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.