How did a nice, conservative, Southern white boy become a civilly disobedient, older (but still white) guy bent on transformative change in our system of political economy?
Here’s how a recent interviewer summarized my career:
His résumé is as mainstream and establishment as it gets: environmental advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Resources Institute, administrator of the UN Development Program, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now a professor at Vermont Law School, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos…. This elder environmental statesman is the author of the acclaimed books Red Sky at Morning (2003) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008)…[and a] forceful new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have held positions that allowed me to stay comfortably in my own progressive skin. But those jobs have been within the American mainstream to such a degree that in 2004 Time magazine referred to me as “the ultimate insider.” The phrase stuck and was picked up yet again in 2012 by Wen Stephenson, who used it in the title of the interview he did with me for the online environmental publication Grist: “‘Ultimate Insider’ Goes Radical.”
Stephenson began the interview by pointing out that I am “nobody’s picture of a radical,” then he added: “And yet [Speth] has grown ever more convinced that our politics and our economy are so corrupted, and the environmental movement so inadequate, that we can no longer hope to address the climate crisis, or our deep social ills, by working strictly within the system. The only remaining option, he argues…is to change the system itself. And that, he knows full well, will require a real struggle for the direction and soul of the country.”
The occasion that prompted that interview was my arrest, in front of the White House I used to work in, when protesting the Keystone XL pipeline with environmentalist Bill McKibben and scores of others. Our modest act of nonviolent civil disobedience landed us in the central cell block of the District of Columbia jail for three days. After more than thirty years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet’s climate, civil disobedience was my way of saying that America’s economic and political system has failed us all.
As I describe in my memoir, Angels by the River, it took many years for me to get to this point. It began when I “went north” to attend Yale in the 1960s. I arrived largely unquestioning the ways that racial injustice played out back home in South Carolina, where segregation was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Once removed from that setting, I came to conclude that I, and my community, had accepted and perpetuated a monstrous injustice toward African-Americans, and that the great bulk of what I had come to believe was nonsense. When one’s worldview and the institutions one believes in collapse, it can be entirely liberating. I was free to develop a fresh take on the world. This unmooring was the first big step along a path that would take me far from my conservative Southern roots.
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The journey from “insider” to “radical” that Stephenson describes was triggered in part during the 1990s, when I served as administrator of the United Nations Development Program, the largest UN initiative providing aid to developing countries. During my tenure, the UNDP had offices in more than 130 developing countries, and I visited a majority of them. I was prepared for a lot of poverty and a mixed record of international assistance to address it, but I was not prepared for the vastness of human deprivation and environmental decline that I witnessed. After a half-century of “official development assistance,” economic and environmental conditions around the globe were beyond deplorable. Something was terribly wrong. It was not hard to see that the neoliberal development model promoted by some, including the World Bank, was inconsistent with the real needs of the people and with democratic governance, and that the US record in all this was nothing to be proud of. Fortunately, the UNDP had developed an annual vehicle, the influential Human Development Report, for critiquing this sad state of affairs and advocating for a new model of assistance—one that focused not on aggregate growth in the gross domestic product, but directly on health, education, the environment, the advancement of women, providing the poor with credit and other productive assets, and good governance that was transparent and democratic.
By the time I left the United Nations in 1999, I was angry at US policy toward the developing world and said so in the media rather loudly. More basically, I was shaken by the way that international economic and political forces worked to the detriment of the world’s poor and their environment. They faced a system that needed more than incremental reform and greater funding.
The UN experience started me thinking in a new and more critical way. I returned to Yale in 1999 as a dean, and my personal transition began in earnest. A decade-long tenure there provided the opportunity to step back from the fray and do what professors are supposed to do: take a hard, searching look at what is actually going on. Subsequently, the Vermont Law School provided the same opportunity. Over a period of a dozen years, I researched and wrote three books, each looking more deeply at the need for the system to change. Each one links the grave challenges that we face at home and abroad to the systemic failures of the capitalist system that we have today and argues that long-term solutions must seek transformative change and lead to a new system of political economy.
As I was writing, I was told by some colleagues not to be so negative, that I should not discourage the students, that they looked to me as someone who made the system work, and that I should not offer remedies that were unrealistic. Most often, this advice was well-intentioned, but not always; one faculty member took to calling me “the red dean.” In any case, I resisted. The problems are many and massive, I replied. We must be brutally honest about it. If we don’t get that right, we won’t find the right answers. And if the solutions seem radical today, they won’t tomorrow.
