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.

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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?

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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.

James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale’s environment school.

What should be the role of academics in supporting environmental causes and policies? Do you think that just doing the research is enough, or should they advocate from their conscience?     — Roger Smith, West Hartford, Conn.

Scientists have got to become more outspoken. Today’s issues demand leadership from the scientific community. It’s simply not enough to publish and assume one’s job is done.

I’ve been deeply involved in the climate issue for about 35 years at the Department of Defense, the NRC, and the World Meteorological Organization. The consensus that the atmosphere and climate are changing, that human activities are the dominant cause, and that future changes will be dangerous has steadily strengthened. However, as with all science, uncertainties remain, and those are exploited by a corps of paid professional “skeptics” and used as excuses for inaction by political leadership.

How can responsible scientists most effectively communicate their understanding of the issue — including the irreducible uncertainties — to policymakers without compromising their scientific integrity? None of the mechanisms employed thus far seem to be doing the job!     — John Perry, Alexandria, Va.

I could not agree more. I believe we need new “scientists and citizens” organizations across the country, and, on climate, we need a bridging institution with impeccable scientific credibility to take the reports on climate in Science and Nature every week and move them into the mainstream media.

As a soon-to-be graduate (UPenn, B.A. in Environmental Studies), I often wonder where to go from here. I want to work for a better environment and put my energy to the best possible use. I am hoping that you have suggestions on what areas or issues are most important, or where young people are most needed today (activism? law? policy? research? international organizations?). Thank you!     — Brennan Quinn, Philadelphia, Penn.

You have a wonderful person now leading your state environment agency — Kathleen McGinty at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Go work there for starters, but you may need a graduate degree first.

Do you believe that we need a World Environmental Organization to stand in contrast to world economic institutions such as the World Bank and IMF? The history of attempts to implement environmental treaties has shown that environmental policies are difficult to follow through on due to lack of coordination in enforcement and monitoring. However, will creating a World Environmental Organization solve these problems? It seems that such an organization would have less power and influence than global economic institutions because the nature of its work would not be economically self-sustaining.     — Shoko Takemoto, Saint Paul, Minn.

A WEO will not remedy all the shortcomings, but it is part of the answer. My book, Red Sky at Morning, talks about this issue in some detail.

Regarding sustainable development, in light of your UNDP experience, how do you reconcile the development push from developing nations with the sustainable push from U.S. and European NGOs? This might be a better way of framing the North-South debate, and it seems like every set of negotiations has this problem, that some folks focus on the sustainable and others focus on the development. How do we get everyone talking on the same page?    — Kristen Hite (fellow fan of Lake Junaluska), Kingsport, Tenn.

I am not going to write the 1000th essay on the internal cross-pressures within “sustainable development.” We just have to keep our focus on two goals — alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. A group of us are thinking about a new program the theme of which would be something like, “To hell with the North-South divide.” Let’s get beyond it.

How is Lake Junaluska today?

What is your opinion on and reaction to the recent report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists charging the Bush administration with deliberately slanting science and science advice in a range of areas including the environment?     — Harvey R.

The UCS report was very solid. This issue has been building for months.

I am a wife and mother and I practice sustainable living in my community. In your opinion, what are one or two important things that a person like me can do to help turn the tide of global climate change?     — Pam Campa, Durham, N.C.

Go to the Resources for Citizens section of the Red Sky at Morning website. Good ideas are there.

How important are independent professional voices on the environment and what can they and others do to reduce the high levels of quackery in environmental activism?     — John Modra, Colac, Australia

There are so many credible, sound environmental groups!

Since the future belongs to the younger generations, what is the best way of involving young people in environmental work today? In your opinion, what do you see as the greatest barriers to/opportunities for their participation?     — Lisbet Kugler, Washington, D.C.

The greatest barrier is that they are “inexperienced.” But if someone had said that to our group that helped start NRDC right out of law school, we’d never have gotten it off the ground!

I would like to hear your answer to this question posed by Theodore Roszak: “Why are so many of us bad environmental citizens even when we ‘know better’?” He suggests that people are overburdened with guilt and gloom and doom and we may need new ways to motivate people to make real changes in their lives. Do you agree, and if so, how?     — Larry Chamblin, Pensacola, Fla.

Only the saints among us are willing to lead pure environmental lives when most people aren’t. If it’s a drop in the bucket, why do it, they say. That’s why we need rules and laws.

We have so many environmental, health, and human-rights groups pulling in so many different directions. In the quote you share from your book, you write, “But the clear evidence to date is that, absent some new force in the picture, [our leaders] will be much too late in [promoting needed transitions]. 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.”

Shouldn’t political campaign reform be the primary action to develop this “new force” for all interest groups, so that each activist would have the same influence on our elected officials as a Fortune 500 CEO?     — Jack Pipkin, Fort Worth, Texas

We’ve got a long way to go to take the big money out of politics. Campaign reform has just started, I hope.

