Gus Speth '64: "Blue Planet Defender"
One of World's Foremost Environmentalists, Gus Speth Carries the Crusade Into Halls of Academe
The Hartford Courant
August 4, 2002
As a child growing up in rural South Carolina in the '40s and '50s, James Gustave Speth's world was, in a sense, a small one.
"We honestly almost didn't know what pollution was down there," he said.
He hunted quail and doves with his father, and they fished the sluggish streams and inky swamps for crappies and other panfish.
"I really fell in love with all that," he said.
Heading off to Yale College in New Haven in 1960, even the Northeast was new. "I'd hardly been out of South Carolina," he said.
Those days are a world apart for a man who visited more than 100 countries in his last job, who has been in the forefront of national and international environmental policy for three decades. Now Speth, a driven man who can't abide the prospect of continuing environmental degradation, is molding the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies into an institution with global focus and reach ― a place where the intellectual underpinnings of conservation will be continually freshened, where the next generation of environmental leaders will be trained to solve the problems.
During June, Speth, of Guilford, was awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo for his three decades of working on solutions to the world's environmental problems. The award includes a prize of about $400,000, most of which he plans to donate to environmental causes.
"He is a person who probably could rest on his accomplishments and feel quite proud. . . but he isn't," said Gordon T. Gebalie, associate dean for student and alumni affairs at the forestry school. "He still thinks ― knows ― he has work to do, things to accomplish."
That progress on global warming, for example, has been modest at best nags him. He participated in a federal study of the problem that predicted that the New England forest as it is known today would be radically altered, perhaps choked with weedy, undesirable species by the end of the century.
"In general, international environmental law is plagued by vague agreements, lax enforcement and underfunded support," Speth said this spring in a speech at Harvard University.
At the same time he received the Blue Planet Prize, the influential magazine Foreign Policy published his article calling for creation of a World Environment Organization, not unlike the World Health Organization, and a radical revision of how global environmental problems are dealt with.
Inspiration On A Train
Speth returned to Yale three years ago, with a dog-eared passport and a resumé of high profile, very public jobs. He graduated from Yale summa cum laude, was a Rhodes scholar, and entered the Yale Law School, where he was a member of the Law Journal.
In his third year of law school, riding the train to New Haven, he read in a newspaper an article about the recently enacted National Environmental Policy Act, and another about the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
"I remember sitting there as a third year law student saying, 'By God, that is what we ought to do. We ought to get a group together and create a legal defense fund for the environment,' "Speth recalled recently.
"We ended up getting support from the Ford Foundation, even as young kids right out of law school. We merged with another group and started something that became the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970." The council is now one of the nation's largest environmental groups, with a membership of more than 500,000.
Speth served as chairman of the federal Council on Environmental Quality during President Carter's administration, and helped prepare the pathbreaking Global 2000 Report of 1980 that identified environmental problems worldwide and assessed their expected severity by the turn of the century, a report whose warnings proved close to reality. Another boring government report? It sold 1.5 million copies in book form.
"The attention at that time, all during the '70s, had been so exclusively domestic, and we were actually making a lot of progress in cleaning things up," Speth said. "But you got the feeling after a while when you looked at these global issues that we were sort of building a fool's paradise here in the U.S."
With Carter's defeat in 1980, Speth taught law in Washington and founded the World Resources Institute, a center for policy research and technical assistance on environmental issues, still in operation today.
In 1991, he became a senior adviser on environmental issues with then President-elect Clinton's transition team, and soon after became head of the United Nations Development Programme, making Speth the highest ranking American official at the U.N.
In that post, in effect the No. 2 job at the U.N. next to the secretary general, Speth emphasized environmental considerations when distributing aid for development projects. He visited more than 100 countries durmg his six-year tenure, struggling with the delicate issue of reconciling economic development in the developing world with environmental sensitivity, something often ignored before then.
But American policy toward the U.N. while he was in office proved embarrassing. The U.S. wasn't even paying its U.N. dues. He decided he would leave after his sixth year in office. Meanwhile, Yale came looking.
"It really seemed to me after 30 years in the trenches of environment and development issues, it would be a really good thing to have a chance to get back with young people," he said, "trying to build a new generation of leaders and people who understood all these issues, who could learn about them in school, rather than having to make mistakes about them in practice."
A Poisoned Lake
Two youthful experiences were influential in shaping Speth's career choice.
Every summer, his family spent some time fishing, swimming and boating at Lake Junaluska in North Carolina, where his grandparents had a home.
"Then one year we went up there and the lake was dead and off-limits. And it stunk to high heaven. It was really my first encounter with pollution." Tannery wastes entering from a feeder stream had poisoned it. "It left a deep impression on me because we loved that lake."
He got another eyeful on his way to Yale; the belching smokestacks and polluted rivers of the urban Northeast of 1960.
"I really hadn't seen the sort of old industry, and the effects of the sort of unrestrained industrialization, before in my life," he said.
By the time he left Yale, he was an environmentalist, almost before the term had even been coined. He is a driven personality who sees the world's environmental problems as both pressing and enormously difficult.
After all these years, Geballe said, Speth "still has the passion" to persist.
One issue that nags him is global warming, addressed in his White House report more than 20 years ago, and still a problem. Less polluting forms of energy ― and energy conservation ― are critical, Speth believes.
He drives a Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric and gas-powered vehicle that gets 48 mpg, with emissions more like a skateboard than a sport utility vehicle. He is exploring ways to boost the energy efficiency of the antique home he bought when he came to Yale. His garden is organic. A planned new building for the forestry and environment school will be state-of-the-art energy efficient.
He still fishes, if infrequently. He and his wife, Cameron, his high-school sweetheart, are veteran eco-tourists who love to hike. They have three grown children.
In three years as dean at Yale's forestry and environment school, he's made substantial progress in expanding the school's international perspective, though not without some tension within the faculty.
He's increased the school's faculty from about 30 to 40, and increased the number of international students. A year ago the school launched a $60 million fund-raising drive for endowment and capital needs. It has raised about $40 million.
Plans call for a new building for the school, now spread out among several buildings along Prospect Street in New Haven. "We can't go ahead and talk too boldly until we finish raising the money, but the plan is to really build a cutting edge, green building here at Yale," Speth said, "a building that would really reflect the very best in technology in terms of reduced energy use, in terms of materials consumed and the use of recycled and non-toxic materials."
Stephen R. Keilert, a professor with an endowed chair at the school, said Speth's work so far has been "terrific." "People feel energized by his enthusiasm, his vision for the school and for the environment," Kellert said. "I think they are all excited about how much he has expanded the school and connected it to other parts of Yale with a shared interest in the environment. I think everyone is very positive about what a great ambassador he is to the environmental community, governmental and non-governmental."
There has been tension, too, though Kellert says it is healthy tension. Some faculty members have complained that Speth is impatient to take research fmdings and apply them to the public policy debate. Others worry that the school might be too globally oriented.
"That has been a growing pain," Kellert said. While it is almost like being against motherhood to question a global approach, he said, "I think there is also a desire to retain a strong local, regional and national perspective, and maintain that sense of community and collegiality that the school has had traditionally."
Kellert said there has been "learning" both by Speth and faculty members as he has settled in. "Gus has been good about being a good learner."
For his part, Speth said he's found "a very congenial environment at Yale, both within our school and more generally. I was worried about that when I came. I haven't found the sort of brutal academic politics one sometimes hears about."
He remains hopeful that the big environmental problems will be solved, though he believes it will take sea change of attitude, akin to the changing public attitudes that led to civil rights legislation and domestic environmental reforms more than two decades ago.
"There is still time enough to deal with these issues, but the time is short," he said.