debt burden, the maldistribution of wealth, the corruption of politics by “big money,” the arrogance of “American exceptionalism,” and so on—but they are short on prescriptions.

So it should be no surprise that, in popular parlance, radical critics are reduced more or less to the label “doomers.” That’s mostly because, while they see the coming crisis, they don’t have much to say about what we can do about it, except endure it. Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the crisis has a paralyzing effect.

I’m a doomer too. I more or less accept the arguments advanced for why “the system” is unsustainable. But, absent a clear sense of basic alternatives to the worst aspects of “the system,” our descent into some form of collapse may well be worse than it needs to be.

When your doctor tells you you’ve got a life-threatening disease, sooner or later you’d better believe it. You’d be foolish not to explore what sorts of treatments might keep you going, or how to adjust to lower expectations.

If that makes sense, then developing some understanding of fundamental alternatives to current policies is important, and worth fighting for. It might even form the basis of a political agenda.

What is offered here, however, is much more modest—at best only a preliminary essay to that end.

Consider, in that light, the following 4-point agenda:

1. Withdraw US military forces from all foreign countries

This should be a no-brainer. It is increasingly evident that the US can no longer hope to maintain a crumbling world order. A long train of overseas military interventions—in violation of international law—have eroded American credibility, leading to resentment, blowback, and increasing resistance.

In the emerging multipolar world no single new superpower is likely to arise. Instead we can expect the growth of regional powers who will check one another’s ambitions. Should they go to war, we need not be involved.

No formal treaty was ever signed ending World War II. Instead the war has continued under various guises: the Cold War, and then the War Against Terror. In pursuing these extensions of World War II, the US has developed into a national security state threatening domestic liberties, while maintaining at enormous expense military bases in over 130 foreign countries.

It’s time to end World War II. It’s time for the US to call a global peace conference, downsize its military, and adopt a purely defensive posture. A formal peace conference ending World War II would be an opportunity to reestablish international law and make international institutions like the UN accountable and effective.

This does not mean a new isolationism. The US can and no doubt should enter into bilateral relations, even alliances, with selected partners understood to be equals. These partners should be genuinely sovereign states, or federations of such states (like the European Union); they should not be militarily dependent client states (like Germany, Italy, Japan, and others today).

The money saved by bringing home the troops—the peace dividend briefly considered, but never realized, after the end of the Cold War—would enable the US to finance solutions to its profound and neglected domestic problems.

American global demilitarization is the essential first step in dealing with the serious domestic problem which has emerged over recent decades. The remaining points address these problems.

2. Disestablish all political parties by separating party and state. Bar all parties from the electoral process, and replace at-large electoral districts with a confederal system of representation

Our political system is deeply corrupt, and most everyone knows it. The major political parties have a lock over the electoral process and are little more than conduits for candidates funded by special interests. As gatekeepers to public office, they control the political agenda and exclude alternative voices. As long as the one percenters and the corporate interests they control can buy off party leaders and politicians, no basic reforms can be carried out.

Political parties have inserted themselves into the political process by monopolizing which candidates qualify for public office. Yet there is no good reason why they should control ballot access, nor why party labels should be required of candidates on ballots.

Eliminating the formal power of political parties to nominate candidates for office, or to play any official role in the political process, is an essential step in ending the death grip of the special interests over American politics.

People can organize into groups, of course, independently of the electoral process, and exercise freedom of speech and assembly. But elections themselves should be entirely open and based on individual candidates, not on party. Why should freedom of choice and association be tolerated everywhere except in politics, where the practical options are limited to being a Democrat or Republican?

The large electoral districts—common in elections for most state and federal offices—are the other great obstacle to real democracy, and should be abolished. The average American congressional district, for instance, has over 600,000 in population. Only candidates vetted by wealthy special interests have any hope of running for such offices.

Once elected, public officials in such districts—indeed in any district too large for face-to-face deliberations—can easily play off constituents against one another while satisfying their large donors. This is not democracy, but oligarchy.

The US constitution, whatever its virtues, enshrined an elitist form of government which purposively excluded any connection with local assemblies, with the people. Most of the founding fathers were notoriously fearful of democracy.

In letters written from Monticello after leaving the presidency, Thomas Jefferson outlined a system of confederal democracy which he thought would finally complete the American revolution and establish democracy in America.

In Jefferson’s system local assemblies or town meetings (he called them ward republics) would elect representatives to a first level of representative bodies (counties); those in turn would elect from their number representatives to state legislatures, who in turn would elect from their number representatives to the national congress.

Notice that no large, anonymous electoral districts are required here. At each level, representatives are elected in face-to-face assemblies by peers already so elected. Most importantly, there would be no need to conduct mass campaigns or engage in mass political propaganda. Confederal democracy would take the money out of politics.

Confederal democracy could be implemented by way of constitutional conventions or amendments, federal and state. In the era when the American revolution threw off British elitism, most state governments for a time became relatively democratic or had strong democratic movements. But elitist rule by monied interests quickly reasserted itself, culminating in an anti-democratic US constitution—a situation which has persisted to this day.

3. Establish a decentralized, non-usurious system of public credit

In the sixties, “the system” was understood by radical critics as mainly out-of-control capitalism, as it still is. But then—as trumpeted by The New Left—it was mostly conceived as capital exploiting labor, with a lot of rumbling and misplaced Marxist-Leninist verbiage.

