James Gustave "Gus" Speth, is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy
From 1993 to 1999, Dean Speth served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the UN, he was founder and president of the World Resources Insti-tute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality; and senior attorney and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.
Throughout his career, Dean Speth has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment. Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Environmental Law Institute, and the Blue Planet Prize. Publications include The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment; Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment; and articles in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Environmental Science and Technology, the Columbia Journal World of Business, and other journals and books.
Question: What changes need to happen in the US to empower citizens?
Gus Speth: Well, there are long-term changes that we need to think about. I talk in the book a lot about this idea of deliberative democracy, of direct democracy if you will, of reclaiming politics for ourselves and moving away, in many respects, from representative government, which is so easily captured. But I think in the shorter run, there's a lot that we need to do before can realize the longer-term objectives. I mean, first there are a long list of political reforms that we need to be attending to. You know, non-partisan congressional districts, the treaty among the states that moves us to direct election of the president by popular vote, getting money out of politics. You know, those clean and fair elections that are publically financed. The citizen right to the airwaves. There are lots and lots of reforms that we need to make of our political system, I mean, just look at the primary mess that we are in today in our presidential elections. And even in the voting in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of problems with people, you know, showing up and not being properly registered at the voting places. So there's a long list of political reforms that need to be made. In terms of environmental politics, I think the environmental community has been-- has badly neglected the electoral politics. As I said, it's been a movement that focused on working the political system that's there. We haven't focused on changing the political system itself, and including changing those in the political system who are elected. And it's different from a lot of other concerns that our country is-- people have had in our country, but it has not been a strong force in electoral politics and we've got to change that. It has been an isolated concern. It has not built bridges to many other communities in our country. And, you know, there's very little interaction or shared work between those who are concerned about environment, and those who are concerned about social justice, and those who are concerned about political reform. These are separate communities and everybody's in their silo and this is not good. Environmental communities also much more comfortable in its mainstream in developing wonkish proposals for policy action than it is in framing messages that really resonate with lots of people. And as a result, we've lost a lot of support among the public and we're not talking to people. And so when we see people coming along and talking about jobs for all, and green-collar jobs and things like that, it's very encouraging, because they're trying to break down that insularity, if you will, of the established environmental groups. And then lastly, we've really got to build a grass roots movement. I really-- other than some fairly devastating crisis that could change things and wake everybody up, and even that won't work unless it happens in a time of wise leadership, which we haven't had, the only-- beyond that, the real prospect for change is, it would be a social movement in the country, the gathering of forces beginning with young people, people concerned about the climate issue, religious organizations increasingly involved, concerned citizens of all types coming together and then reaching across these different communities and coming together and insisting that we take back our democracy, we reassert these human and natural values into the system before it's too late.