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Navigating the Deep Currents
Contribution to GTI Forum What’s Next for the Global Movement?

Gus Speth

In my imagination, the activist communities to which many of us feel close affection are each in separate little boats paddling ourselves through swirling waters. Whether flagged environmental integrity, social and economic justice, community solidarity, or people’s democracy, sometimes our boats go forward, then backwards, sometimes sideways. But one cannot help but notice that the boats tend strongly to move together, carried along by currents more powerful than our efforts.

Far too often, progressives neglect the underlying currents that are powerfully affecting all our boats. These currents heavily determine whether we make progress in our journeys or move backwards or go nowhere at all.

To succeed in the major ways we dream about requires understanding those underlying forces that shape our prospects. Once we know what we are dealing with, the good news is that progressives can join together in facing a shared situation. The inconvenient news is that when we look at the common, underlying causes of the problems, we find forces that are often deeply burrowed in the mainstream, often so widely and conventionally accepted that to challenge them appears radical to many.

Any search for the sources of the currents holding back real progress must start with the political and economic system. Its prominent features include ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, focusing on high financial returns to guide investments, increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, neglecting those marginalized and desperate, promoting runaway consumerism, facilitating great bastions of corporate political and economic power, and pursuing a host of self-serving and harmful policies internationally—all the while demonizing governmental efforts to correct its side effects and shortcomings.

There are more sources of unwelcomed currents, of course. Dominant cultural values tend decidedly materialistic and anthropocentric. Democracy is impaired in many countries. And there is an ever-active military-industrial complex working away.

It is hard to see where to turn. We know what must be done. But how?

This we can do. We can search for small openings, seizing opportunities wherever. We can be crisis-ready, anticipating moments of punctuated equilibrium when impossible becomes inevitable. We can back leaders with vision and skill. We can meld now-siloed progressive energies into an unprecedented fusion of forces. We can sustain journalism and scholarship to keep truth alive and core values burnished. We can embrace our preachers and prophets, those who elevate new values and battered spirits. We can hold each other tightly.

There are some encouragements and, even more, avenues for engagement. Among the building blocks now evident, activism is increasing, especially among the young, the marginalized, the victims, and organized labor. Doubts about the current order are surfacing, and calls for transformative change grow louder. Aversion to socialist ideas, once off-limits, is fading, especially among young people. The rising menace of climate change is bringing home the imperative of a strong, effective government of, by, and for the people. The threat to democracy is recognized, and the fight for a democratic future is joined. All is not lost, but it is already a close call.

There are already positive currents driving toward transformative change, and they will likely strengthen in the future. The possibility progressives must face, however, is that this strengthening will be too modest and too slow to head off a series of genuine catastrophes. This possibility underscores the imperative of progressives leaving their own little boats—their issue silos—and together forging a mighty political force for deep, transformative change. This fusion of forces, a movement of movements, would be new and could make all the difference.

Gus Speth

Gus Speth is an Associate Fellow at Tellus Institute, co-chair of the Next System Project at the Democracy Collaborative, and author of America the Possible.

Cite as Gus Speth, "Navigating the Deep Currents," contribution to GTI Forum "What's Next for the Global Movement?," Great Transition Initiative (January 2024),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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