With his smooth, friendly Southern drawl and South Carolina childhood, James Gustave Speth ’64 LAW ’69 doesn’t cut the figure of a typical environmentalist.
But Speth, the dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, has made a career as an activist, government lawyer and international diplomat on behalf of the environment. And now, with the publication of his fourth book, Speth has harnessed his environmental acumen and research in fields ranging from sociology to political science in an effort to address the danger posed by modern capitalism.
The solution to the existential threat of global warming, Speth writes in “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,” is to overhaul — not tinker with — the capitalist system.
“It would be nice to think that if we just tried harder at the things we’re doing we could succeed,” he said in a recent interview. “But if the problem is the system that you’re in, then the solution is to step outside the system and look at how to fix it.”
The book grew out a class, “Modern Capitalism and the Environment,” that Speth taught last spring as part of the Clyde DeVane lecture series, an undergraduate course also open to the public.
At the end of the term, Speth said he realized the potential the lectures held and decided to compile them into a book. He combined his lectures with research, and “The Bridge at the End of the World” was born.
“The book is really an occasion to look back and reflect,” Speth said.
But as Speth prepares to step down from the F&ES deanship after 10 years at the helm, the book also offers the one-time Carter-administration official and co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council a chance to look forward.
From ‘a bad scene’ to Yale
Speth’s book opens with a description of the place where he grew up — a small town on the Edisto River called Orangeburg.
“The Edisto River glides gracefully through the South Carolina low country, its dark, tannin-stained waters spreading over both banks into beautiful hardwood bottomlands — a swamp of tall cypress, tupelo, and sweet gum draped with Spanish moss and populated by sunfish, heron, and the occasional alligator and water moccasin,” the book reads.
It goes on to describe an idyllic childhood in the 1940s and ’50s, complete with a jukebox and pinball machines. Orangeburg, Speth said, was a classic Southern town, almost completely segregated in a county that was 60 to 70 percent black. Those who were white received privileges and protection that others did not, he said.
“It was a bad scene,” Speth said, shaking his head as he looks out the window.
His father sold farm machinery, while his mother worked as a public-school teacher, earning $3,000 per year, a paltry sum even for those times. As a child and teenager, Speth said he was a sportsman, spending much of his time with his shotgun and fishing rod.
Speth’s wife of 43 years, Cameron — who has known her husband since they were children — said Speth’s passion for the environment stems largely from the dynamic of mid-century Orangeburg.
“The times were very different and the setting was very relaxed because we lived in a small town,” she said. “Children would go off on their bikes from early in the morning to late in the evening, just exploring streams and woods. If you’ve grown up that way, you really appreciate a walk in the woods and living with the land.”
After graduating from high school, Speth gave up the Edisto for the Long Island Sound and the Southern warmth for Connecticut winters when he moved to New Haven for college.
He graduated in the class of 1964 — among his classmates were Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and former Attorney General John Ashcroft ’64 — with a degree in political science. Speth spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, then returned to New Haven to attend Yale Law School.
Revealing ‘disturbing’ trends
As the end of his time at Yale Law School approached, Speth found himself in a familiar situation: He wanted to find work that piqued his interest, and he did not want to work in a law firm.
Then, on a train to New York one day, two articles in the newspaper caught his eye. One was about a proposal in Washington for national environmental-policy legislation, the other about the NAACP legal defense fund. Together, they inspired Speth to create a similar body to support environmental action.
“We knew what we needed to know to deal with the climate issue 30 years ago,” Speth said.
So, in 1970, he and a group of his “buddies” founded the National Resources Defense Council, where he worked as senior attorney until 1977, when he was appointed as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter.
Speth and his colleagues on the council put together a three-volume report on the state of the environment that traced out future threats — complete with warnings about climate change.
“[Our conclusions] were very disturbing and the global trends were very negative,” he said. “We were going downhill very fast.”
When Carter was voted out of office in 1980, Speth realized he wanted to spend his career working to promote environmental protection.
After serving as a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, he went on to found the World Resources Institute, a think tank that takes a global, interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues. Speth worked there until Vice President-elect Al Gore asked Speth to head the Clinton administration’s transition team on “Energy, environment, and resources” in 1992.
Speth was nominated by former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 to serve as head of the U.N. Development Programme — the U.N.’s global development network which advocates for change and works on the ground in 166 countries to help people build a better life — where he worked for about six years, until Yale approached him in 1999 about taking over the reins of the environment school.
Speth and his wife currently live in Silliman College, where he is a fellow. Their yellow labrador, Weezie — short for Dewees, the name of an island off the coast of South Carolina — is popular among Sillimanders, who frequently take her out for walks and play Frisbee with her.
But despite his illustrious past, Speth spends his days as dean performing routine administrative tasks, traveling to talks and conferences and attending meetings — with students, faculty, corporate contacts and foundation representatives — said Victoria Manders, his senior administrative assistant.
“A lot of what he does is thankless,” she said. “And it’s impressive that his passion drives him to do what he can about spreading the word about climate change and for the school as well.”
A multi-disciplinary approach
The environmental movement, according to Speth, is plagued by a paradox: Although the movement has grown in strength, numbers and sophistication, the overall health of the environment has continued to go downhill.
The problem, he said, is in the framework of modern society.
“The environmental community has been working within a system that is too powerful,” he said. “Economic growth has been overwhelming our gains.”
That system is the political economy of modern capitalism, which Speth said brings with it not only environmental concerns, but problems of faltering democracy and social injustice. Capitalism, he said, has contributed to a political system that does not always serve its constituents, as well as social and economic inequality.
Developed countries must re-evaluate the high premium they place on economic growth, he said, and move away from excessive consumerism if they wish to save the world from environmental catastrophe.
To address climate change, Speth said, developed countries must completely change their economic system to focus less on growth and more on sustainability.
In his book, Speth takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem, synthesizing research from fields ranging from environmental studies to economics to sociology. He said he drew heavily on the ideas of others, including Yale political-science professor Jacob Hacker.
“What’s impressive is [Speth’s] ability to reach across these different areas and force us to confront [climate change] and think about it in new ways.” Hacker said. “He tries to remind us in this book that these problems are all interrelated. When we can see the problem in its interrelated dimensions, we can address concerns about the transformation of our climate more effectively.”
Speth acknowledges that in writing his book he was working with issues outside of his academic background, but he stands by his prescriptions.
“A lot of the ideas in the book are not ripe today,” he said. “They are not things that you expect politicians to campaign on today. But wait until tomorrow. ‘Business as usual’ will be seen as a utopian fantasy, and deep change will be seen as a pragmatic necessity.”
What lies ahead
Speth, whose stint as the head of the environment school will end next year, said the search for a new dean is already underway; the announcement of a successor is expected by the end of the calendar year, he said.
But Speth is staying out of the deliberations.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate [to get involved],” he said. “I just think it’s very important that the people will have to live with the result make the decision.”
He said he is not yet sure what he will do next — he may stay at Yale, he may venture beyond to do something entirely new.
“We need a deep change in dominant cultural values, we need a new politics,” Speth said. “We need a dramatic fusion of people who are concerned about issues.”