Failed Politics, Runaway Consumerism is Root Cause of Environmental Decline

Posted Nov. 19, 2014

MP3 Interview with James Gustave "Gus" Speth, environmental movement activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


James Gustave "Gus" Speth has been called the ultimate environmental insider for his founding roles in the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, his chairing of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, and his leadership of the United Nations Development Program. He then served as dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for ten years. Speth currently teaches at the Vermont Law School.

In recent years, Speth has been a critic of the large, national environmental groups of which he was such an intrinsic part. Now 74 years old, Speth just published a memoir titled, “Angels By the River,” in which he recalls his many years of activism as well as his childhood in pre-civil rights era South Carolina. He considers his 2011 arrest in front of the White House for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline as one of his proudest accomplishments.

Speth was in New Haven, Connecticut on Nov. 8 to accept the Thomas Berry Award, given jointly by Yale’s School of Forestry and Divinity School. There, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with him about his view of what many environmental activists maintain is the incompatibility of laissez-faire capitalism and implementing corporate regulations necessary to protect our ecosystem and ensure the survival of life on planet earth.

GUS SPETH: I think we need to ask ourselves now again, afresh, what is an environmental issue? The answer normally is it's air pollution, climate change, biodiversity. But what if the answer to an environmental issue is really any issue that affects environmental outcomes, any issue that affects whether we succeed. And if you answer it that way then you have to dig deeper and look at the root causes, and certainly our failing politics is a tremendous cause of environmental decline, a perpetual cause of environmental decline. There's great social inequality, insecurity in the country. Our runaway consumerism, our affluenza, our failure to really change our lifestyles, our very materialistic values and anthropocentric values, and values that focus on now and not tomorrow. These set of values that dominate in our culture, we ought to be challenging them, and there's a whole list of things. We ought to building new corporate types, new structures for business: public/private hybrids; for profit-not for profit hybrids; all kinds of co-ops; local banking; state banks; and new types of finance that have a lot more democratic governance of the way our investments are going in the country. There's just a whole host of big deep changes we need to make.

So what some of us are doing is trying to create new institutions and change old institutions so we are actually promoting deeper systemic change in the country that can lead basically to a new economy, an economy that really does give true and honest priority to people, place and planet. We're determined to keep building the strength of these institutions and these ideas till the point that we begin to get enough momentum to change the system, to move to a next system. And we don't have to know everything about it, but we need to know the general directions of change and I think we're getting a lot of good information and ideas on that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, throughout the book I was reading – and other people talk about this too – you talked about the need for a "transformative change in existing capitalism," that the capitalism we have now is completely out of control; it's heading for wealth for fewer and fewer people and poverty for so many more. Can we transform capitalism enough that it would still be capitalism and we could have a sustainable world, or do we need to move to a different system? You quoted Barry Commoner at one point in the book and he was pretty much saying capitalism isn't the system...I mean, if you change it enough to make it sustainable, it really wouldn't even be capitalism anymore. Do we even need to go down that road? Does it even matter what we call it? Do you think that capitalism can be reformed enough to get us through this?

GUS SPETH: Well, it depends on what you mean by capitalism. I think what we need to think about is moving dramatically beyond the rapacious capitalism we have today, this consumerist capitalism that we have. And one of the ways to do that is to really have much more democratic control over where capital is spent. There may still be investors in this world of the future, but the public would be the major part of the steering about where money is spent and where money is invested. We have a system now where the banks make all the decisions with a little bit of influence from government on infrastructure and things, whenever that happens, but by and large, the decisions about making investment decisions are based on high financial returns by banks and the people who are seeking to make investments through the banks. And we need a system where we recognize the tremendously high social and environmental returns that we could get from other investments. So we need a heavy democratic guidance for investment decisions, and that implies that we have to have effective government. We have to have a government that works, that's deeply democratic.

Sometimes when I think about these issues, I say we need to save our failing democracy first, because people are not going to trust government to make these decisions if it's the government we have now. So we need government ... and we're beginning to see a lot of hybrid arrangements of community investment corporations around the country, community development corporations which are public institutions that are steering the development of their cities. So I think in the future, there should be a role for the market. I think we need to take back as citizens a lot of the things that have been commodified and taken away from us as commoners, but I can see a role for the market to do certain things, but it ought to be a heavily regulated market, one that's really regulated to act in the public interest. Right now, just on environmental issues, the uncompensated damages of corporate actions – this is on a global basis – are estimated to be over a third of corporate profits. So if they really paid for the damages they were causing, it would consume more than a third of corporate profits. So this is not a market that is now managed for current and future generations.

James Gustave "Gus" Speth, a leading environmentalist and both an architect and critic of the U.S. environmental movement. His memoir, “Angels By the River,” was recently published by Chelsea Green. Read Speth's views of the urgent need to develop a new, sustainable economy at the New Economy Coalition.

Related Links: