Something new is now urgently needed and I think the colleges and universities can and should lead in finding it.

By James Gustave Speth

Editor’s Note: The address below was delivered Saturday by Gus Speth who was presented with “The Great Work Award in Honor of Thomas Berry” at the tenth annual conference of the Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities held at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY.  In the course of an esteemed career, Gus has been (so far) a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, founder of the World Resources Institute, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and much more. He is currently a professor of law at Vermont Law School. Michelle Land, director of the Environmental Consortium and of the Pace University Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, said in her introduction of Gus:

Gus Speth addressing the Environmental Consortium at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY.  Stockton Photo/Pace University

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 Washington, DC, 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.

Michelle’s full introduction can be read here. Her conference welcoming remarks can be read here. Gus Speth’s address to the Environmental Consortium follows below. — John Cronin

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And so here we are, 43 years after the first Earth Day, on the cusp of planetary ruin. We environmentalists can legitimately claim many victories but we are losing the struggle – losing the overall effort to pass our beleaguered planet on to our children and grandchildren sustained and whole.

I am glad that curriculum issues are on your agenda for these days. I had a chance as dean of Yale’s environmental school to help shape the curriculum there, and we did increase the number of courses by almost 50%. But, looking back, I can see that we did not do all we should have done. We did not do enough to develop courses that address the real, underlying, drivers of environmental deterioration.

So, my theme with you today, as you may sense, is one of failure, but failure as learning, as a springboard to success.

I cannot claim great familiarity with environmental curricula throughout our country, but my sense is that too often it is framed by an understanding that is too narrow. I know that is the case with mainstream American environmentalism. Too narrow by far.

A specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists – the specter of failure

We must ask the basic question: What is an environmental issue? Air and water pollution, yes. But what if the right answer is that an environmental issue is anything that determines environmental outcomes? Then, surely, the creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy we face – the ascendancy of money power and corporate power over people power—these are environmental issues. And more: The chartering and empowering of artificial persons to do virtually anything in the name of profit and growth—that is, the very nature of today’s corporation. The fetishing of GDP growth as the ultimate public good and the main aim of government. Our runaway consumerism. Our vast social insecurity with half of American families living paycheck to paycheck. These are among the underlying drivers of environmental outcomes, yet they rarely appear on the agendas of our main national environmental groups. In short, we’ve got to reconceptualize the field.

A good place to start is where things started four decades ago.

Sometimes a great notion comes along. In October of 1968, I had an important idea. I was riding the New Haven Railway into New York City reading The New York Times, and I read one story about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s litigation, and nearby in the Times I read another about an environmental issue. Lawyers are trained to think by analogy, and it hit me: get a group of my impressive classmates together and start a public interest law firm for the environment!

The story of how we got from a ragtag group of law students to the Ford Foundation grant two years later that launched the Natural Resources Defense Council is an interesting one, well told by John and Patricia Adams in their excellent book A Force of Nature, so I will not repeat it here.

My former dean at the Vermont Law School, Jeff Shields, said to me recently that there is a deeper story of this period that I must tell. “Why did you strike out in the direction you did when most law graduates went into private or government practice?” he asked. “How does your story relate to America’s story?” I think Jeff is right that it is important to understand the birth of the modern environmental movement in America and, in particular, to understand the debt those of us who were “present at the creation” of modern environmentalism owed to the civil rights movement through which he had just lived. Yes, we were bright ambitious young law students looking for something different and interesting to do with ourselves. But we were also midstream in a series of important currents in American history, part of an era worth recalling, for, as I will try to explain, that recalling can inform and instruct today.

Today’s environmental leaders could benefit from rediscovering their more radical roots, and stepping outside the system.

We shared a desire to bring about serious change in American society. We had studies the civil rights litigation and other important cases, and we knew the importance of the law and good lawyering in the public interest. We had seen the impact of social movements, of citizens standing up and speaking out. We knew from the civil rights legislation, and otherwise, that our government in Washington could do great things, in addition to getting us into great wars, and indeed that government was essential if great things were to be done.

The 60s had taught us that activism could succeed, that government could succeed. We were 60s idealists, for goodness sake. None of who went to NRDC wanted to go to a law firm, and there were plenty more like us. We could have easily recruited another seven from YLS ’69. Indeed, another nine Yale lawyers from our era would eventually join NRDC. All this youthful energy and hope and idealism we poured into the environmental cause.

Though one might not know it today, the American environmentalism of the 1960s and early 1970s was rather radical. Reality was radicalizing. Pollution and blight were blatant and obvious to us all. Right after the Santa Barbara oil spill, a citizens committee there issued this powerful declaration reminiscent of earlier ones in the 1960s on different issues: “We, therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct toward an environment that is rising in revolt against us. Granted that ideas and institutions long established are not easily changed; yet today is the first day of the rest of our life on this planet. We will begin now.”

Many of the nation’s leading environmental thinkers and practitioners of the period concluded that deep societal changes were needed. GDP and the national income accounts were challenged for their failure to tell us things that really matter, including whether our society is equitable and fair and whether we are gaining or losing environmental quality. The most forceful challenge to our GDP fetish can be found in Robert Kennedy’s last major speech, in 1968. A sense of planetary limits was palpable. Limits to Growth, appeared in 1972 and sold over a million copies. Its authors and others saw a fundamental incompatibility between limitless growth and an increasingly small and limited planet.

Scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren in 1973 argued for an economy that would be “nongrowing in terms of the size of the human population, the quantity of physical resources in use, and [the] impact on the biological environment.” Joined in this was a call from many sources for us to break from our consumerist and materialistic ways – to seek simpler lives in harmony with nature and each other. These advocates recognized, as Ehrlich and Holdren put it, that with growth no longer available as a palliative, “one problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations.” They also recognized the need to create needed employment opportunities by stimulating employment in areas long underserved by the economy, and by moving to shorter workweeks. And they saw that none of this was likely without a dramatic revitalization of democratic life.

We were trapped by our own early successes. We were drawn ever more completely inside the system.

Digging deeper, ecologist Barry Commoner was not alone in asking, “whether the operational requirements of the private enterprise economic system are compatible with ecological imperatives.” Commoner’s answer was “no.” He believed that environmental limits would eventually require limits on economic growth. “in a private enterprise system,” he wrote in his 1971 bestseller The Closing Circle:

[T]he no-growth condition means no further accumulation of capital. If, as seems to be the case, accumulation of capital, through profit, is the basic driving force of this system, it is difficult to see how it can continue to operate under conditions of no growth.

So, the early thinking 40 years ago was that we would have to confront and change the underlying drivers of environmental decline.

It was these and similar ideas that motivated us during our initial years at NRDC. Yes, we had opted to work within the system, but we believed that legal advocacy could change the system. We believed that what we were doing was on the path to deeper change. Unfortunately, mainstream American environmentalism would eventually become trapped with the system and compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed there. I was part of that too. Ironically, we were trapped there by our own early successes, which were made possible in large measure by Senator Edmund Muskie and his remarkable aides Leon Billings and Tom Jorling and their monumental legislation, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. These new laws opened up huge areas for lawyers and others to make major environmental gains, but in doing so we were drawn ever more completely inside the DC beltway, inside the system.

Today’s environmental leaders could benefit from going back to the ideas of the 1960s and early 1970s, rediscovering their more radical roots, and stepping outside the system in order to change it before it is too late.

As federal environmental laws and programs burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, we pursued the important goals and avenues they opened up, where the path to success was clearer. And we left by the wayside the more difficult and deeper challenges noted by Commoner, Ehrlich and others 40 years ago. And our early successes locked us into patterns of environmental action that have since proved no match for the system we’re up against. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found and neglected to week transformation of the system itself.

And it is here that we arrive at the central issue – the paradox which all of us must now face. The environmental movement – we still seem to call it that – has grown in strength and sophistication, and yet the environment continues to go downhill, fast. I have written three peer-reviewed books on this theme, so I won’t drag you through all the disturbing data. Bottom line: a specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists – the specter of failure.

It’s time for something different – a new environmentalism. And here is the core of the new environmentalism: it seeks a new economy. And to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics.

Redesign the university’s approach to environmental studies, and environmental education

The environmental problem is rooted in the defining features of our current political economy. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at any cost; a measure of growth, GDP, that included everything – the good, the bad and the ugly; powerful corporate interest whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize the environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred endlessly by sophisticated advertising; social injustice and economic insecurity so vast that they empower claims that needed measures would slow growth, hurt economy, or cost jobs; economic activity now so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planter – all these combine to deliver an expanding economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain human and natural communities. So, what is the proper scope of environmental concern? Surely, if we are concerned about winning this struggle, it must include all these things.

We also need to answer a second question: What is the economy for, anyhow? The answer, I believe, is that the purpose of the economy should be to sustain and nourish people, place and planet. We should be building what I would call a “sustaining economy” – one that gives top, over-riding priority not to profit, production, and power but rather to people, place and planet – top priority to sustaining human and natural communities. Its watchword is caring – caring for each other, for the natural world, and for the future.

Promoting the transition to such a new economy must be the central task of a new environmentalism, and it is a task that obviously cannot be accomplished by environmentalists alone but only by a powerful fusion of progressive and other forces. Progressives are all trying to make progress in the same system, which for the most part resists, and undermines, and overwhelms their goals. Progressives thus rise or fall together, so they had better get together and complement efforts to reform the system with serious efforts to transform it. That is the mission of a new effort, the New Economy Coalition.

Now, little if any of this has currency in Washington today. Indeed, these thoughts are not much voiced by mainstream environmentalists either. But they should find, I would fervently hope, a central place in American higher education. Thomas Berry’s views about the role of the university are very pertinent. In his wonderful book, The Great Work, he says this:

Of the institutions that should be guiding us into a viable future, the university has a special place because it teaches all those professions that control the human endeavor . . . the religions are too pious, the corporations too plundering, the government too subservient to provide any adequate remedy. The universities, however, should have the insight and the freedom to provide the guidance needed by the human community. The universities should also have the critical capacity, the influence over the other professions and the other activities of society.

So, in conclusion, my hope is that you can help redesign the university’s approach to environmental studies, and environmental education generally, in a way that embraces the true keys to environmental success. America has run a 40-year experiment on whether mainstream environmentalism can succeed. And the results are in. The full burden of managing the accumulated environmental threats has fallen on the environmental community, those in government and those out of government but the burden is simply too great. Something new is now urgently needed and I think the colleges and universities can and should lead in finding it.