In the quote from your book, you point out that there needs to be an international movement of people for the environment. I was wondering what you thought of the development of civil society that has been showing up at events like the World Social Forum? Although these events have gotten the tag of anti-globalization, to many of these people there is no distinction between globalization, environmental sanity, or social justice. To many of them, what they are trying to build is a world focused on life rather than money. Is this movement something that could turn around the current environmental crisis?     — Bryce Mathern, Seattle, Wash.

Some of my favorite students have gone to the World Social Forum, this year in India. It’s a sign that things are changing.

I understand that your favorite food is South Carolina barbeque, but, respectfully and with much appreciation for so much that you are doing, isn’t it essential that environmentalists move toward plant-based diets and encourage others to do so as well, since the raising of billions of animals annually contributes to so many environmental threats?     — Richard Schwartz, Staten Island, N.Y.

I know you are right. I tried for a while, but fell by the wayside.

I just wondered if you were married.     — Mary Jane, Blacksburg, Va.

My book is dedicated to my wife of 39 years. Why do you ask?

Was it a pure coincidence that several years ago you won the prize for catching the biggest fish in a charitable fundraising contest managed by your daughter and having many other contestants?     — William Butler, Chevy Chase, Md.

It was clear: The luckiest fisherman won. (Bill, join me this year and we’ll ensure that you win this time. Best to Helga.)

What is your opinion of Ralph Nader’s decision to run for president as an independent in 2004?     — Griffin Roberts, Seattle, Wash.

Ugh.

Why was Clinton’s environmental performance so lackluster, and what makes you think another establishment, corporate-trough-feeding Dem like Kerry will or can do any better?     — Kipchoge Spencer, Nevada City, Calif.

The Clinton Administration did well on domestic environmental issues, but they didn’t expend enough political capital on the global ones. Their biggest problem was the Congress elected in 1994.

I am a doctorate-level geologist with two small grandchildren. Because of my professional background, I am acutely aware of the potential catastrophes that await us as a result of imminent global climate change. I’ve become so depressed about the lack of prospects for real change in environmental and energy policies that sometimes I just want to give up and die. I supported Howard Dean because I believe he alone among the Democratic candidates has the leadership skills to move the U.S. in the right direction and push through the necessary legislative reforms. It was very depressing to see how his campaign was viciously attacked by the powerful interests who stand to lose if real energy reform occurs.

Meanwhile, I recycle religiously, select fuel-efficient vehicles, and try hard to live as lightly as possible — but I feel that all the efforts made by my family and me are for naught in the face of the enormous pollution and greenhouse gas emissions of very large, completely unresponsive industries.

My questions are these: How can one keep from being suicidally depressed given the really dire prospects for our planet’s future? How can you be so sure that John Kerry will have either the guts or the ability to push through the necessary reforms? Do you really believe he is capable of accomplishing real changes in the way this country gets and uses energy?     — Sarah Hoffman, Corvallis, Ore.

Being from Oregon, you know that there are great things happening at the state and local levels. There are lots of positive things going on, which I call “JAZZ” in my book, Red Sky at Morning, because they are unscripted, improvisational, bottom-up. My book deals with some of the questions you raise better than I can here — I hope you will read it.

As for Kerry, we have every reason to believe he’d be much, much better — our greenest president since Carter. But he’ll have to contend with Congress, which is split down the middle. The changes we need are deeper than those that can be accomplished by voting in a new slate of political leaders, as important as that is. We need more people like you helping to force change as consumers and citizens.

I am an environmental scientist by trade, have worked on political campaigns at the local, state, and national levels, and actively make efforts against the corporate capitalist onslaught coming from every angle, every day. I find myself either wanting to crawl under a rock, or start throwing them, depending on what the daily news tells me. It’s hard to maintain a sense of direction, devotion, and drive when so much is working counter to my beliefs.

Your list of accomplishments is astounding and amazing. How have you maintained your course over so many administrations, so many difficulties, and continued to persevere? Thanks for your efforts. I applaud you!     — Adrienne Boer, Austin, Texas

I’ve had too many privileges and too much fun to be applauded. Joining with people you admire to fight a good fight — what could be better?

I am curious about how people like yourself, who know a great deal about what is going on in the environment, and particularly the threats facing both human and non-human life, manage their emotional lives. It seems that there are some people who can know about very serious problems and still “keep going” and muster the energy to be proactive. Others, often young people vulnerable to despair about the future, can feel very numb, apathetic, and cynical.

So the question is, how do you manage feelings of overwhelm, anger, and other negative emotions when it comes to environmental degradation? What have you observed that enables people to keep going?     — Renee Lertzman, Alameda, Calif.

I think I believe at some deep level that the good guys will win in the end and that our job is to hurry that day.