James Gustave Speth, who lives in Strafford, VT and is known as Gus, gave a talk to his neighbors at the Universalist Church in town regarding his life and thoughts on environment and related politics. He has been quoted that today’s environmental challenges and climate change are really about selfishness, greed and apathy that can only be overcome with cultural and spiritual transformation.
He divided his biography into three parts. The first part of his dissertation was about growing up in Orangeberg, SC where segregation ruled. He described how segregation was “just accepted” in the South and referenced the 1968 Orangeberg Massacre that occurred where police shot into a crowd protesting racism that resulted in three deaths and 20 people getting wounded.
He attended Yale and Oxford Universities in the sixties and was involved with a grant proposal awarded by the Ford Foundation to create the legal defense fund for the environment.
During the Jimmy Carter administration, Speth was a member and chairman of the U.S. Council of Environmental Quality, which was responsible for creating many of the EPA guidelines on clean air and water. Later he was chair of the United Nations Development Group and United Nations Development Programme.
Speth served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and he helped to found the Natural Resources Defense Council where he was a senior attorney. He stated that he never lost a lawsuit when forcing government action on water, wetlands and nuclear power. Speth commented that a Friends of the Earth report sent to the White House 40 years ago was spot on for solar power and energy efficiency. He said that action based on the report was unfortunately scuttled by Ronald Reagan when he became president.
Working for the World Resources Institute for a decade, Speth expanded concern for environmental matters on a global scale for soil conservation, water, climate and such. He visited 115 countries and saw conditions around the world. At the end of his time with the United Nations he felt good about the programs and progress on the planet, but by 1972, he concluded that environmentalism was not going well. He produced three books including Red Sky in the Morning, Bridge at the Edge of the World and America the Possible (in 2012). The messages in these books were about the superficiality of how the country and the world were addressing the environmental issues and the manifestations of the political economic system, that included factors such as gender, treatment of children, healthcare, education and democracy.
Speth was at the Vermont Law School, known for legal perspectives on environmental issues, when he linked economic and political concerns such as capitalism, corporate supremacy, consumerism, and profit and growth at all cost, as wrongheaded values that are root causes of environmental concerns such as pollution and climate change. He felt that these are factors that must be addressed because they often determine environmental outcomes. He commented that the power of money had become more important than the power of the people. He now echoes the call for transformative change to address these issues and speaking to his neighbors he laid out six key elements:
America is in deep trouble at this time and things will probably get worse (Inflation Reduction Act notwithstanding).
The severity of the climate situation will not allow for the easier solutions in the future.
Hope must be kept alive.
There is a need to resist. Don’t accept the unacceptable. Keep fighting but don’t expect to win.
There is a need to be “crisis ready” for when the time comes. Expect climate chaos to consume all of our energy. Prepare for massive mobilization.
Begin and pursue to plant seeds now for system change. Consider alternative political economy that provide automatic good outcomes for the planet. Identify new political economy and begin to move in that direction.
The newest Speth book published on MIT Press in 2021 is entitled, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis. The book analyzes how administrations from Carter to Trump (including Obama) continued aggressive support of a fossil-fuel based energy system despite having information about the climate crisis and its connection to fossil fuels.
Speth feels that the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a measurement that does not account for the planet and peoples’ well-being, and an alternative measurement should be devised to incorporate human and planetary factors. Regarding political economy and its outcomes, Speth commented laconically, “We’re in a hell of a pickle, but there’s a lot we can do.” He referenced Greta Thunberg as a representative of the younger generation that is loudly voicing demands. He cited the need for an explosion in citizen action. He predicted that victimization, fear and alarm are going to grow as the climate situation worsens. The societal transformation would need to rein in corporations and have their charters based on serving the public interest. The scaffolding will need to crumble down and new foundations will need to be built.
Roger Lohr of Lebanon, NH, who owns and edits XCSkiResorts.com, has published articles and promotional topics on snow sports, sustainability, and trails in regional and national media.