New Memoir Charts Gus Speth's Political Evolution

Next System Co-Chair Gus Speth advocates for systemic change
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Cecilia Gingerich

By definition distinct from the status quo, radical ideas must always evolve. Still, Gus Speth has had a particularly unusual evolution to his current role as Co-Chair of The Democracy Collaborative’s Next System Project, which launched on March 31, 2015 and seeks to build upon our work on community wealth and take it to scale by opening up a broad national debate in the United States about much-needed systemic change. In his new memoir, entitled Angels by the River, Speth recalls some of the people, places, and events that took him from a sheltered, conservative upbringing in the American South, through a variety of prominent positions as a mainstream environmentalist, and finally, to his present role as a leading advocate for system change.

Most of the first half of Speth’s memoir is dedicated to his early life in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and to the complicated relationship he maintained with the South even after emigrating north as a young man. While his bucolic upbringing instilled in him a life-long love for the environment, Orangeburg in the mid-twentieth century also exemplified the entrenched racism of the Jim Crow South. Speth reflects on the segregation he witnessed as a child, acknowledging the significant privilege he experienced being white, middle class, and male.

By the mid 1960s, Speth had whole-heartedly embraced the growing Civil Rights Movement, and notes that much of the South was beginning to change. Unfortunately, his hometown remained a stronghold of resistance, and in 1968 became the scene of the horrific Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were killed, and over twenty injured. Speth dedicates an entire chapter to the event, which includes a discussion about the community’s inability to move past it, even decades later. Though no longer a resident of Orangeburg, he states that the town “lives on in memory,” and in his heart (p.76).

In the subsequent section, Speth reflects on a roster of positions that make up his impressive professional résumé, which began while he was still a student at Yale Law School. In his final year, he helped to found the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which was the first organization of its kind, and at the forefront of the modern environmental movement. The founding of the NRDC also marked the beginning of his long career in environmental advocacy, which went on to include founding the World Resources Institute, and advising President Jimmy Carter on environmental issues, including climate change.

In the 1990s, Speth served as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He remembers it as the “most intense, demanding, and educational job” he ever had (p. 108). However, he also notes that his related roles—as coordinator of the many development agencies at the United Nations, and later as the first chair of the United Nations Development Group—were greatly challenging, due to a lack of commitment and funding from Washington.

During his time at the UNDP, Speth traveled to over 100 countries, noting that the experience enabled him to “when need be, see the world as a non-American might,” (p.114). This perspective allowed him to see past the rampant propaganda following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, and only days later argue against a military response in the daily newspaper at Yale, where he was then dean of the university’s environment and forestry school. 

Challenging the United States’ role as a global policeman was only the first critique of many that Speth would write while at Yale. He states that it was during these years that he was able to “step back from the fray and do what professors are suppose to do: take a hard, searchingly look at what is actually going on,” (p.161). His resulting conclusions were published in a trio of books: Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment in 2004, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability in 2008, and America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy in 2012.

Each book built upon the one before it, revealing together what a lifetime of environmental and public policy work had taught him: that many of the major problems facing the United States today are systemic in nature. Not least of these is the issue of man-made climate change, to which Speth gives special attention, having focused on it for more than thirty years of his professional life. He, and many others, had advocated for government action to limit future climate change for decades, but had been largely unsuccessful. In light of this, he came to the conclusion that “America’s economic and political system has failed us all” (p. 160). 

On August 20th, 2011, Speth—along with more than 1,200 others—was arrested in front of the White House, while protesting the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline. He had resorted to civil disobedience, and the following year was the subject of an online article entitled “‘Ultimate Insider Goes Radical.” Indeed, the changes he is now calling for run deep and go to the fundamentals of the system. “We need to build an economy and a politics that give honest priority to people, place, and planet – rather than profit, product, and power,” he writes in the final chapter of Angels by the River (p. 185-186). He became Co-Chair of The Next System Project in 2013.