Speth offers vision to save Earth

MIDDLEBURY — On Monday evening, community members gathered in Middlebury College’s Bicentennial Hall to hear James Gustave “Gus” Speth speak about his career as an environmental lawyer and activist, and advocate for a “new economy” if we are to effectively address the environmental destruction of Earth.
His lecture, entitled “A Washington environmental insider goes radical: How did that happen?” told his personal and professional story of how a white-collar lawyer ended up becoming an advocate for systemic political and social changes in the interest of the environment.
Speth, a native of South Carolina, has had a long and varied career providing leadership to groups combating environmental degradation. Among other positions, he was the co-founder of the National Resource Defense Council, formerchairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration, former Administrator of the UN Development Program, and founder and former president of the World Resources Institute.
The Middlebury College School of the Environment sponsored the lecture. The summer institute is in its inaugural year, and director Steve Trombulack introduced Speth as the “perfect individual” to speak at the Middlebury program, saying that he “epitomizes” the new school’s goal of creating strong environmentalist leaders.
Speth’s lecture painted a disturbing picture of environmental reality, and advocated for a radically different economic system, whereby “the true environmental costs of our actions are internalized” and the government stops its “subservience to industry.”
“All we have to do to destroy the planet,” Speth said, “is to keep on doing exactly what we’re doing.”
Speth reflected on the early days of environmentalism, saying, “the origin of environmentalist pressure was not necessarily public sentiment or outcry,” but rather a forward-thinking Congress of the 1970s that helped to pass important legislation like the Clean Air Act. Since Reagan’s presidency, Speth said, “every environmental step forward has been hard fought.”
Speth stressed his belief that to truly address the issue of environmental degradation, we need to change the whole system and develop a “new economy.”
“The environmental problem is rooted in the defining features of our political economy,” said Speth. “We’re stuck with having to say that the reason to save the environment is that it saves the economy.”
After completing a 10-year tenure as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Speth has assumed a professorship at Vermont Law School. He serves also as Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, Senior Fellow at The Democracy Collaborative, and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute.
These roles allow him to advocate for this new kind of economy and environmentalism, Speth said, a movement that necessitates “a powerful fusion of progressive forces” as a means to “build infrastructure for systemic change.”
More specifically, Speth stressed the importance of developing common goals and a universal measurement for environmentalist gains. He talked about the importance of recognizing all political issues as environmental issues as well, and finding more meaningful figures of success than GDP statistics.
Speth praised the efforts of Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben, lauding McKibben’s “political and social savvy” and his “1960s style street activism.” Speth fondly recalled trying to get arrested with McKibben in Washington D.C. for a protest, and commended his “grace, humor and courage” as leader of 350.org.
“We’ve got to dream up a new America and breathe life into it,” Speth concluded, although he concedes, “the odds are long.”
Speth is the author, co-author or editor of eight books, including America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, published by Yale Press in September 2012. His most recent book, Angels by the River, is coming out this November.
Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Environmental Law Institute and the League of Conservation Voters, the Blue Planet Prize, and the Thomas Berry Great Work Award of the Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities.

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