James Gustave Speth, green jazz, social jazz and community development

‘Just doing it’  – not waiting upon national governments and international organizations to take action – has led to a remarkable outpouring of initiatives around the global environmental crisis. We explore James Gustave Speth’s vision of unscripted, voluntary initiatives that are decentralized and improvisational – what he calls ‘jazz’ – and the possibilities for community development.

contents: introduction · frog, geopolity and jazz · james gustave speth and green jazz · social jazz and community development · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article

Writers have frequently used jazz as a metaphor for a particular phenomenon or situation. However, in recent years ‘jazz’ has gained some prominence as an idea within groupings seeking to combat the global environmental crisis and to promote sustainable development. James Gustave Speth has been an important advocate of the notion – but its most immediate roots lie in the work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (see, for example, Brown et. al. 2000). In a series of projects researchers used a simple, but very useful, model to help explore thinking about innovation and technology in the search for greater sustainability. They were especially interested in how companies and organizations handle uncertainty and questions around governance. They asked:

  • How we will recognize the resilience, limits and critical thresholds faced within the global ecosystem?
  • What forms of social system can best respond to the challenge of sustainable development? (Brown et. al. 2000: 4)

They came up with three different ways in which people view and respond to these parameters: FROG!, GEOPolity and Jazz.

FROG, GEOPolity and Jazz

FROG! stands for First Raise Our Growth! It describes ‘a low-trust world in which people focus on jobs, economic survival and short-term financial returns’ (op. cit.). The writers continue:

Although people believe they value sustainable development, local economic pressures dominate their thinking. After all, people (at least those who are already affluent) find it obvious that their neighborhoods have become far cleaner, presumably because they have already adopted the right approaches…. FROG! generates solid economic growth yet this will probably be unsustainable because no one takes care to address sustainability as their ambition.

In many respects the orientation involved approximates quite closely to what Galbraith described as the ‘culture of contentment’.

GEOPolity starts with an environmental crisis that is obvious to people, and the failure on the part of governments and businesses to deal with it and the problems that have accumulated. Alongside this is a growing recognition that new mechanisms are needed.

The spirit of the age – the “mood of the millennium” – captures the attention of people who have the ambition to put things right. This aligns their effort into a collective sense of purpose and they build an interlocking global governance system coordinated at an international level. (Brown et. al 2000: 5)

The result is the attempt to establish global institutions that will often try to engage companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in joint efforts. GeoPolity’s institutions ‘work towards market-based solutions but set new rules and regulatory frameworks for markets to follow’ (op. cit.). According to Brown et. al., a strength of GEOPolity lies in its ability to set rules and regulations to steer collective activity. Its weaknesses include ‘the difficulty of changing existing institutions that already feel empowered to deal with matters and the general risk of bureaucracy and slow response associated with “big institution” processes’ (op. cit.).

Jazz ‘describes a world in which people recognize that they can care about issues such as sustainable development without needing others to legislate the solution’ (op. cit.). People harness situations and opportunities to find solutions and in the process create ‘a complex market-led world of ad hoc experimentation’ It involves partnerships, alliances and fluidity to meet civil demands. It is also transparent. This means that the public can ‘identify and punish companies and governments that break the social norms’ (Brown et. al. 2000: 6). In Jazz, ‘the public sees no need to applaud expert opinion for its own sake’. However, while Jazz can help people to develop different responses, there is still a need for bigger institutions to create and bring agreement around frameworks to deal with global crises and some new technologies. In addition, ‘communities and organizations that lack resources and skills may find it hard to join the Jazz band’ (op. cit.).

This formulation of Frog!, GeoPolity and Jazz bears the marks of its origin in the business world. For example, there is a strong emphasis upon the role of companies and markets, and not much attention given to local, national and international political processes and forces. However, the model provides a very useful starting point for those wanting to explore the possibilities of unscripted, voluntary initiatives that are decentralized and improvisational. This is what James Gustave Speth does in his notion of ‘green Jazz’.

