What organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?

I’m the dean at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The school is working to become “a truly global school of the environment.” We have around 235 students in our professional master’s degree programs in environmental management, forestry, and environmental science. Our doctoral program averages 70 to 80 students conducting research in areas such as agroforestry, community ecology, ecosystems management, and environmental health risk assessment. About a third of our students are from abroad. It’s a great place, honestly, and we get remarkably talented students.

What’s your job title?

Dean and professor in the practice of environmental policy and sustainable development.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

Speth’s new book.

Well, the dean can be basically an administrator, fundraiser, and herder of faculty cats. But I’ve tried to up the ante both by promoting an ambitious strategic plan for the school and by launching a $62 million capital campaign for a new building, deeper scholarship, and faculty expansions. To stay sane, I’m also offering a course in International Environmental Law and Policy and have written a book I hope will get a wide audience, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. Finally, I’ve stayed involved with the groups I helped to get started, principally the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I was raised in the 1940s and 1950s in a rather poor small town in the middle of the second-poorest state in the U.S. — South Carolina. Thank God for Mississippi, we used to say. A scholarship got me to Yale, where I received a B.A. in political science in 1964. It was Joe Lieberman’s class — and John Ashcroft’s! I went on to get an M.Litt. in 1966 from Oxford in economics, and a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1969. Regarding Vietnam, the draft did not come after me, and I did not volunteer. I just stayed home and protested.

In law school, a group of us realized that the environment needed its own legal defense fund, and, through several steps, that effort led to the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. Then, I served as a member and chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and when the voters turned us out in 1980, I went on to teach environmental and constitutional law for two years as a professor at Georgetown University. In 1982, I cofounded the World Resources Institute and served as its president until January 1993. Following my time at WRI, I served as senior advisor to President-Elect Clinton’s transition team, heading the group on natural resources, energy, agriculture, and the environment. Finally, I came to Yale’s Environment School from the United Nations, where I served from 1993 through 1999 as administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.N.’s largest anti-poverty effort around the world.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

Way too many, but it beats telephone tag.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

Nothing here at Yale quite fits your question, unless it’s some folks in the university bureaucracy. But that does not compare with the interagency wars in the U.N. after the secretary-general made me overall coordinator of a dozen of the U.N.’s development-assistance agencies working around the world. The process of U.N. reform took 20, maybe 30 years off my life, I’m sure. We got some very important changes made, but the infighting and backstabbing were intense.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

Some corporate executives, especially the new breed of environment, health, and safety (EHS) VPs.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Orangeburg, S.C., as noted. My wife, Cameron, and I now live in Guilford, Conn., in a 300-year-old house. It is a lovely spot with great sunrises over Long Island Sound and lots of sugar maples now threatened by global climate change, according to all the climate models.

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?

Maybe there were two things. My grandparents, good Methodists, had a summer home at the church’s retreat, Lake Junaluska, in North Carolina. My favorite times there in the summer were on that lake. One summer I returned to find that the whole lake was closed to fishing, swimming, and boating because some @*!!# company had dumped a huge load of pollution (tanning wastes, I believe) into the lake. Also, I remember how startled I was at the contrast between the relatively good environment of South Carolina in 1960 and the pollution and scarred terrain of the Northeast.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

Well, I guess it was shortly after President-Elect Clinton put me in charge of environment, energy, and agriculture for his transition team. The Washington Post promptly ran a piece saying that a “jolly green giant” was in charge of agriculture and energy for Clinton, and every powerful interest in these areas promptly came down hard on me, the transition, Clinton, etc.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

The Bush administration.

Who is your environmental hero?

Aldo Leopold. He put people in their place. He’s also the most influential graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Who is your No. 1 environmental villain/nemesis?

There are many, of course, but when I was head of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality it was clearly Jim Schlesinger. Our little David of an agency squared off against his Department of Energy Goliath over and over — breeder reactors, solar energy, synfuels, and climate change. I thought I had outlasted Jim until I saw an op-ed piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times recently claiming that global warming was an overrated issue.

What’s your environmental vice?

Paper use at the office; trash at home. But I love my Prius.

What are you reading these days?

William Greider’s Soul of Capitalism; Brian Fagan’s Little Ice Age; Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer; Alan Furst novels about Europe in the years leading up to World War II; everything John le Carre writes.

What’s your favorite meal?

South Carolina barbeque. Sorry.

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Absolutely! I watch The Daily Show every evening.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

Coral reefs. My wife and I were recently at a nice spot in Panama, Bocas del Toro.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

The biggest area for work in my view is environmentally honest prices — get rid of perverse subsidies and make companies pay to correct their environmental damages. For starters, I’d go for the Lieberman-McCain cap-and-trade climate bill, which recently got 43 votes in the Senate.

When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?

I’m not sure I ever wore tie-dye. Fleece? About every day in the winter.

Do you compost?

Yep, but not religiously. I have a nice little organic garden, mostly for salad greens.

Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?

John Kerry. This is the most important presidential election of my lifetime. I’ve known Ralph Nader since 1970, and I’m very upset with his decision to run.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Got a question for Gus? Send it on in by noon PST on Wed., Mar. 3, 2004.

Yes, of course. Everyone is for the environment, just like education. But it doesn’t mean we support either with fundamental commitment. I guess an environmentalist is someone who puts the environment at the top of the priority list. The problem is that by that test there are not too many of us, and we spend a lot of time talking to each other.

What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?

I worry a lot that the groups focused on biodiversity conservation, parks, wildlife, and land protection are in general neglecting the biggest threat to their goals — global climate change. There are some exceptions, but the pattern is clearly there.

What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?

May I quote a relevant passage from my new book, Red Sky at Morning?

One thing is clear: The needed changes will not simply happen. No hidden hand is guiding technology or the economy toward sustainability. The issues on the global environmental agenda are precisely the type of issues — long-term, chronic, complex — where genuine, farsighted leadership from elected officials is at a premium. But we have not seen this leadership emerge, and we have waited long enough. What we need now is an international movement of citizens and scientists, one capable of dramatically advancing the political and personal actions needed for the transition to sustainability. We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of ‘the environmental movement.’ We need a real one. It is time for we the people, as citizens and as consumers, to take charge.

Eventually, leaders in the political and business worlds will see that it is powerfully in their self-interest to promote … transitions. But the clear evidence to date is that, absent some new force in the picture, they will be much too late in coming to this realization. The best hope we have for this new force is a coalescing of a wide array of civic, scientific, environmental, religious, student, and other organizations with enlightened business leaders, concerned families, and engaged communities, networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life.

A new movement of consumers and households committed to sustainable living could drive a world of change. Young people will almost certainly be centrally involved in any movement for real change. They always have been. New dreams are born most easily when the world is seen with fresh eyes and confronted with impertinent questions. The Internet is empowering young people in an unprecedented way — not just by access to information but by access to each other, and to a wider world.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

In high school, my favorites were Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Today it’s Alison Krauss and Union Station, Neil Young, Robert Earl Keen, and Damien Rice.

Mac or PC?

PC.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Educate yourself about the candidates and vote. I get depressed every time I hear that young people don’t vote. Check out the League of Conservation Voters website. Also, see the excerpt from my book above. We need a real movement.

What are you happy about right now?

My family (first grandchild on the way); my marriage and my wife, Cameron; my new book; the students at Yale.