By Michelle D. Land
Director, Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies
Director, Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities
Gus Speth is one of America’s most influential environmental activists. He has helped shaped the environmental movement for 40 years through his active advisory role in national and international organizations. As a professor and dean, Gus educated, guided, and helped build a new generation of leaders and people with a deeper understanding of our most pressing issues. His influence continues today as Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School, and Distinguished Senior Fellow with Demos and with the United Nations Foundation (both in New York City).
Gus is an entrepreneurial change agent. His environmental career began in his third year of law school, when he was inspired to create a legal defense fund for the environment. Upon graduating and with a grant from the Ford Foundation, Gus and a group he pulled together started what was to become the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC is now one of the nation’s largest environmental groups, with a membership of more than 500,000.
Since his days at NRDC, Gus has gone on to provide leadership as Chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under President Jimmy Carter. And, he would again serve the presidency, this time an appointment as senior adviser to the Clinton transition team, heading the group that examined the U.S. role in natural resources, energy and the environment.
With a $15 million dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Gus established the World Resources Institute in 1982, with a mission to put long-term issues of sustainability and human well-being on the global agenda. He served as WRI’s president for a decade.
Gus’ global reach became even more influential as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and as chair of the UN Development Group.
In addition to his current role at Vermont Law, Gus has been a professor of law at Georgetown University and he was Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy at Yale where he also served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 1999 to 2009.
Throughout his career, Gus has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment.
Gus currently serves on the boards of the New Economics Institute, New Economy Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for a New American Dream, Climate Reality Project, and the Institute for Sustainable Communities.
Gus graduated from Yale University in 1964 with a BA in Political Science, and subsequently earned an M.Litt. in Economics from Oxford University in 1966 as a Rhodes Scholar, and his JD from the Yale Law School in 1969. After law school, he served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. Gus holds honorary degrees from Clark University, the College of the Atlantic, the Vermont Law School, Middlebury College, and the University of South Carolina.
Though too numerous to name them all, Gus has had bestowed upon him national and international awards that include:
- National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award
- Keystone Center’s National Leadership Award
- Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development
- Lifetime Achievement Awards – Environmental Law Institute & League Conservation Voters
- Blue Planet Prize
Gus is also a prolific writer. He has written and contributed to several books, and published countless articles. His most recent works are entitled: America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, published in 2012 by Yale University Press and Orion Magazine. As said by Naomi Klein (author of the The Shock Doctrine) in her review of the book: “One of our most trusted elders in the environmental movement offers a sweeping and inspiring vision for how to transform a deeply ailing culture. A true gift of a book at exactly the right time.”
Despite his rich, varied and influential career, his 2011 act of civil disobedience was Gus at his most extreme; in his words – it was a way to kick-start a better future. While protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House, Gus was arrested and jailed for 3 days. The statement Gus released from jail said “I’ve held numerous positions and public office in Washington, but my current position feels like one of the most important.”
Through all his accomplishments, James Gustave Speth has created for himself a singular pulpit. After all, people listen when an adviser to two presidents offers himself up for arrest in an act of civil disobedience . . . in front of the White House.
Gus is a man of extremes — in all the right ways. In language plainspoken, he challenges us to confront the worst about ourselves and then dares us to admit to the best. In 2008, he told Orion Magazine:
There is a growing sense that something is out of whack in the country, and that we’re on the verge of losing something very important, not only spiritually but also environmentally. And if we don’t change, we really could pass into some situation where it would be irretrievably lost.
Yet in a 2013 commencement address he told Unity College graduates:
What we’ve got, mainly, to get us through life . . . is each other. . . We impart meaning to our lives and, indeed, to the world by caring so much for others that we act to create for them as much joy and as little suffering as possible.
In Gus’ world view these are not contradictory. And for good reason. Place them together: We must change and we can, because we are a compassionate and joyful specie.
Were this said by someone else, it may sound like soothing rhetoric meant to dull us to a troubled age.
But undergirding Gus Speth’s message is a hard-edged truth: our nation’s way of doing business is failing. Unchanged, it will ultimately fail our economy, our communities, our environment . . . and our students.
True to form, he bluntly warns of “America the Failure.” But he passionately believes in “America the Possible.”
A video Gus launched with the Center for a New American Dream – “America the Possible,” was recently featured on the Pace environmental blog, EarthDesk.org. I urge you to view the video they created together, and to read Gus’ book of the same name.
Like our best thinkers, such as Thomas Berry, upon whose philosophy the Environmental Consortium was founded, Gus Speth is a profound humanist, a true believer in human possibility, an adherent to the principles Tom espoused in The Great Work, and in The Dream of the Earth.
In his essay The Hudson River Valley, A Bioregional Story, Tom wrote of the human “as having its true glory as a functioning member, rather than as a conquering invader, of this community. Our role is to be the instrument whereby the valley celebrates itself.”
Today it is our great honor to celebrate Tom and celebrate our region by celebrating the life and work of James Gustave Speth.
Gus – On every path of your career — from pioneering attorney and founder of Natural Resources Defense Council, which cut its teeth fighting Hudson River abusers, to presidential adviser, to ivory tower dean, to Washington, DC jailbird, you have exemplified and reaffirmed Thomas Berry’s ideals of The Great Work.