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A presidential adviser, radicalized by American inaction on climate change

“Ultimate insider” Gus Speth’s newest book is “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.”

To appreciate the story that follows, it helps to know you’re listening to a 72-year-old gentleman who has spent his adult life as an adviser to U.S. presidents, executive of U.N. agencies, scholar-professor-dean at some of the world’s leading universities:

[The police] decided to use the first group of us to set an example to discourage the others. It didn’t work, but the result was that they treated us pretty much like common criminals. …  We ended up in a central cellblock in the D.C. jail for three days. We spent a lot of time in leg irons. Slept on stainless steel slabs without any bedding or cover or pillow or anything — just stainless steel.

Ate baloney sandwiches — two a day — and water. We were fingerprinted, mug shots — I guess I have a record now. In the end they didn’t press any charges against us. They just opened the door and let us walk out after three days. 

In fact, we had a high-spirited three days in the D.C. jail. There were 60-some-odd people there with us in jail, and they knew I was a professor, and they wanted me to give a lecture. So I gave a long lecture on the need for systemic change while there in the central cellblock in the D.C. jail.

James Gustave Speth
James Gustave Speth

Journey of the ‘ultimate insider’

The speaker is Gus Speth. The subject is his arrest — first of a lifetime — in a protest over the Keystone XL pipeline in the summer of 2011. And the quote is from an interview with Yale Environment 360, published last Wednesday,  concerning his newest book, “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.”

In that interview, and in the book, James Gustave Speth talks about how America’s failure to take meaningful action on global warming — somewhat abetted by self-interested environmentalists — has brought him “to the end of my rope.”

As with most coverage of Speth’s long book-writing and brief lawbreaking careers, Yale 360 quotes a Time magazine profile in characterizing Speth as the “ultimate insider.” Very little about the causes, the threats or the politics of global warming are news to him.

As he told few months ago:

I’m quoted in a New York Times article in January 1981, based on a report we were getting out in the last days of the Carter administration, saying we’ve concluded that the buildup of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, should not be allowed to exceed 50 percent over the preindustrial level. So, over 30 years ago we knew enough to have a crude idea about the amount that could be tolerated in the atmosphere, and of course we now know that it almost certainly should be lower than that.

 Fifty percent over preindustrial levels would be 420 parts per million,  Speth explained,

 And we’re on the verge of 400 — it hit 400 in the Arctic recently. Most everybody I know would fall on their knees to give thanks if they thought that we were somehow magically going to stop at 420.

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And so the man who headed the Council on Environmental Quality in Jimmy Carter’s White House, who ran the United Nations Development Programme, who served 10 years as dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who has taught the law at Georgetown and Yale, has found himself on the outside.

“At the end of my rope” is how he often describes his frustration not only with America’s timid responses to global warming but also with an environmentalist establishment that he feels has been too narrow in its focus — and, at times, insufficiently candid about the changes in lifestyle and perhaps living standard that true sustainability may require.

Establishment environmentalism

That’s another establishment in which Speth has been a significant insider, as founder of the World Resources Institute and, earlier, as a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. His message for today’s leadership, lightly compressed:

What if you say that environmental concerns are [not just clean air, clean water and climate stability but] anything that has a significant impact on environmental outcomes, on the quality of the environment and what we’re able to do to protect the environment? Once you do that, you have to appreciate immediately that American environmentalism has defined itself too narrowly.

What affects environmental outcomes? Well, obviously, the health of our politics. The strength of our democracy. The power of the corporations — our principal political actors right now — and the power of money in our politics. And then there’s the level of economic security and fairness in society.

We now have a situation where half the families in the country live paycheck to paycheck, not really saving anything. And about 40 percent of the families have incomes of less than twice the poverty level.

And yet what we as environmentalists want to do, fundamentally, is to get the prices right — to internalize these tremendous environmental externalities, get rid of the perverse subsidies like those in the fossil fuel area. To do that, you’re going to have to raise prices. And yet this is a society that is full of rising prices, and half the people can hardly pay the prices that exist now. …

As a longtime correspondent in — and short-time working member of — the realm of environmental activism, I can tell you that this kind of message is familiar, well understood and steadfastly ignored. It’s hard to gain ground in the arena of public opinion by pitching higher prices for energy, food and vehicles as positive values. 

We can’t grow our way out

But even that line of thinking would be a far easier sell than the argument outlined in this excerpt from “America the Possible,” wherein Speth contends that Americans need to move to a “post-growth society” in which we consume less and measure our progress with something other than GDP (which he likes to say stands for “Grossly Distorted  Picture”).

By the way, Speth’s vision of a post-growth America is rather idyllic: shorter workweeks and longer vacations. Localized production and ownership, with better jobs and job security. Fairer taxation and greater income equality. Improvements in public infrastructure, health and education.

And he can point to current communitarian achievements in this vein — transition towns, energy and agricultural cooperatives — that are emerging without the top-to-bottom restructuring of the U.S. economy and political system he says are crucial to our future.

So this is not a wholly implausible dream. But let’s remember that, at bottom, the climate wars in this country have never really been about the science of greenhouse gas effects, nor the feasibility of nonfossil energy, nor even “getting the prices right.”

The real issue has always been our unshakeable insistence on growth — our unwillingness to throttle back or even, usually, to even talk about it.