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Shortly after becoming dean, I began collecting information on conditions and trends in the environment to see where America and the world actually stood after several decades of much effort. The longer and harder I looked, the more I felt that I was being mugged by reality. For example, I was teaching international environmental law at the time, and though by 2002 we had super-thick textbooks in the field, it was clear that the toothless treaties and other agreements reported in these texts were not driving real change. After years of claiming this or that environmental victory, we find ourselves today fast approaching environmental catastrophe.
It’s important to understand how that happened. When my colleagues and I started the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, we were children of the 1960s. We had entered college as the civil-rights movement was in full swing; we became antiwar as the number of US troops in Vietnam surged; though unfortunately all male, we were glad to see the birth of the National Organization for Women in 1966; and though we were not hippies or dropouts, we shared much of the counterculture’s critique of American society.
We also shared the 1960s’ sense of hope. We had studied the civil-rights litigation and other important cases, and we knew the importance of the law and of good lawyering in the public interest. We had seen the impact of social movements, of citizens standing up and speaking out. We knew from civil-rights legislation that our government in Washington could do great things, in addition to getting us into great wars, and indeed that government was essential if great things were to be done. The 1960s had taught us that activism could succeed; that government could succeed.
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Though one might not appreciate it today, the American environmentalism of the 1960s and early ’70s was rather radical. Many of the nation’s leading environmental thinkers and practitioners of the period concluded that deep economic and societal changes were needed. GDP and the national income accounts were challenged for their failure to tell us things that really matter. A sense of planetary limits was palpable. The Limits to Growth appeared in 1972 and sold over a million copies. In 1973, scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren recognized that, with growth no longer available as a palliative, “one problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations.” They also recognized the importance of stimulating employment in areas long underserved by the economy and by moving to shorter workweeks. And they saw that none of this was likely to happen without a dramatic revitalization of democratic life. Digging deeper, ecologist Barry Commoner was not alone in asking “whether the operational requirements of the private enterprise economic system are compatible with ecological imperatives.” Commoner’s answer was no.
It was these and similar ideas that motivated me during my initial years at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Yes, I had opted to work within the system, but I believed that our legal advocacy was on the path to deeper change.
But as federal environmental laws and programs burst on the scene in the early ’70s, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, we pursued the important goals and avenues those laws opened up. There, the path to success was clear—and we largely left by the wayside the more difficult and deeper challenges highlighted by the Ehrlichs, Commoner and others. I can see now that our gains in the ’70s locked us into patterns of environmental action that have since proved no match for the system we’re up against. The new laws created major opportunities for lawyers and others, but in pursuing them we were drawn ever more completely into the system. Once inside the DC Beltway, we were compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed there. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek the transformation of the system itself.
So now I am a proud member of the new-economy movement, about which fine articles by Gar Alperovitz and by John Cavanagh and Robin Broad have appeared in The Nation. One sure sign that the search for a new political economy has begun is the way that constituencies have formed around new concepts of the economy—including the solidarity economy, the caring economy, the restorative economy, the regenerative economy, the sustaining economy, the commons economy, the resilient economy and, of course, the new economy. There is ongoing discussion of the need for a “great transition” as well as a “just transition” rooted in racial, gender and class justice. In 2012, the most searched-for terms on the Merriam-Webster site were “capitalism” and “socialism.”
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Whether driven by climate and fossil-fuel insults; poverty, low wages and joblessness; deportation of immigrants and other family issues; treatment of women; or voter suppression, movements are now challenging key aspects of the system, seeking deep change over incremental reform, and offering alternative visions and new paths forward. There are groups that are marching in the streets, to state capitols and local congressional offices. Others have started to run people for office around alternative agendas. There are places where the needed research is occurring and new coalitions are bringing diverse groups together. Strong movements can be found in other countries; indeed, many countries are further along than we are. These are among the grounds for hope, and since 2009 I have been heavily involved in several of these efforts. Perhaps many who are still in the mainstream, but who see the need for deep change, will find ways to join this growing movement for a better world.
It’s true that the more I thought and read, the more my views evolved and moved leftward. My guiding star on this journey, my recurrent point of departure, has been my own six grandchildren and all the other grandchildren; it has long been my fervent hope that we will have the good sense to leave them a world sustained and whole. Yet, while I don’t mind being thought of as a “radical,” that is not how I view myself. Rather, I believe my thinking is close to where Franklin Roosevelt was with his Second Bill of Rights and where Aldo Leopold and Thomas Berry were with their environmental ethics. I doubt that views like mine will be thought “radical” for long.
I hope today’s young people will not worry unduly about such a label and will find ways to short-circuit the long and tortuous path I took. If it seems right to you, embrace it. A wonderful group of leaders and activists who are trying to change the system for the better are building new communities in which we can all participate.