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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gus Speth Calls for a "New" Environmentalism

Air Date: Week of

Gus Speth’s new memoir, Angels by the River, describes his evolution from accepting the status quo as a child, to working within mainstream environmentalism for environmental protection, to calling for “a new environmentalism.” (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

In conversation with host Steve Curwood, NRDC co-founder Gus Speth reflects on the environmental movement both as a previous ‘insider’ and now as a reformer. In his new memoir “Angels by the River” Gus Speth calls for deeper challenges to the economic status quo, and explores his life and career at the nexus of race, environment and politics.


CURWOOD: James Gustave Speth is a veteran of the environmental movement, as a co-founder of the NRDC, founder of the World Resources Institute, CEO of the UN Development Programme and President Carter’s Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Despite having held several key positions in the mainstream of environmental policy, Gus Speth is now calling for a more urgent and demanding environmental movement, and he’s acting on these convictions. In 2011, he was arrested in front of the White House alongside Bill McKibben and others in a peaceful protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. He’s just written a memoir “Angels by the River” that examines how his Southern upbringing and career shaped the person he is today. Gus Speth joins us from his home in rural Vermont. Gus, welcome back to Living on Earth.

SPETH: Thank you Steve, it’s good to be back.

CURWOOD: Now, Gus, you grew up in the South in Orangeburg, South Carolina. What was it like to grow up there as a white person in the 50s and 60s?

SPETH: Orangeburg was an idyllic town in many ways, for certainly white people to grow up. It was thoroughly segregated, if you can imagine Jim Crow at its peak, we were there. By the time I got to Yale as an undergraduate it dawned on me in a major way that this was a system that was deeply unjust and degrading and something that we had to change. You know when the scaffolding of your cultural life and your upbringing sort of collapse around you, it can be disorienting because everything you were brought up to believe in and take as natural and inevitable, it all of a sudden disappears. And for me, I found it was very liberating experience. I realize that I could make up my own mind about things. I could decide what I thought was right and wrong and act on it.

Speth, seated on the left, was about eleven years old when this family photo was taken circa 1953. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: So, Gus, you write that witnessing the civil rights movement up north from the vantage point of Yale in part led you to join the environmental cause. Can you explain that?

SPETH: We were children of the '60s. We had been through the civil rights revolution, we had seen the importance of litigation, of demonstrating and protesting, of pushing your cause, of getting powerful legislation like the civil rights legislation of '64 and '65 and that was our model. All of us who went on to start the Natural Resources Defense Council which we opened the doors in 1970, we were inspired deeply by what the black community in the United States are done to assert their cause, and we wanted to do that with the environmental cause, to get the issue to Washington, to get legislation, to litigate to make those laws come alive, to protest if necessary and the tragedy is that having been so inspired and in that sense so close to the civil rights movement, we didn't immediately reach out to that movement and work assiduously to bring the black community into this environmental fold. We were at that point very much of a white middle-class movement and I look back now and I say this is a huge failure on our part.

Growing up white in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Speth lived during the heart of Jim Crow segregation, but only became fully aware of its injustice as a student at Yale. His hometown’s racial tensions precipitated a crisis when, in 1968, police opened fire on protestors in what’s now called the Orangeburg Massacre. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: Your story has an interesting resonance with my own. I took up of environmental journalism because I saw the environment being treated the way that people of color are being treated -- still today in many places. In other words, abused, discriminated against, in some cases, literally enslaved. Growing up black in America I realize that the establishment could be wrong and when I saw what was going on in terms of environmental change, I said, "This is the most important story going," despite the fact the establishment would like to ignore it.

SPETH: Well we had a similar experience then because I also...when this cultural scaffolding that I've described collapsed, one of the great learnings that came out of that for me was that we don't have to accept the status quo, the system is not helping us. In my recent writings, I've been saying we need to rediscover the radical roots of the environmental movement if we really ever want to finally win some of these battles like climate change. There were deeper challenges to our economy and to our political system in the late '60s and early '70s then we hear today, and when you look at what the two groups -environmentalists and the blacks - are saying, it's very similar. The system is the problem. This system is at the root of the environmental ills. It is at the root of this vast economic insecurity and inequality and injustice that affects our minority communities as well as others.

As Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, Speth advised Carter on environmental issues during his presidency. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: I want to quote from you and your book: "In launching NRDC we set out to change the system but we didn't. We improved the system in places, made it safer, better, but in doing so we became part of the system. It changed us." So to what extent do you think it was necessary to become a part of the system and to be changed by it in order to get the work you accomplished done?

SPETH: Well I think what we did was a good thing and that good thing was to take our talents and bills and turn them to getting powerful new laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act and others implemented. Those were great accomplishments, but in the process we became more and more inside the beltway of Washington and we dropped a lot of the early proposals for deeper change that were put forward around 1970, proposals to challenge growth, proposals to challenge values, to challenge the distribution of income that people saw as necessary if we were going to deal effectively with the longer-term environmental challenges. And then as Washington became more and more conservative we had to be tamer in a way, to be effective within that system.

Speth points to the People’s Climate March, which took place in New York in September 2014, as a sign of increasing democratic engagement. He marched with students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he formerly served as dean. The students printed shirts with Gus’s photo and a quote from his 2008 book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: “Build the movement.” (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: Gus, you were arrested in front of the White House, a place where you had a pass as a presidential counselor, protesting the Keystone pipeline. Yet you write, "While I don't mind being thought of as radical, that's not how I view myself." Well, how do you see yourself?

SPETH: Well I think we need to get beyond the sort of traditional environmentalism that we've had now for decades and into embracing a new environmentalism and we have to ask ourselves, "You know, what's an environmental issue?" And if the answer is air pollution, water pollution, climate change...then we're really right where we've been. But what if an environmental issue is something that has a big effect on environmental outcomes, on our prospects of leaving a good environment to our children and grandchildren? Well, then an environmental issue includes things like the health of our political system and sustaining our failing democracy and not just sustaining our natural areas. The things that affect environment outcomes are politics and the ascendancy of money power over people power, and all the other flaws that are undermining our democracy. We have huge economic and social insecurity in our country and when you have that, all Mitch McConnell has to say when he opposes a climate regulation, all he has to say is, "It's going to hurt the economy, lose jobs, raise prices," and that scares people. It scares enough people that they don't get a lot of momentum on some other climate initiatives that we desperately need. So doing something about this vast economic insecurity is an environmental issue, but if those views are radical, I stand accused. But I don't think they are any more radical than where people were in our political leadership not long ago. In Franklin Roosevelt's second Bill of Rights he said that the people should have a right to a decent job, to income security, to a good education. He didn't say anything about the environment because at that point it wasn't really an issue.

Gus Speth and his wife of nearly fifty years, Cameron, live in rural Vermont. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: Is your view among a number people to say that our current system is broken? In your view how do we fix it?

SPETH: It's very important to try to identify the things that can be done. And certainly the issue of corruption of our system by big money, I mean, look at what the Koch brothers are doing now, putting almost $1 billion on the table for the election. I think we need legislation to undermine that kind of money by creating a powerful system of public financing of elections. Another thing we could do would be to have an ethical proposition adopted at all levels in our legislatures that said that if you're on a committee that is regulating a particular industry you cannot take any funds from that industry. There are other things that can be done to guarantee the right to vote, to make it easy to vote, there are things that can be done to improve the competitiveness of our Congressional Districts. There are ways to undermine the Electoral College, to move to a popular vote for president. We all have a stake in seeing a better democracy, and maybe this Koch brothers putting up close to a billion dollars will finally be the incentive that brings all the progressives and even tea party people and others together to promote political reforms. We really need to save our democracy from his creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy that we see going on now in the country.

