Gus Speth, Enviro Crusader—The Complete Conversation

For our May 2007 Dream Jobs package, “No Work and All Play…,” contributor Tim Sohn wrote about Gus Speth, a true action hero of the green movement. Here, read an unabridged introduction to Sohn’s article, and a full interview transcript.


Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

James Gustave “Gus” Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has been at the forefront of the American environmental movement for nearly as long as there’s been such a thing. After co-founding the National Resources Defense Council in 1970, while in his final year at Yale Law School, he went on to chair President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality from 1977 to 1981; found the World Resources Institute, a green think tank, in 1982; act as a senior environmental adviser to President Clinton’s transition team; and head the United Nations Development Program from 1993 to 1999, when he left to assume the Yale post. Besides guiding the environmental leaders of tomorrow, Speth, who drives a Prius and has a bank of photovoltaic panels in his Connecticut yard, has authored three books in that time, including his potent dissection of our failure to address the issue of climate change, Red Sky at Morning. Through generational and political shifts in the environmental movement, Speth’s voice, which retains the distinctive tones of his native South Carolina, has been a constant source of reason and measured optimism, as well as the occasional laugh. He took time out from a day of hosting Sir Nicolas Stern, the British economist who has calculated the economic ramifications of global warming, to speak with Outside about his career, environmental politics, and some of his favorite outdoor spots.

OUTSIDE: Thanks for speaking with me. I hope not to take up too much of your time. SPETH: We can always talk again. It just turned out that the schedule today got screwed up by mistake—this famous report on the climate issue [the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006)], the guy who did it, Nicolas Stern, arrived at Yale and is giving presentations all day today, and so I’ve been tied up with that, since it’s kind of my area.

Obviously you’re a pretty busy guy, but I was curious what the leisure time balance is in a job like yours and what you enjoy doing in your spare time.Well, since our children were old enough to do anything—actually, no, since before they were old enough—we dragged them into the Everglades and Okefenokee and the Boundary Waters canoe area, [laughs] and when they got big they swore they’d never get back in another canoe, which didn’t turn out to be true. But we’ve always had an affinity for outdoor activities. I’ve found that the national parks are really great if you get off of the highways and walk a few feet-more often than not, there’s nobody there. We hiked all the way to the Great Falls of the Yellowstone, for instance, and I think we were the only people there looking at it.We’ve been everywhere. Last summer we went up to a place that was fantastic, I thought, Newfoundland, and climbed Gross Morne Mountain and hiked the hills on the western side of the island, and it was beautiful. There were more moose than people. One of our favorite places was a little Canadian provincial park called Assiniboine, which is tucked away sort of near Banff and Jasper, a wilderness park, and it was really spectacular. And we’ve been to the tropics and down to Patagonia a couple of times, always trekking. So the answer is, basically, my wife and I really love hiking.

You’ve worn a lot of different hats over the course of your career. Do you consider yourself primarily an environmentalist, an administrator, an educator, an activist, all of them?Well, I think if you look at what I’ve done, the environmental theme has been consistent throughout. Less so during my six years in the UN when I was more focused on development than the environment, but we had the UN’s largest program in sustainable development and environmental development, and we built it up, so there’s been a very consistent focus on environmental issues. I’m a proud environmentalist.

When you co-founded the NRDC, you were still in law school. Did you have in mind then that environmental advocacy would be this lifelong calling?I guess I saw it as a long-term thing, but I didn’t know I’d stick with it for the whole time. And I think the reason that I’ve been able to do that is that I’ve worn this green hat in a lot of different roles. The NRDC is an advocacy group, and then we built the think tank in Washington, the World Resources Institute, and then the Carter administration, and then the UN, and now here [at Yale] for eight years, I can’t believe it.

Is it safe to say that at the outset you didn’t have any idea that someday you’d be dean of the Yale School of Forestry?No, no. [laughs]

There have been a lot of changes in the environmental movement over your career. You talk in your book about the transition from the more concrete, proximate goals of seventies-style environmental politics to the more global and total crises of today. Has your outlook changed as a result? My outlook has changed a lot. There have been huge shifts. At least up until the last election in Washington, when my students would ask, “Where should I go to have an impact,” I would say things today that are very different from what we thought in the 1970s.In the seventies it was all about going to Washington and getting the policies straightened out at the national level. The states were hopeless, business was hopeless, and the hope was in Washington. And we did and we got it—almost all of the major environmental legislation we have today was written in the seventies. There have been some amendments since, but… Nowadays, when I get asked by the students, I say, ‘Well there are a lot of places to go, there are tremendous opportunities in business now that were not there, and there are tremendous opportunities at the state and the city level.’ New York city is putting in place a tough climate program. California’s got a tough climate program. So you’ve got things happening today that just were not thought of back then, and there’s a lot more room for doing things outside of government altogether.There’s been a shift: NGOs and environmental groups were initially mostly working on policy advocacy and things of that type, but now, very often, they’re out doing things. The World Resources Institute, my old group in Washington, is now out in the world, promoting in the world’s great cities this thing called bus rapid transit, or BRT, which is a fairly straightforward way of using bus transport that really works. You create a special bus lane without anybody else in it, you make platforms like train platforms so you walk right onto the buses, you pay your fee before you get to the bus, and it is just taking off like gangbusters in Mexico City and other places. So I think there is a change in the sense that people are out doing things now.

