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Gus Speth and "Civic Unreasonableness" on the Environment

The Big Change

by FELICE PACE

If you’ve tuned in to the presidential campaign you know that Barak Obama and John McCain are both pushing the idea of “change”. It is, after all, what their pollsters and focus group gurus tell them the voters want.

When we examine the policies Obama and McCain articulate, however – or when we look into who provides the obscenely large campaign donations both receive – we quickly come to the conclusion that the “change” either candidate will bring if elected is change at the margin. Both candidates want to tinker with corporate rule; neither is interested in challenging the rulers.

There is one member of the establishment who is talking about fundamental change this campaign season. James Gustave “Gus” Speth currently serves as dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. His resume includes a stint as chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality and as head of the United Nation’s Development Program. Gus Speth is as comfortable in the halls of power as he is in his wood-paneled office at Yale.

That is why it comes as a surprise that Speth is calling not only for the transformation of capitalism through “a new set of laws” designed to fundamentally change corporations’ “incentive structure” but also for “civic unreasonableness” – a mass movement (similar to the movement for civil rights in the 1960s) geared to generate the moral and political force necessary to make fundamental change possible.

Skepticism is in order. The older among us will remember a call for the “greening of America” issuing from the same ivy-covered halls where Speth is now a dean. Charles Reich’s call never inspired the change he predicted; he did not provide a blueprint for the necessary organizing.

Gus Speth is not simply issuing impotent calls from the comfortable halls of academia. He has also used his position at Yale to promote – if not to foment – the movement he believes is needed. For example, in 2007 Speth’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies convened a conference in Aspen Colorado which brought together leaders from major corporations and foundations along with religious, education and academia leaders to chart a direction for the transformations Speth seeks. As reported in the Journal of the Yale school he heads, the conferees called for exposing the “destructive trends in the current relationship between human beings and the natural world” as well as “conducting research on the role of values in behavior.” They also decided that “we need to be prepared to act when the (future) crisis occurs” and that we must “reconnect people to nature, especially within urban settings.”

But neither the Yale sponsored conference nor Speth’s newest book – “The Bridge at the Edge of the World” (Yale U Press, 2008) – nor any of the interviews which Speth has given recently provide a roadmap for how these transformations are to be accomplished. Sure Speth calls for a “mass movement’ and for “leadership” but he fails to tell us how we need to organize now to support the emergence of a new mass movement and new leadership. And Speth is particularly reticent about the failures of the so-called “Environmental Movement” to lead or even to support such a mass movement.

Gus Speth is a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and he is on a first name basis with the leaders of virtually all the major US environmental groups as well as with the leaders of numerous foreign and international environmental organizations. Speth knows the environmental establishment from the inside out and implicit in his words and works is the understanding that the fundamental “change” which he believes is needed can not come from an environmental establishment which is overly cozy with the corporate and political establishments.

The fundamental change Gus Speth wants will require storming the gates of the citadel in which he himself – and the other leaders of the environmental establishment – occupy honored places. And so Gus Speth can not bring himself to go the extra mile; he can not bring himself to indict the environmental non-movement and to call for fundamental change within the environmental establishment. The environmental establishment – flush with money and power – should be able to use the current world-wide concern about the impacts of climate change to build and lead the mass movement Gus Speth says we need. But instead Speth looks for change from outside – the emergence of a new movement and new leadership born, as it were, fully formed from the thigh of Zeus.

This is counter-intuitive. Currently the major organizations which make up the environmental establishment control more than 90% of the funding available for environmental work. These organizations publish magazines which shape the opinions of millions of citizens. And here we are talking not about all citizens but precisely that subset of citizens – those who care for the Earth enough to pony up membership fees, donations and subscriptions in order to save it and its diverse life forms. It is precisely these masses – the environmental conscious citizens of the US and the world – who must provide the foot soldiers of the new mass movement which Gus Speth says we need.

In spite of this reality, Speth proposes that we allow the environmental establishment to continue as it has in the past – to grow fat and satisfied with narrow battles and narrower “victories” while the Earth itself is being destroyed by individuals and corporations which occupy seats on the boards of director’s of these same environmental organizations. Rather than strategizing on how to create a mass movement for change our so-called ‘environmental leaders” are busy spiffing up their resumes in anticipation of a new administration in Washington DC.

We should applaud the steps Gus Speth has taken and we must hope that he is only the first in what will become a growing stream of establishment types who realize that only fundamental change will restore American democracy and prevent the utter destruction of Planet Earth. But we must also challenge Speth to go the extra mile – to demand from the environmental establishment that they either lead the effort to bring on the transformations we need or that they cease from claiming the mantle of Earth’s defenders.  

It is too easy to call for fundamental change without applying that call where we conduct our daily lives. Gus Speth has walked the walk at Yale – not only has he transformed what was a moribund School of Forestry into a modern school of environmental studies, he has also convinced his university to get its head out of the sand and build a sustainable campus.

But Gus Speth must not stop there. Having realized what must be done, Speth must also challenge his colleagues within the environmental establishment to fundamentally change the way they do business so that they can provide the base of support needed for emergence of the mass movement which he believes we so desperately need. 

(note: you can read Gus Speth’s call for “Civic Unreasonableness” and about the Aspen Conference mentioned above in the Spring 2008 edition of environment Yale: http//environment.yale.edu.

An interview with Gus Speth by Jeff Goodell can be found in the September/October2008 edition of Orion at www.orionmagazine.org)

FELICE PACE has lived in the Klamath Mountains since 1975. Since 1987 he has walked and studied all the large fires that have burned in the Klamath Mountains. He can be reached at: unofelice@gmail.com