James Gustave Speth and green Jazz

James Gustave Speth has a long history of activism and engagement around environmental concerns. He co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, and the World Resources Institute in 1982 (and was its president up until 1993). He then worked as for the United Nations as the Administrator of the Development Program (UNDP) (which deals with the funding and coordination of technical assistance and development).  He is now Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  With the move to academia James Gustave Speth’s turned his attention to the role of writing in activism. His book Red Sky at Morning provides a careful and insightful overview of global environmental threats and of the steps that need to be taken  to counter ‘the crisis of the global environment’. It is in this context that he explores the contribution of green Jazz. Speth argues that the international response to global challenges ‘has tried to move the world from FROG to GEOpolity’ but that this has not worked well. (2005: 173). There has not, in general, been a ‘genuine’ embracing of GEOpolity, and where GEOpolity approaches have been used, ‘they have been too weak to be successful’ (op. cit.). James Gustave Speth’s basic argument is that:

Getting serious about global environmental governance requires new action on two mutually supportive fronts: pursuing a very different approach to GEOpolity, and taking JAZZ to scale, enlarging it until it is a major part of the solution. (op. cit.)

The former entails two elements. The external context of GEOpolity needs altering – in particular being a ‘transition in governance to capable, accountable, and democratic governments’ (op. cit.). Internally, there need to be internal changes to the GEOpolity process most especially around the international institutions, procedures and core understandings employed.

While things may not have gone so well in trying to shift the orientation to the global environmental crisis from FROG to GEOpolity, James Gustave Speth argues, ‘green JAZZ is the most exciting area of ongoing action’ (2005: 184).

Environmental groups, consumer groups and other NGOs, private businesses, state and local governments, foundations, religious organizations, investors and others are behind a remarkable outpouring of initiatives that are the most hopeful thing happening today.

One of the interesting aspects of this analysis is the mix of institutions. Initiatives have developed out of, for example, the product certification movement, local state activities and a significant amount of activity on the part of business. The last has been informed both by a recognition of where long-term profitability might lie, and by more immediate consumer pressure. Speth (2005: 187) comments that a number of companies are beginning to develop ‘sustainable enterprise strategies that are leading to profitable new processes and products’. However, environmental groups, philanthropic foundations, and others are ‘the real maestros of JAZZ, and their number, size, and reach have grown dramatically in the last two decades’ (Speth 2005: 185). New partnerships are being formed, argues James Gustave Speth (2005: 187), between non-governmental organizations and corporations. ‘Civil society organizations have played important roles in many… corporate initiatives’.

James Gustave Speth argues that there are three basic lines of activity involved in ‘taking JAZZ to scale’ and many things can be done:

  • JAZZ requires an information-rich, wired environment, ‘so Internet access and connectivity should be increased internationally’, ecolabelling and reporting improved, and environmental and consumer campaigning by NGOs built upon (Speth 2005 187-8).
  • Beyond information, governments can alter their tax arrangements and laws ‘to encourage citizen group activity in JAZZ. (Speth 2005 188)
  • Individuals – each of us – can contribute to JAZZ each day. We can alter our consumption away from things like excessive car travel (and the use of things like SUVs – sports utility vehicles), become active in environmental causes and groups, and more generally look at the way’s in which we can flourish and be happy rather than simply adopt the ways of materialism. (Speth 2005 188)

JAZZ and GEOpolity, in James Gustave Speth’s mind, are interlinked and a significant amount of ‘fusion’ is possible. ‘Hotspots’ of activity can arise where NGOs and groups think ‘big’. The thing is to ‘just do it’ and not wait upon national governments and international organizations to take action (Speth 2005: 253).

James Gustave Speth’s vision of green JAZZ is a significant development of Brown et. al.‘s (2000) model. It decentres business and any one set of institutions. In the process it allows us to see the potential of unscripted, voluntary initiatives that are decentralized and improvisational.

Social Jazz and community development

The thinking and practice that has developed around the notion of green Jazz provides those looking to enhance civil society and social capital, and to the process of community development in general. One way into this is via the notion of social Jazz – not the social Jazz of the Charleston era, but the way in which local , improvisational and voluntary initiatives can work for social objectives. First, though, it is worth reiterating just how much community development activity involving the state is locked into something like FROG! and Geopolitics. This is the case for many countries. While there may be talk in some government quarters of the problems associated with too much centralization, and of the need for a reinvigorated localism, much of the discussion remains at the level of rhetoric. We can see this in England in David Miliband’s (2006) argument that government needs to ‘find a way of supporting organizations whose value to society cannot be easily measured by targets or defined in contracts’, and has concluded that people lack the means to exercise power (Miliband was Minister of Communities and Local Government at the time). At the same time as he was saying this, the government of which he was a member was involved in health, education and local government ‘reforms’ that diminished the voice of local communities.