You seem to have been able to accommodate yourself to a lot of changes. I wanted to ask about the transitions in your career: from environmental advocacy to the public sector to education. Have you had any problems transitioning from one world to the next?No, I haven’t. I’ve enjoyed it—you know, variety is the spice of life, and it’s been fun. But there are basically some real similarities, too. Unfortunately one of the similarities has been fundraising. [laughs] I’ve done a lot of that in every context, including the UN, where we had to go out and beg governments for money, and so that’s been very consistent. Working with people—no matter how big the organization you’re in, you usually end up working with a small number of people who you see regularly on a relatively intense basis, and working with people is a common thing to all types of positions, and most of my positions lately have been management positions of one type or another, I guess. What’s been new for me in a way is writing, publishing. I’ve always written a lot of op-ed pieces and articles, but since I’ve been here I’ve written three books, so that’s been different and that’s also been a lot of fun.

You mentioned that you enjoy working with people. Could you talk about the positives of working with and teaching your students at Yale? Oh, yeah, well that’s really the reason I came back to the university. to reconnect with the new generation, and it’s really fulfilled my expectations because they are a joy. Our school is, I think, very special in a sense in that students come here because they’re very interested in the natural world, and most of them are deeply connected in different ways to nature and the outdoors or the urban environment, and they’re very highly motivated and very smart and they go on to do great things. So it’s really a joy. And I’ve enjoyed teaching, too, and I’ve done that almost every year.

So you’re encouraged by what you’ve seen of this crop of future environmental leaders?I’m very encouraged by what I see in our students and a similar group of students, who exist at all universities. But I’m still a little perplexed as to why today’s young people aren’t more like us when we were young. [loud laugh, loudest yet] I was a child of the sixties, and I keep wondering. I think students—they’re not apathetic, but they express themselves in different ways today. We were pretty much in the streets, you know.

It seems to me that there’s a conflict, a difference of perspective, there between the old-guard environmental leadership and the people working at the grassroots today.I think you’re right, and I think this is one of the issues with the older, bigger environmental organizations, is in a way reconnecting with young people and reconnecting with groups who haven’t really been inside the environmental tent. It’s not that the young people aren’t hungry to work at these national groups. A lot of students here would love to go to work for the NRDC or Environmental Defense or something and a number of them do. I think the Nature Conservancy is the biggest employer of our graduates outside of the federal government.

On this idea of engaging more people, enlarging the environmental tent: What do you think are the effects of the recent upsurge in mainstream coverage of global warming as far as bringing more people into the conversation?Well, the warming issue may be a good place to talk for a minute, because I think it is transforming things—it is transforming the environment, but it is also transforming the environmental community and it’s transforming the environmental issues. It is such an all-encompassing problem and such a severe problem. For your readers, there’s not going to be an outdoors worth going to if we don’t do something—and fast—about this problem. It’s the biggest threat to land conservation in history. Every bit of land that’s every had a boundary put on it and been protected is threatened now. So I think it’s the big issue. The corals are threatened, the ocean fisheries. Fortunately, it’s kind of a clarion call; it’s waking people up and, I think, revitalizing environmental concern.

Going forward, though more people are aware of the problem, might some people be discouraged by how little they can do in the face of such a daunting problem?I guess I disagree in the sense that you’ve got over 200 cities trying to do something about this problem now, almost all the states are getting into the picture, traditional Washington, a lot of international things, lots of consumer possibilities—green consumerism will come more strongly forward—a lot of commercial activities. This is spawning a whole industry of start-ups; we just had a graduate go down and start a new solar-energy firm in New Jersey. So I think in every sense there are opportunities.

I was trying to bait you out slightly on that one. But I guess the question behind that one is, how do you maintain hopefulness and optimism in the face of these problems?Well, I think I saw what could be done in the seventies, so I know we can make big changes. And in this case, the stakes are so high that you just can’t lose hope. You can’t go do something else or ignore the issues. I think there’s a way for almost everybody to get involved. I think one way I stay optimistic about it is by staying engaged. I think the worst thing would be to be on the fence, just kind of watching and not being able to get involved with the issues. But there are ways for everybody to get engaged—you don’t have to be a professional like I am.

Do you enjoy the pulpit that your position as dean affords you?I do. Yes, I do.

What’s the best part of your job as Dean?I think the joy of this is being able to bring some of what I’ve learned the hard way to a new generation, and at the same time realizing how much this new generation has to teach me. These are bright people, already involved.

For those interested in a career in environmental advocacy, just starting out, what’s your advice?Find something that you really are excited about, a job that makes you really want to go to work in the morning, and something that has some sort of spiritual or ethical content.

promo logo