The Unbearable Politeness of Being Gus Speth

James Gustave Speth garnishes reflections on his many accomplishments with self-deprecating humor.

And the man who helped establish two influential environmental organizations, piloted a United Nations agency, and served in the Carter White House wants you to know he got his share of rejections.

After longing to become Jimmy Carter’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Speth wound up steering the wonkier Council on Environmental Quality instead, for example.

When his accomplishments — like co-founding the Natural Resources Defense Council and launching the World Resources Institute — come up, he rattles off the names of other folks who pitched in.

“We are carried forward by others — generous, caring, hard-working, and often loving people, angels by the river,” Speth writes. “I deserve only a sliver of whatever credit is due.”

Speth’s new memoir draws its title from that poetic passage. Angels by the River conveys his memories of growing up bright, rambunctious, and white in segregated Orangeburg, South Carolina. That heritage still echoes in Speth’s lilting Southern accent after more than half a century of living north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Impeccable manners aren’t the sole reason Speth won’t brag about his accomplishments. The big picture troubles him.

“A specter is haunting American environmentalism — the specter of failure,” Speth writes. Despite the emergence of influential green groups, “the prospect of a ruined planet is now very real.”

Thirty-five years after he managed (as part of a great team, of course) to get a US president to make history by calling for action on global warming, Speth is dismayed by the nation’s failure to avert a climate disaster.

The latest United Nations climate findings back him up with head-smacking clarity.

A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report amounts to a deadline for the entire human race. We can either stop making the climate change by the end of this century, or accept that life as we know it won’t be possible anymore.

To sidestep “substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on common human activities, and limited potential for adaptation,” the UN climate report calls for people, industry, and utilities to mainly rely on renewable energy options by 2050. It also says we must pull the plug completely on oil, natural gas, and coal by 2100.

The world can’t wean itself off fossil fuels, Speth explains, until governments put a price on the clouds of carbon spewed by vehicles, factories, power plants, and mega-farms.

Making polluters pay could raise billions of dollars to invest in averting the doomsday future climate scientists predict. Ramping up the gas tax to fund a renewable energy revolution instead of highway construction would mark a good start. The gas tax has been parked at just at just 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

“For more than three decades even non-geniuses like myself have known, or could easily have known, not only the gravity of the climate challenge but also more or less what to do about it,” Speth writes.”Little has been done…The end result is beyond pathetic.”

There’s no fixing the climate without tackling everything else that ails the United States and the rest of the world, he concludes in Angels by the River. It will take a new economy and an inclusive political system that can work for everyone and the planet — instead of systematically catering to the whims of billionaires and corporations.

What should Big Green do better?

Speth calls for “a new environmentalism” that will press for systemic change. It will challenge “consumerism and commercialism” because “there is no meaning to be found at the mall.”

He has, in other words, shed the mantle of a mainstream green leader.

“America’s economic and political system has failed us all,” Gus Speth declares. “For our children and grandchildren, we must dream up a new America and breathe life into it.”