Much state-sponsored community development activity is aimed at squarely at economic regeneration (very much in the spirit of FROG!) and the provision of housing. This involves a significant amount of partnership work with developers. Indeed, it is often difficult to escape the conclusion that it is their interests that are paramount in the process. Local people tend to be either treated as potential consumers (of shops, housing, and services) or as problems or irritations to be managed. Occasionally, they are also viewed as potential sources of labour (especially for lower paid jobs) (see, for example Foster 1998). The result is often the creation of developments that exclude significant numbers of people. A classic example here is gated communities which, as Setha Low (2003: 11) has concluded in the context of the United States, ‘intensify social segregation, racism, and exclusionary land use practices’. Even where there is an attempt to use state power to create a fairer society (for example with regard to the opportunities of different ethnic groups) ‘modernisers may be forgetting the importance of informal moral economies in giving ordinary people some power to control their own lives according to their own values: some stake in the system’ (Dench et. al. 2006: 230). Dench et. al.’s study of East London highlights the dangers of this; of the way in which many are being pulled into increasingly polarized and unstable societies. ‘in which small groups feel powerless to resist the influence of mass impersonal forces’ (op. cit.). They continue:

Most people in all communities believe in the value of informal mutual support in sustaining a decent and humane society. But the over-centralization of welfare in the name of strict equality is stifling this. Face-to-face relationships carry little weight when confronted by faceless policies from the state.

It is into this context that Jazz steps. First, the work that people like Speth (2005) catalogues provides us with various examples of how local initiatives informed by a ‘let’s do it’ philosophy can make a difference. The argument for the contribution of Jazz isn’t some utopian dream, it is based in a selection of evidenced practice. Second, the Jazz model, that of a range of different and often uncoordinated responses and initiatives, often animated and facilitated by third sector or non-governmental organizations and groups, allows for the engagement of civil society (see Edwards 2004, 2005). It addresses the concerns of commentators like Dench et. al. with regard to welfare centralization. Third, by pointing to the ways in which Jazz can work alongside and engage with wider political processes (GEOPolitics in the case of the global environmental crisis) we can begin to transcend some of the either/or dynamics that occur in debates around community development and regeneration. The problem, however, remains that of the unequal access to resources, systems and capital (of various kinds) enjoyed by different stakeholders. Local people remain at the margins – but at least there is some possibility of creating enough economic and political pressure to ‘start logs rolling’.


It can be argued that James Gustave Speth’s hopes with regard to JAZZ are rather optimistic; that there are significant counter forces to more local and spontaneous activity. These include the sheer power of consumerism and materialism, and differential access that people have to sources of power. It can also be argued that this analysis does not pay enough attention to the fundamental conflicts of interest that are present in many, if not most, situations. Developers will want markedly different things to most local people; companies who need to sustain profitability will want different solutions to those experience their activities as exploitative or polluting (or both). However, the possibilities of Jazz can offer hope and a way forward for those who want to make a difference. This is particularly important as the costs of inactivity are high.

Further reading and bibliography

Brown, D. et. al. (2000) Building a Better Future: Innovation, technology and sustainable development, Conches-Geneva: World Business Council for Sustainable Development.  http://www.wbcsd.ch/DocRoot/uIbCA0YPWcnqvHacAogM/Building.pdf. Accessed February 23, 2006.

Dench, G., Gavron, K. and Young, M. (2006) The New East End. Kinship, race and conflict, London: Profile Books.

Edwards, Michael (2004) Civil Society, Cambridge: Polity.

Edwards, M. (2005) ‘Civil society’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/association/civil_society.htm.

Foster, J. (1998) Docklands: Urban Change and Conflict in a Community in Transition, London: Routledge.

Galbraith, J. K. (1992) The Culture of Contentment, London: Sinclair-Stevenson.

Low, S. (2003) Behind the Gates. Life, security and the pursuit of happiness in fortress America, New York: Routledge.

Miliband, David (2006) ‘Speech to the Annual Conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’, http://www.davidmiliband.info/sarchive/speech06_06.htm

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Speth, James Gustave (ed.) (2003) Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment, Washington DC: Island Press.

Speth, James Gustave (2005) Red Sky at Morning. America and the crisis of the global environment, New Haven: Yale University Press. [Part of the book – resources for citizens – can be downloaded on pdf].

Speth, James Gustave and Hass, Peter M. (2006) Global Environmental Governance, Washington: Island Press.


Probably the best starting point is to download James Gustave Speth’s piece (written with the assistance of Kelly Levin) Resources for citizens and follow the links from there. See also: http://www.redskyatmorning.com/.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2006) ‘James Gustave Speth, green Jazz, social Jazz and community development’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/james-gustave-speth-green-jazz-social-jazz-and-community-development/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2006