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Gus Speth '64 reviewed in Time Magazine and The Economist

Storm Warnings Ahead

Time Magazine
April 5, 2004

A cynic picking up Red Sky at Morning (Yale University; 299 pages) might wonder why the international community should do better protecting the earth's life-support systems than it has done preventing nuclear proliferation, terrorism or the piracy of Britney Spears CDs. The answer, according to James Gustave Speth's book, which has the quiet, seething tone of an insider who believed in the system but witnessed only steady decline, is that a habitable planet is a prerequisite for dealing with all the other problems.

Speth either created or ran many of the most important environmental institutions of the past 30 years, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.N. Development Program. From these bully pulpits, he pushed for grand treaties and participated in earth summits. Now dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, he gives a failing grade to almost every effort: "The climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, [and] the desertification convention is not preventing desertification."

Speth meticulously chronicles decades of missed opportunities. As a Carter Administration official in 1979, he received a report signed by some of the most distinguished scientists of the day predicting that greenhouse-gas emissions would lead to a "conspicuous" warming by the end of the century. Even before that date, the warming was unmistakable.

STRIPPED: Activists protest clearing
of a protected forest in Mexico

He leavens this detailed history with dry asides. After ticking off two decades of techniques used to delay action on climate change―question the science, claim that the problem lies far off in the future and then switch to saying it's too late to do anything―he drolly notes, "The Bush Administration moved through this string of evasions in half a presidential term."

Speth recognizes that the very act of addressing problems through treaties is itself an evasion. The approach moved environmental issues into a province where negotiators have proved willing to settle for minimal requirements, constituencies are scattered and governments can grandstand. Indeed, most environmental treaties have the same effect as presidential commissions―they assuage the public's anxieties while forestalling real action.

The result of this dithering, argues Speth, is that whatever slack nature cut us is gone. Still, he hasn't given up. Now he's looking to scale up what he calls "jazz," the voluntary and improvisational efforts of those who believe the world should heed the traditional sailor's warning alluded to in the book's title. If people lead, maybe the leaders will follow.

The Environment: Green Reflections

The Economist
March 18, 2004

"WE LIVE in a global consumer society, a material world, with seemingly endless consumer demands. Why should it be so?" Those words, drawn from "Red Sky at Morning", seem to be the sort of lament often heard in simple-minded books about the environment. The planet is in imminent danger, goes the argument, the air and water are getting filthier, and it is all due to the evils of capitalism and the gluttony of mankind.

At first blush, James Gustave Speth seems perfect for the part of bleating environmentalist. After all, his green credentials are impeccable. He founded not one but two high churches of the American environmental movement: the Natural Resources Defence Council, a litigious non-governmental group, and the World Resources Institute, a think-tank. He also served as head of the United Nations Development Programme, which often complains about resource degradation, and is now dean of Yale University's environment school. This book adds up to his reflections on a lifetime of fighting for the environment.

Yet, consider Mr Speth's delightfully contrarian answer to that question about excessive consumerism: "Consumption brings us pleasure and helps us to avoid pain and, worst of all, boredom and monotony. Consumption is stimulating, diverting, absorbing, defining, empowering, relaxing, fulfilling, educational, rewarding. If pressed, I would have to confess that I truly enjoy most of the things on which I spend money."

Clearly, this man is not your run-of-the-mill environmental Cassandra. On the contrary, Mr Speth is a thoughtful and well-informed observer of the environmental scene, and his book is a balanced and pragmatic look at the topic. His broad thesis is that the world faces some difficult environmental challenges in the years ahead―chief among them climate change―and that it is ill-equipped to tackle those challenges. He contrasts such difficulties with local environmental problems, which the rich world has successfully tackled, and explains the reasons why global problems are likely to prove thornier. Unlike smog or filthy water, which ordinary people can see and smell, climate change or the depletion of the ozone layer are harder problems to comprehend and, therefore, to deal with.

He is scathing in his denunciation of the current approach to dealing with international environmental problems, which basically amounts to endless conferences ("my generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers," he observes wryly) and the crafting of treaties that are often ignored. He notes that there are some 250 such treaties, but little co-ordination or hope of implementation.

He offers up a number of suggestions for improving "global environmental governance" arising from his decades of experience. His proposals are mostly sensible ones. Importantly, they are informed by the notion that mankind must balance the needs of the world's poorest with concerns about nature. He even makes a semi-plausible case for a new World Environment Organisation to counter-balance the World Trade Organisation without invoking the usual empty-headed arguments against globalisation.

That points to this book's greatest strength. In making his case, Mr Speth is careful to avoid the usual pitfalls of green books. He readily recognises that the air and water in rich countries have been cleaned up over the past few decades―a fact that most green groups are not keen to trumpet. He honestly accepts that he and others making predictions back in the 1970s got some gloomy forecasts wrong: he notes the world's population did not explode, for example, nor did prices for food and minerals. Influenced by his time running UNDP, he is careful not to put green goals on an altar while neglecting global poverty. Indeed, he makes the sharp observation that poverty in itself forces the indigent to despoil their natural environment―and economic growth, the bĂȘte noire of many greens, is necessary to lift those unfortunates out of subsistence.

Bottom-up greenery Mar 18th 2004 The environment Yale's Environment School publishes a biography of James Gustave Speth. What is more, unlike many greens, he is no Luddite. Mr Speth clearly understands the power of human ingenuity and calls for measures to encourage the development and use of clean new technologies. How? In part by unleashing market forces, he says. Mr Speth makes a compelling case for stripping away perverse subsidies and introducing market-based regulatory approaches like emissions trading.

Occasionally, the author strikes a sour note, which is unwelcome. He sometimes slips into the tone of lecturing grandfather or hectoring green, which can be annoying. And he cites one too many arcane or ancient reports at length, which can be tedious as well as annoying. Even so, these are minor flaws in an otherwise thought-provoking book by one of the grand old men of greenery.