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Charting a new course for the U.S. and the environment

After more than four decades as a leading environmentalist, Gus Speth is disillusioned with what has been accomplished. What’s needed now, he says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, is a transformative change in America’s political economy that will benefit both society and the planet.

Time magazine once called him the “ultimate insider,” and indeed Gus Speth has had a long, distinguished career as an establishment environmentalist — a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality in the Carter Administration, founder of the World Resources Institute, and, from 1999 to 2009, the dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

And so it might be surprising that Speth’s latest book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, offers a bleak picture of what U.S. environmentalism has accomplished and calls for an overhaul of the nation’s political economy. “My conclusion is that working inside the system is insufficient,” he writes in the book’s preface. “We have to step outside America’s broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it.”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Speth — who is now a professor at Vermont Law School — discussed the evolution of his own thinking on how to address environmental problems and his frustration with continued inaction on climate change. And he also talked about the important links he sees between economic fairness and environmental health; about why he is encouraged by new movements and lifestyles emerging in local communities; and about why he rejects what he calls America’s “growth fetish.”

“The first thing about growth is it doesn’t deliver,” Speth says, “and it detracts us and deflects us from investing in the things that really do need to grow — like jobs, like education, like green energy technology.”

Yale Environment 360: All of your books seem to look beyond the environment and examine very directly the social, political, and economic problems facing the country. Why have you felt the need to move outside the environmental arena, where you’ve worked your whole life, and focus on these broader issues?

Gus Speth: Well, ask yourself, ask your readers to ask themselves: What’s an environmental issue? What’s an environmental concern? Obviously things like air pollution and climate change and water supply and other things are certainly environmental concerns. But what if you say that environmental concerns are anything that has a significant impact on environmental outcomes, on the quality of the environment and what we’re able to do to protect the environment? I mean, that’s a perfectly plausible definition of what an environmental concern, of what an environmental issue, is. And once you do that, you have to appreciate immediately that American environmentalism has defined itself too narrowly.

What affects environmental outcomes? Well, obviously, the health of our politics. The strength of our democracy. The power of the corporations — our principal political actors right now — and the power of money in our politics. These are powerful influences on environmental outcomes, to say the least. And then there’s the level of economic security and fairness in society. We now have a situation where half the families in the country live paycheck to paycheck, not really saving anything. And about 40 percent of the families have incomes of less than twice the poverty level.

There’s tremendous economic insecurity. And yet what we as environmentalists want to do, fundamentally, is to get the prices right — to internalize these tremendous environmental externalities, get rid of the perverse subsidies like those in the fossil fuel area. To do that, you’re going to have to raise prices. And yet this is a society that is full of rising prices, and half the people can hardly pay the prices that exist now. In a world of this vast economic insecurity, how can you expect to make the kind of environmental progress that you need? Almost all the things that we want to do, somebody says, “Well, it will hurt the economy, it will raise prices, it will raise gas prices,” whatever.

These things affect environmental outcomes. And also there are our own values — our lifestyles — which often are not really discussed as a mainstream environmental issue. For a long time environmentalists took the position of not demanding big lifestyle changes. Well, they ought to be demanding that, because it has a big effect on environmental outcomes.

e360: Was there for you a turning point where you realized, or came to the conclusion, that looking at environmental issues too much in isolation just wasn’t going to deal with the problems we face?

Speth: Well, I started about a decade ago when I was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, trying to assess how much progress we’d made, looking at “how’s our environment?” And the first thing that you realize is that we’re losing. And in a major way. Certainly on the big global-scale issues, but also on a great many issues here at home. So, that led me to begin to look at other issues and to think more deeply than I had been — I’m afraid to say, or ashamed to say — at what’s really going on. How can we get stronger and stronger as an environmental community — with bigger and bigger organizations, and more and more money, and more and more members — and be on the cusp, after 40 years of that, of losing the planet? How in the world could that happen?

So you have to begin to ask deeper questions. And there are root causes of these problems. It’s not just that we didn’t do enough under the Clean Air Act last year, or that we need a new program to increase energy efficiency in households, or whatever. It’s much deeper than that. And while these reforms or steps are vital, there’s a deeper problem that has to do with the very way our economy, our political economy, is wired. It’s hard-wired right now to give priority to certain things, and it does a pretty good job of that, if you like those priorities. But it’s not wired to give priority to people, to place, and to the planet.

e360: So you’re really looking at a broad-based system change?

Speth: There are things that have to be done right now, before we’ll ever get a broad-based systemic change. We’ve got to do something about the climate issue — yesterday! But, over time, we’ve got to commit equal efforts to system change, to changing the very core values that are embedded in our system of political economy.

e360: How do we take the first steps for that?

Speth: There are two big steps that are staring us in the face, I think. One is the great possibility that we have right now — without Washington, without our politicians — to begin to bring the future into the present in our local communities around the country. And indeed, we see that happening: We see transition towns, we see community revitalization efforts and new business forms — public-private hybrids, profit/not-for-profit hybrids, social enterprises, co-ops, public banking initiatives. There are all kinds of things where people are adopting new lifestyles in communities and neighborhoods. And this is happening across the country. It’s enormously encouraging, and it’s something we can all do. We can all have sustainable communities, where we define sustainability in a full spectrum, 360-degree way, so that it’s not just environmental sustainability, but it’s a restorative local economy — an economy that restores people, families, neighborhoods, and environment and ecosystems.

