The historically conflicting relationship between capitalism and the environment is the subject of this year’s DeVane public lecture series, which will draw New Haven residents and Yale students together in the classroom.

Dean Gus Speth of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies will deliver the lectures, which are offered as an undergraduate course but are also open to the public. The class, “Modern Capitalism and Environment: Pathways to Sustainability or End of the Road?,” will examine both environmental problems and unconventional proposals to address those problems.

Speth said Yale President Richard Levin asked him to deliver the lectures this year.

“I was really excited to do it,” Speth said. “I love the undergraduate students.”

The class will examine large-scale versions of programs similar to those the University has undertaken in recent years to cut greenhouse gas emissions and save energy, Speth said. One such program encourages residential colleges to cut energy emissions and rewards their success with renewable energy certificates, which offset one-third of the electrical energy used by the colleges. The program mimics “cap-and-trade” initiatives undertaken at the national level.

Speth said the lecture’s focus on environmental degradation may be disheartening, though he is ultimately hopeful that students will be inspired by the course.

“It’s a huge challenge,” he said. “But it’s a challenge we have to take under our wing and get on with, because things are going from bad to worse. I think this is going to emerge as your generation’s biggest challenge, moving from environmental losses to environmental restoration.”

Melina Shannon-Dipietro, co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said the success of YSFP reflects heightened social awareness of environmental issues, which is motivating support for the higher start-up costs of environmentally sound programs.

“It feels to me like we’re getting at the point of a movement right now,” she said. “Many of the decisions we make are not made solely on economics.”

Shannon-Dipietro pointed out that while a smaller percentage of national income is spent on food than in 1960, a higher proportion is now spent on health care and environmental cleanup.

“There’s a cost somewhere, and people are becoming aware of that cost and actively seeking solutions,” she said.

Several students in the class said they found the first two lectures inspiring.

“Each [lecture] is an inspirational speech that he would be hired to give,” Julia Meisel ’10 said. “I think it’s a pretty inspiring way to learn about environmental issues, especially for people who might not traditionally be interested in them, and it’s effective for reaching such an audience. I was surprised to see how many non-students were there.”

But the lecture style may not be well-suited to those taking the class for credit, some said.

“I love the environment, but I’m not as diehard about it as other people,” Ben Margines ’10 said. “I wanted to be convinced that we are really hurting the environment, so when [Speth] started giving all these statistics and all these facts it was pretty incredible. It really started to make me change how I viewed the situation. But I think he’s made that point. Basically I think right now it’s a little bit unorganized and it’s hard to take notes from his lectures.”

The DeVane lectures have been open to the public since their founding in 1969, but they are not an annual event. Last year’s course was canceled due to the lack of a speaker.