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Gus Speth: 'Ultimate Environmental Insider' Goes Radical

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Organic Transitions page.

James Gustave Speth, who goes by "Gus" and speaks with a soft South Carolina drawl, is nobody's picture of a radical. His resume 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 U.N. 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. Time magazine has called him the "ultimate insider."

And yet this elder environmental statesman, author of the acclaimed books Red Sky at Morning (2003) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008), 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 in his forceful new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, 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.

Which is why, as he writes on the opening page of the new book, he was arrested in front of the White House on Aug. 20 last year - along with Bill McKibben and eventually more than 1,200 others - in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

"My motivation," he writes, "was climate change: After more than 30 years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet's climate, I found myself at the end of my proverbial rope. Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all."

Invoking the moral legacy of the civil rights movement, this uber-environmentalist has now written a book not about climate and the environment (though the climate crisis looms large in its pages), but about America, the path we're on, and the path we could be on - to a far better and safer future - if enough of us are willing to fight for it.


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