Yale University

Class News

Gus Speth '64 publishes a memoir

Angels by the River: A Memoir

James Gustave Speth

Release date: Oct. 10, 2014

“An influential environmental leader reflects on his Southern boyhood, race, the environment, politics, and living on the front lines of change.”

[This summary was provided by Chelsea Green Publishing. Order the book from Amazon here.]

In Angels by the River, James Gustave Speth recounts his unlikely path from a Southern boyhood through his years as one of the nation’s most in!uential mainstream environmentalists and eventually to the system-changing activism that shapes his current work and led to his arrest in front of the White House.

Written with grace and generosity toward his “angels by the river,” Speth reflects on past events in his life and the way those events resonate into the present — in our country’s race relations, in the quality of our environment, in our politics, and elsewhere. Throughout this compelling memoir, Speth intertwines three stories — his own, his hometown’s, and his country’s.

Born and raised in a lovely but racially divided town that later became the scene of South Carolina’s horrific Orangeburg Massacre, Speth explores how the civil-rights movement and the South’s agrarian roots shaped his later work in the heyday of the environmental movement when he helped launch two landmark environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. He tells the story of their foundings and explores why a new environmentalism is now needed.

The advancing climate crisis is a theme that recurs throughout Speth’s professional life, starting as early as 1979. He concludes that addressing climate change with the force required will not be possible as long as we remain "fixated on ramping up a misleading GDP, growing corporate profits, increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, consuming endlessly, neglecting the half of America that is just getting by, and helping abroad only modestly. “Dealing with the climate emergency in such a context,” Speth writes, “is like trying to go down a very fast up escalator.”

Speth has fought for the nation’s toughest environmental laws, spearheaded programs in the United Nations, advised the White House, and moved into a leading academic role as dean of Yale’s prestigious School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Yet, in the end, he arrived somewhere quite unexpected — still believing fundamental change is possible, but not within the current political and economic system.

James Gustave “Gus” Speth is the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, founder and president of the World Resources Institute, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration. He currently teaches at Vermont Law School, and is a senior fellow at the Democracy Collaborative. His previous books include America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, the award-winning The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.