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Gus Speth

A photo of Gus Speth
Almost every issue bears on the environment in some way, and some of the most critical issues are ones we don’t even think of as environmental—political reform, social justice, and equity.”

Professor of Law


You'd think that after 40 years at the vanguard of the environmental movement, Gus Speth could sit back and savor, if only for a moment, the significant impact he has had as an activist lawyer, presidential advisor, think tank founder, United Nations executive, and environment school dean. But there is no rest for the worried.  "I'm beyond feeling urgent," he says flatly in his South Carolina drawl. "I think of myself as someone who has been radicalized by reality." The solution? "One word. Egypt."

Speth, the distinguished elder statesman of environmental law, is today a Vermont Law School professor who argues passionately that environmental laws aren't enough in themselves; only a wholesale remaking of the American political economy in which sustainability is valued over growth will address the planet's environmental ills. "We need to gather progressive communities into one big social movement that demands change. The Egyptian young people are an inspiration to us-they took things into their own hands, and peacefully. That's what citizens do when their country is in trouble, and ours is."

Speth was shocked onto his career path as a child by the polluting from toxic wastes of a beautiful mountain lake near his grandparents' home in North Carolina. "I used to swim in it and take boats out  on it, but one year when I got there, the whole lake was dead, the life in it totally wiped out, and it smelled to high heaven," he recalls. "It left a deep impression on me." He went to Yale College and then Yale Law School "where there were no courses in anything you would think of as environmental law, even by another name." One day, riding the train to New York City, he came across a newspaper article about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, followed a few pages later by an article about an environmental problem. "It occurred to me, 'Gee, we need a legal defense fund for the environment.'"

He organized his friends, and the outcome-the Natural Resources Defense Council-helped secure passage of such landmark laws as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, and pushed enforcement in court. "I don't think I lost a lawsuit in that whole period," recalls Speth, a NRDC senior attorney from 1970 to 1977. "I was a novice litigator, but the media were with us, the courts were with us, and if anything, politicians like Ed Muskie were ahead of us and the public." The downside took decades to become apparent: "Because we had all this capital, we didn't need to organize a grassroots political force or become skilled at communicating with the public-and those failings are haunting environmentalism in America today."

From 1977 to 1981, he served as member and chair of President Jimmy Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, becoming an early warning voice on the buildup of greenhouse gases and calling for carbon caps and deep changes in U.S. energy policy. "It's revealing to look back and see how much we knew what should be done-and to think that almost nothing has happened except talk in 30 years," he says.

In 1982, after a stint teaching law at Georgetown, he founded and headed the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank that works with government and business on climate change and other issues. "It was a further lesson in American politics, that you can have really good ideas, well thought out and carefully analyzed with acceptable economic costs-and nothing happens," he says.

After ten years there, which included acting as a senior advisor to Bill Clinton's transition team, he headed the United Nations Development Programme, which funds and coordinates international development aid; he also spearheaded the reorganization of the UN's far-flung development activities. "It was the most educational time of my life, a real broadening experience for me," he says. "After working most of my life on environmental issues, I began to focus on world poverty questions." But the UN's reception was chilly at best on Capitol Hill: "I'd go there as the highest-ranking American in the UN, and I'd be lucky to see a third-level staffer of some Congressman."

In 1999, he headed back to Yale as dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he strengthened and enlarged its programs-in part by affiliating it with Vermont Law School. "At one point we were offering 125 courses in environmental studies, and I began to realize that there were another 125 we could be offering, because this field defies boundaries. Almost every issue bears on the environment in some way, and some of the most critical issues are ones we don't even think of as environmental-political reform, social justice, and equity."

In 2004, he wrote Red Sky at Morning on global environmental threats like climate change. In 2008, he wrote The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, a blistering critique of GNP growth for its own sake that lays out a comprehensive vision of a sustainable society.

When he announced his intent to retire from Yale, from among many options, he chose VLS. "I had learned a lot about VLS through our joint degree program and had a great respect for the school and admiration for the students, and my wife and I had simultaneously fallen in love with Vermont and bought a house in Strafford," he says. "All those things came together when [Dean] Jeff Shields called me and asked me if I would be on the VLS board. I said, 'Jeff, I've been thinking. I have a better idea for you...'"

In his classes, his writing and public addresses, he hammers home the need for a paradigm shift "for a post-growth society where working life, the natural environment, our communities, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP." He urges law graduates to consider not only NGOs and federal agencies but state and local governments and entrepreneurial green companies. "In 1970, I never would thought of urging someone to work for business," he chuckles. "If I were starting over knowing what I know now, I would get into the issue of political reform. Unless we can get our politics straightened out in this country, not much good is going to happen."

Grim realities in the future may be what finally motivate change, he says: "Some terrible things are starting to happen on the climate front, and people will wake up from that." He pauses. "At least, I hope they will."