Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Dean Gustave Speth remembers growing up in rural South Carolina, casting his fishing line into the dark waters of the Edisto River and hunting through the mossy woodlands of Orangeburg County.
When Speth accepts the prestigious Blue Planet Prize in Tokyo next week, he will be honored for a lifetime of safeguarding the natural world he came to know as a child. The prize, awarded since 1992 by the Japanese Asahi Glass Foundation, honors two individuals or organizations that have contributed to global environmental conservation.
“We tend to think of the natural world as an adjunct to our social and economic lives,” Speth said. “We tend to lose sight of the fact that we, and the economy, are subsidiaries of the natural world.”
Yale President Richard Levin said he is proud of Speth’s achievements.
“Gus Speth’s unwavering commitment to issues affecting the global environment makes him truly deserving of this prestigious honor,” Levin said.
Affable and sharp-witted, Speth speaks with the slight undertones of a rural Southern accent. He said he considered going into politics but instead has spent most of his life in public service.
When he read about the NAACP’s legal defense fund, Speth decided to create his own environmental defense fund. Melding his knowledge of law, economics and politics, Speth established the Natural Resources Defense Council, which protects wildlife and their habitats.
Although Speth did not end up in politics, he worked for former President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, helping produce the “Global 2000 Report” in 1980. The report highlighted the instability of the global climate and its threat to the earth’s inhabitants before most people were aware of environmental dangers.
After finishing his work on the environmental council, Speth then trekked across town to Georgetown University, where he joined the law faculty and created the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
Before settling into his current position at the Yale Environment School, Speth served as head of the United Nations Development Program, which strives to eradicate poverty through sustainable human development.
It is as difficult to track the trajectory of Speth’s career as it is to catalog his academic accomplishments: he graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1964 with a political science degree, and then studied economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. An interest in public affairs eventually brought him back to Yale as a law student.
As dean of the Environment School, Speth took a handful of undergraduates to the contentious Global Environment Summit in Johannesburg at the end of August. Speth said although he thought the conference was a failure, the students enjoyed it.
“They got a big kick out of it,” he said.
Speth still fishes, but does not hunt. Speth recently returned to South Carolina to participate in a fishing tournament, although he released the fish he caught back into the water. He said he continues to nourish his “vital connection with the natural world.”
Speth added that from nature, “one gets one’s grounding and keeps a sense of proportion to what’s important.”