The other big thing we can do right now is in the wake of this election [in November] — with all the shenanigans that we saw, all the money sloshing around, and the efforts to suppress votes, and other things — we need a series of very powerful, pro-democracy political reforms to save our democracy from this creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy. We need to roll back [the U.S. Supreme Court decision on] Citizens United and do away with the Electoral College. We need to insist on fusion voting in all states so we can break the two-party duopoly. We need independently determined congressional districts. We need a system of election management that ensures that voters are secure and that all votes are counted properly. We need to do away with the filibuster... This kind of pro-democracy political reform is something that should engage a very broad spectrum of Americans.

e360: You talk in your book about America’s “growth fetish.” What did you mean by that, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Speth: Two things: First: when I talk about growth in the book, I refer to GDP [Gross Domestic Product] growth, as most people do, and that’s very important. As you know, GDP stands for grossly distorted picture, and it's a very misleading measure of how well you’re doing as a society. But we use it all the time — we have this GDP fetish. Go back to 1980 and scan forward to today. During that time, the U.S. economy has doubled in size. Tremendous growth, some ups and downs. In 2008, a pretty big down. But we grew, I think, 125 percent during that period. What happened with all that growth? Well, inequality mounted back to a level we haven’t seen since the 1920s. Poverty mounted to an all-time high. Life satisfaction flat-lined. The environment took a tremendous loss — particularly in the climate area, but also in biodiversity and other areas. And now we’ve recovered GDP back to higher than it was before the recession in 2008, but we still have about 15 percent of the workforce unemployed, or underemployed, or dropped out of the labor force. What has all this growth brought us?

So the first thing about growth is: It doesn’t deliver, and it detracts us and deflects us from investing in the things that really do need to grow, like jobs, like education, like green energy technology, like modern infrastructure, and so on. We ought to be insisting through our governments that investments occur in these areas. This idea that somehow growing GDP is going to solve these problems and yield results in these areas is simply nonsense. And since it hasn’t happened, there’s no reason to suspect it will happen in the future.

e360: When you were head of the Council of Environmental Quality in the Carter White House, you issued a series of reports that came out that warned of global warming, and the need to start dealing with it. So, the lack of progress in tackling climate change in the past 30-plus years must be particularly frustrating to you.

Speth: Even back then, we knew enough about the science of climate change to understand that this was an existential threat, that it was tied to society’s fate, and that it needed to be faced with urgency — even back then. And we’ve done very, very little since then. It’s enormously frustrating, and it led me, and others who have become frustrated, to acts of civil disobedience — in this case, to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

e360: You were arrested [by U.S. Park Police] in 2011 for engaging in an act of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. over the Keystone XL pipeline. Can you explain what led you take that step? Time magazine once dubbed you the ultimate insider, and here you were going back to Washington to conduct an act of civil disobedience. Why?

Speth: Well, precisely because I — and many others — am at the end of my rope. We’ve tried everything, and honestly, the data has been clearly reported, and the science is about as scary as anyone can imagine. The numbers are flooding in, and it’s enormously frustrating. I think we all — everybody with good sense, and everybody with an ounce of caring about the children and grandchildren of this world — ought to be in the streets, ought to be engaging in civil disobedience, of a perfectly nonviolent, and hopefully humorous, type. We need to keep our sense of humor about all this. I love [climate activist] Bill McKibben, who was instrumental in getting me arrested. He always adds on a bit of humor to his talks.

e360: That was the first time you’d ever been arrested? When you were protesting the Keystone pipeline?

Speth: Yes.

e360: What was that experience like? You actually planned to get arrested?

Speth: We actually planned to pay a fine and walk away, which did not turn out to be the case. and other environmental groups had two weeks of protests and arrests planned. Anyway, they [the police] decided to use the first group of us to set an example to discourage the others. It didn’t work, but the result was that they treated us pretty much like common criminals. It was, in effect, a traffic offense — a failure to move on upon request — and normally, it would be a $50 fine. But we ended up in a central cellblock in the D.C. jail for three days. We spent a lot of time in leg irons. Slept on stainless steel slabs without any bedding or cover or pillow or anything — just stainless steel. Ate baloney sandwiches — two a day — and water. We were fingerprinted, mug shots — I guess I have a record now. In the end they didn’t press any charges against us. They just opened the door and let us walk out after three days.

In fact, we had a high-spirited three days in the D.C. jail. There were 60-some-odd people there with us in jail, and they knew I was a professor, and they wanted me to give a lecture. So I gave a long lecture on the need for systemic change while there in the central cellblock in the D.C. jail.

e360: Do you see any meaningful hope for dealing with the issue of climate change — either here in the U.S., or on a global scale?

Speth: Well, I’ve been hopeful before, in 2007 and 2008 in particular, that something was going to happen — and before that as well. But I’m hopeful again. For a couple of reasons: One, what’s driving the issue now are very serious actual impacts, not projections, not the theory of climate change. What’s driving it now is that people are suffering. I was recently in New Mexico and saw the extensive fire damage that they’ve had. The coastal sea level rise is beginning to really impact, and the strength and force of hurricanes are being impacted by global warming. A lot of things are going on that are making people wake up. I think our politicians are going to have to respond.

e360: In your book, you present a litany of social and political and environmental problems and ills. Are you concerned that sometimes, in talking about this, you may sound a bit like a Jeremiah, a prophet of doom and gloom?

Speth: Not a bit. We’ll only do the right things if we appreciate the seriousness of the situation that we face. The book begins with a stark juxtaposition of the current situation in this country, and where we’re headed, and then it moves immediately to a depiction of a plausible and attractive world that we could still build for our children and grandchildren. And we have to have both. We have to have a realistic understanding of what we’re up against, where we are, and where we’re heading. And you also have to have a positive vision of what’s still plausible and be hopeful.

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