We’ve learned since that the problem lies on a more fundamental level, that it’s mostly about creditors exploiting debtors. Workers are exploited by low wages, to be sure. But they are exploited more subtly and pervasively by a usurious financial system which has enabled them, temporarily, to improve their material conditions; the price, however, is endless debt peonage.

Today people increasingly labor for a living because they’re in hock for most everything, from mortgages to student loans. They end up transferring a big chunk of their wages to their creditors (just add up the interest on your mortgage).

The ability to borrow money on good collateral without the burden of high interest rates is arguably the best way to reverse this flow of wealth and end the self-destructive dynamic of usurious finance. Instead of a relatively few creditors skimming off the earnings of the many, the latter would have access to the credit they need without having to pay a crushing premium in return.

The need to service the debt premium insisted upon by the usurious financial system is arguably the major engine of unsustainable economic growth, resource depletion, and global pollution. A non-usurious public credit alternative would end the monopoly of private bankers and their private tax on debtors.

Such a system would liberate the many from the current tyranny of the financial system, and deal it a serious and perhaps fatal blow. This would be a vital step to mitigating the harms currently being inflicted on the planet.

With local credit free of the interest burden, local economies would be able to function on their own, relying on their own credit, independently of “the system.” Not having to “grow” at any cost, they would be free to find their own level. Networks of local production and distribution would have a chance to arise apart from the increasingly vulnerable global nexus of far-flung production and distribution.

Borrowers would be able, for the first time, to afford to finance their own lives, and thereby gain the opportunity to accumulate capital. This would allow a transition from a dead-end and increasingly obsolete wage-based society to an asset-based society. Once people have accumulated some capital, they could invest in productive enterprises and gain the opportunity to benefit from ownership as an alternative to wage-labor.

4. Transition as quickly and fully as possible to whatever renewable sources of energy are available

The use of fossil fuels has accelerated the depletion of resources and left us with the toxic legacy of global warming. This promises to trump all our other problems.

Unless runaway global warming ends life as we know it on the planet—and it might—some kind of post-collapse existence by a diminished and chastened humanity will be our fate.

Insofar as some kind of economic and social collapse is increasingly likely, it looks like we will have little choice but to transition to renewables. If so, we need to prepare to do so as intelligently and systematically as possible. A delayed and disorderly transition, re-enforced by ignorance and denial, will only encourage chaos and suffering.

The promise of renewables is the possibility of living sustainability on the planet. That means eschewing growth in favor of living within our ecological limits.

But this can only occur if the earlier points made above are realized. As long as the United States maintains its overseas empire, its enormous costs will drain our resources and prevent the investment required to transition to renewables. As long as we labor under an oligarchic political system where private banking and fossil fuel industries play a commanding role, investment will be directed to fossil fuels at the expense of renewables. And as long as we have a privatized, usurious financial system, the demands of creditors for endless economic growth will undermine the steady-state reciprocity renewables require.


Perhaps all this sounds like a fantasy. How could we possibly get from here to there? Some would say no larger vision is necessary or useful, that incremental steps—a carbon tax, restoring Glass-Steagell, etc.—are what we need. Perhaps so. But a deeper view may help prevent the co-optation which so often neutralizes incremental steps.

Consider the logic implied in these 4 points. The key step is the first one: to dismantle the overseas American empire. This is hardly an implausible suggestion. Its advantages could well be sold to the American public by a deft and genuine populist political leader. It would mean directly taking on the military-industrial complex and its twin, the national security state, and their many clients, foreign and domestic.

Once the unwinding of the American empire is put on the agenda, and the military industrial/national security state driving that empire is openly challenged, all other corporate privileges—corporate personhood, special tax breaks, sweetheart trade deals, preferential legislation–come into question as well.

The battle against corporate power then becomes a battle against the political structures which support it. The next step—if we are serious–is to call for disestablishing political parties and large electoral districts in favor of a system of confederal democracy.

Confederal democracy, keep in mind, is no less than a return to the genuine participatory democracy of the era of the American revolution, and should be as American as apple pie. It should emerge as the logical alternative to the oligarchic rule under which we labor.

Once a confederal democracy is established, then the key instrument of domestic social injustice—the privatized, usurious, monopolistic banking system—can be undermined by establishing an independent, decentralized system of non-usurious credit, providing the promise of personal security to all.

Faced with such an alternative, our usurious financial system would lose its monopoly, and hence its power. At the same time, the availability of non-usurious credit to ordinary people would help create in its place an independent, locally-orientated economy.

The combination of confederal democracy and localized, non-usurious credit would enable, finally, a transition to a sustainable future. By eliminating their tax benefits and pricing in their externalities—a step only a genuinely democratic government is likely to take—the true costs of fossil fuels could be established, making them unaffordable. And the availability of credit to citizens and businesses without extortion would enable them to finance the widespread and localized use of renewables. This would be no utopia, to be sure, but it might be a way to survive.

Adrian Kuzminski is the author of The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability (2013) and Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient and Modern (2008). He is also a Moderator of Sustainable Otsego, an environmental social network in the Cooperstown, NY, area. Read other articles by Adrian.