Featured Lecture – Gus Speth: “Letter to Liberals: Liberalism, Environmentalism, and Economic Growth”


James Gustave Speth, Yale F&ES Dean Emeritus, speaking at the 30th Annual E.F. Schumacher Lectures (November 20, 2010) hosted by the New Economics Institute.

VIDEO provided by the New Economy Working Group (Speth introduced at 5:15; Speth begins speaking at 6:50)

TRANSCRIPT provided by Vermont Law School

Additional and upcoming lectures referred to below.


I found this excellent and timely lecture while browsing the community library of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, where several copies were being circulated in pamphlet format (printed by the NEI).

Speth considers the economic, social, political, and environmental failures of our current system of political economy – focusing precisely on the economics-environment nexus where we hope to situate the dialogue here at Yale and at this blog for SAGE Magazine.

Three observations:

1. Parallels between Speth’s remarks, prepared last year prior to the birth of OWS, and the tenor of popular voice at the #Occupy Movement cannot be denied – his descriptions of social inequality and unrest, environmental risk, and the need for a coordinated effort are well-developed and spot on (see excerpts below). This commonality reflects a cogent underlying narrative.  

2. These well-designed arguments are made by an incredibly respected environmental leader and architect of major institutions, from a voice that is neither inexperienced, nor naive, nor uninformed, nor radicalized – this thinking come from the center. (That this comes from a former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies is extremely encouraging/appropriate).

3. This shows that this type of thinking has been done, by serious-minded and intelligent folks for some time now – the threads of this lecture run across several disciplines toward several other extraordinary thinkers. In the past few weeks, we have seen several public figures and intellectuals align themselves with the work that #Occupy is doing – this commentary is important because it precedes the political changes that result from OWS; and Speth and his cohort are still speaking. 

In short, these ideas come from someone who has spent decades analyzing and addressing environmental issues, who has been a leader privilege to an incredible wealth of information, and who continues to work toward the premise of a sustainable existence based on the joint conservation of the environment and our social fabric.  Speth’s recent offerings therefore represents his highest priorities, wrung from a lifetime of experience, what he considers the most fundamental and powerful conflicts, the narratives with the greatest descriptive power and greatest possibilities for the improvement of the collective human condition. 

As such, I believe Speth’s opinion deserves focus and attention.

A few particularly relevant excerpts:

“A social crisis of extreme and growing inequality has been unraveling America’s social fabric for several decades. A tiny minority have experienced soaring incomes and accumulated grand fortunes while wages for working people have stagnated despite rising productivity gains and poverty rate has risen to a fifty-year high.”

“If we are to seek something new and better, a good place to start is to ask why today’s system of political economy is failing so broadly. The answer is that key features of the system work together to produce a reality that is highly destructive. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at any cost; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the social and environmental costs they create and from keeping wages and benefits low; markets that systematically fail to recognize externalized social and environmental costs unless corrected by government, but government that is itself beholding to corporate interests and thus not strongly inclined to curb corporate abuses; and a rampant consumerism spurred endlessly on by sophisticated advertising – all combine to deliver an ever-growing economy insensitive to the needs of people, place and planet.”

“…the growth imperative is how we are controlled: the necessity for growth puts American politics in a straightjacket – a golden straightjacket, as Tom Friedman would say – and it gives the real power to those who have the finance and technology to deliver growth.”

“Inevitably, the drive for transformative change leads to the political arena, where a vital, muscular democracy steered by an informed and engaged citizenryis needed. Yet, for Americans, merely to state the matter this way suggests the enormity of the challenge. The ascendancy of market fundamentalism and anti-regulation, antigovernment ideology have been particularly frightening, but even the passing of these extreme ideas would still leave deeper, more long-term deficiencies. Just as we need a new economy, we need a new politics.”

“Building the strength needed for change requires, first of all, a political fusion among progressives, and that fusion should start with a unified agenda. Such an agenda would embrace a profound commitment to social justice and environmental protection, a sustained challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a democratic redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, and a commitment to an array of pro-democracy reforms in campaign finance, elections, the regulation of lobbying, and much more.”

“What if the following occurred? Are the following occurring today? A decline in legitimacy as the system fails to deliver social and environmental well-being, together with a mounting sense of crisis and great loss, both occurring at a time of wise leadership, and accompanied by the articulation of a new American narrative or story, by the appearance around the country of new and appropriate models, and by the projection of a powerful set of new ideas and policy proposal confirming that the path to a better world does indeed exist – were all these to come together, real change would be possible. And prospects would be enhanced and advanced by a new social movement, powerful and inclusive… Our best hope for real change is thus a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and true democracy into one powerful progressive force.”



From Will Rapp’s introduction at the NEI lecture:

“Gus Speth  is one of America’s most influential environmental activists. He has helped shape the environmental movement through his active role in national and international environmental organizations and as an advisor to U.S. and world leaders.

In 1970, Gus co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council; he was chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality and helped develop President Carter’s environmental policies. In 1982 he founded and was president of the World Resources Institute; and from 1993 to 1999 he administered the United Nations Development Program.”

Professor Speth currently serves on the boards of the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Resources Institute, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New Economics Institute, New Economy Network, 1Sky, and the Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Speth holds a B.A. in Political Science from Yale, an L.L.M. in Economics from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He was also a Rhodes Scholar, and hold several honorary degrees.

He is the author, co-author or editor of six books, including his most recent critique, situated at the environment-economic nexus:  The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.



Speth has been delivering a series of lectures over the past few weeks at Vermont Law School titled “America, Rising to Its Dream: Charting Passage From Today’s Decline to Tomorrow’s Rebirththe final lecture is this Thursday, November 3rd at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, VT. (**further information, media and transcripts pending).

The 2011 E.F. Schumacher Lectures, hosted by the New Economics Institute will be this coming Saturday, January 5th in NYC. Speakers include Gar Alperovitz and Juliet Schor – – details here.

The New Economics Institute  is the U.S.-based partner organization of the New Economics Foundation.


If you are interested, I would encourage you to follow these threads as far as you can. The conversation begun by the #Occupy Movement is not just for those in the streets.


Austin Lord

Austin Lord

Austin Lord is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing in Political Ecology and Environmental Anthropology with an area concentration in Himalayan Studies. His ongoing research concerns processes of social and spatial change in areas affected by hydropower development in Nepal, with a particular focus on changing livelihoods and shifting patterns of migration and mobility. Austin spent over six months conducting fieldwork within Nepal during 2012 and 2013, focusing specifically on the upper watersheds of the Trishuli and Tamakoshi rivers, and he plans to return to Nepal in 2014-2015 to continue and expand this work. Prior to attending Yale, Austin studied Hydrology at Portland State University and received an A.B. in Economics and Studio Art from Dartmouth College. A broader collection of his photographic work (from Nepal and elsewhere) can be found at www.austinlord.com.

More Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *