Gus Speth’s Environmental Evolution:
Five Questions for the Former F&ES Dean

In a career that has spanned founding major environmental organizations, heading the United Nations Development Programme, and serving as dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, James "Gus" Speth has seen his own ideas about environmental issues change dramatically over the years. Yale Environment 360 asked Speth five questions about his new memoir, Angels by the River, and about the state of the environmental movement in the United States. 

[This interview was originally published by
Yale Environment 360.]
gus speth
James “Gus” Speth
1. In looking at your career, it seems as though you’ve become more radical in your thinking over time. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why?

When I became dean of Yale's environment school in 1999, I began to reflect on where we found ourselves on the environmental front, and I guess it is fair to say that, by today's standards, those reflections radicalized me. Here we are 44 years after the first Earth Day, on the cusp of ruining the planet. It seems clear that something is at least terribly deficient in our environmentalism. 
So I wrote three books trying to understand that situation, and I discuss them in my memoir. My ideas will surely seem radical to some, but I don't think they are truly radical any more than those of Aldo Leopold and Thomas Berry on environmental ethics or those of Franklin Roosevelt on social policy for our country. They are my heroes.

2. Your books have pointed to the failures of the environmental movement and called for new ways of thinking about environmental matters. Do you think environmentalists have been acting on this criticism and finding more constructive approaches to these issues?

To be blunt, I don't think our leading national environmental groups have moved nearly far enough or fast enough. We've got to ask afresh, "What is an environmental issue?" The conventional answer is air and water pollution, climate change, and so on. But what if our answer is: "Whatever determines environmental outcomes." Once we think about it this way, then, surely, the creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy we face — the ascendency of money power and corporate power over people power — these are environmental issues. And more: The chartering and empowering of artificial persons to do virtually anything in the name of profit and growth — that is the very nature of today's corporation; the fetish of GDP growth as the ultimate public good and the main aim of government; our runaway consumerism; our vast social insecurity with half the families living paycheck to paycheck. These are among the underlying drivers of environmental outcomes. To succeed, American environmentalists are going to have to address these issues. 

3. As a member of the Carter Administration, you issued several stark reports warning of what was then a little-known phenomenon: climate change. How did that change the way you looked at environmental issues and the arch of your own career?

When I was chair of Carter's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), we issued four reports calling for action on climate change. We knew enough way back then to estimate that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should not be allowed to go beyond 50 percent above the pre-industrial level. The climate issue was one of a dozen major global-scale challenges we at CEQ highlighted in 1980 in The Global 2000 Report to the President. Working on these issues was a revelation to me — until then, I had been completely focused on our domestic environmental challenges. It was a revelation with practical consequences. Even before the end of the Carter Administration, I had begun to think about what was needed to respond to global threats. Ultimately, that led to my work in founding the World Resources Institute, and a decade later to the United Nations. So encountering these issues that transcend our borders while I was at CEQ did indeed change my life. 

4. In your memoir, you describe growing up in a segregated Southern town where you didn’t question the injustice around you. Do you think that helps explain why you became such a strong advocate for the environment — that you didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history again?

When I went to Yale as an undergraduate in 1960 my awareness of the grave racial injustices in our country — not just the South — started growing. I came to conclude that the ideas about race that I had grown up with were nonsense or worse. It was not wise, I had learned, to uncritically accept the status quo. This unmooring, breaking free of the past, was the first big step along a path that would lead me far away from my conservative Southern roots to a place that no longer fits comfortably on the spectrum of today’s mainstream American politics. I realized about this time that I had, thank goodness, sidled away from the wrong side of history and that I never wanted to get close to it again. I had accepted one grave injustice, and I was determined not to let that happen a second time if I could help it. 

5. Together with some Yale Law School classmates, you formed the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1970s, the first public interest law firm focused on the environment. How did you come up with the idea? 

In 1968 I was riding the New Haven Railroad, and there in The New York Times were two stories, one about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and one about an environmental issue. Thinking about what to do with myself after law school, it occurred to me: Start a group like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for the environment. Eventually that idea came to be the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Those of us who went on to help found NRDC were inspired by the activism of the civil rights movement. We were, after all, children of the 1960s. We had entered college as the civil rights movement was in full swing; we became antiwar as the U.S. troops in Vietnam escalated, and though we were not hippies or dropouts, we shared much of the counter-culture’s critique of American society. We shared the 1960s sense of hope and the desire to bring about serious change. We had studied the civil rights litigation and other important cases, and we knew the importance of the law and good lawyering in the public interest. We knew from the civil rights legislation and otherwise that our government in Washington could do great things, in addition to getting us into great wars, and indeed that government was essential if great things were to be done. The civil rights movement and the 1960s had taught us that activism could succeed, that government could succeed. 

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues. It is based at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
PUBLISHED: December 3, 2014
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.

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