CURWOOD: One thing you focus on in your book is modern capitalism as a major source of environmental ills now on the planet. What ways would you see to maximize the benefits of capitalism while minimizing its harms, especially to the environment?

SPETH: Right. Well, there are lots of models in Europe that you could call capitalism that are really social democracy initiatives, but it's very different from the capitalism that dominates, which is a ruthless system, a rapacious system, one driven by profit at all costs and allied with a political system which seeks to largely project national power around the world. But we live and work in an operating system which we can call modern capitalism, but in my view, we need to challenge that system with the deep reforms, deep changes, and drive these systemic changes so deeply that we emerge with a really different system of political economy and then the core of that system is that it gives true and honest priority to people and place and planet, and not to profit and product as GDP and national power. One thing that's critical to this new system is that we have a functioning political system that is truly democratic, and that that democratic political system has a huge say in the direction of investments in the country. We are so underinvesting in things that would have gigantic social and environmental payoffs for us and investing so heavily and almost exclusively in things that have high financial returns with not much democratic control over the direction of our economy and where we're really putting our money and what we're doing for our society and for the future. This type of economic democracy is part of the new economy that we need and is something that the new environmentalism ought to be embracing and promoting.

Speth chooses to view the climate struggle in the way that Albert Camus interpreted the Greek myth of Sisyphus: that there is meaning in the struggle itself, despite inevitable failure. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to the futile task of repeatedly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it fall back down again. Above, Speth visits Camus’ gravesite in Provence. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: Gus, you write in your memoir that the failure of the US to lead the world on the climate issue over the past three decades, and I'm quoting you here is, "...probably the greatest dereliction of civic responsibility in the history of the Republic". In your view, what would it take to reclaim that responsibility?

SPETH: You know, we put out in the Carter administration several reports calling for action on climate. We knew back then 35 years ago what was needed and then we called for changes in energy policy and forest policy and other things to address this problem while we still had time. Well, we have done almost nothing, and now we are seeing the effects, the very serious effects of a fairly modest amount of global warming and we'll get more warming even if we stop all emissions today. If we want to save the planet's climate for children and grandchildren, we've got to act in a dramatic and drastic way starting now and wring the fossil fuels out of our energy system over the next 35, 40 years. I'm delighted to see the President taking finally, some steps to sustain our climate but they are very modest compared with what we really need. It's unfortunate that the Congress is not willing to go further, so that means we've got to act at the state level, we've got to act at that town level, city level, our individual level, but importantly we're going to have to build up a mighty political force and we saw the beginnings of that I think with the 400,000 person march in late September in New York on climate and climate justice, but Steve you know, being really realistic about it, I think it's going to take a worse crisis in the climate here than we seem to get the kind of response that we need here and abroad.

Speth teaches at Vermont Law School and is a senior fellow at the Democracy Collaborative. (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

CURWOOD: Gus, how would you most like to be remembered?

SPETH: Oh my, I guess I would...I'd most like to be remembered up as a good person who took care of his family and his friends as best he could. The biggest issue in my life professionally has been the climate issue. It would be wonderful to show big results, but it's also wonderful in a way to at least have tried. As Camus said in the Book of Sisyphus, "The struggle is important itself, and that if we don't win in everything or even anything, we will at least have struggled hard and that's our salvation."

CURWOOD: Gus Speth currently teaches at Vermont Law School. His memoir is called "Angels by the River". Gus, great to talk with you again.

SPETH: Thanks so much, Steve, for this opportunity.



“Gus Speth: ‘Ultimate insider’ goes radical”

“Environmental Failure: A Case for a New Green Politics”

“Off the Pedestal: Creating a New Vision of Economic Growth”

Yale e360’s “Five Questions for Gus Speth on his Environmental Evolution”

Global 2000 Report to the President by Gus Speth (1980)

Angels by the River

“America the Possible,” our report

“Red Sky at Morning,” our report

Environmentalism during Obama’s first 100 days in office, our report with Gus Speth


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