How a Southern Gentleman Became a Respected Environmental Leader and Radical

James Gustave "Gus" Speth
James Gustave “Gus” Speth

Gus Speth, a prominent environmental lawyer and activist, uses his new book, Angels by the River: A Memoir (Chelsea Green, $25), to describe his own career trajectory and spur students on new, more radical career choices. Speth does not meander in a strictly chronological format but rather provides a general guide on how to become a leader in your own right. Many students wanting to create change look to the career paths of past and present leaders but find only bare, well-honed résumés. In contrast, Speth lays out his career path and explains not just what did he but why he did it. 

In prose reminiscent of a fireside chat, Speth tells of his outdoor adventures by the riverside as a child growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina and his subsequent awakening to racial injustices at Yale University’s undergraduate and law schools. He explains creating Natural Resources Defense Council with fellow Yale students and launching the World Resources Institute. Speth describes the circumstances that led him to being Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, an influential (but controversial) member of both the Carter and Clinton administrations, and currently, a professor at Vermont Law School. Do not be dissuaded by the household names of Speth’s resume: the fact that the institutions are well known is a testament to Speth’s leadership. He started two distinct organizations with radical mission statements and made that radicalism mainstream. Such ability shows Speth’s forethought in not only thinking outside the status quo but also fundamentally changing what is perceived as “normal”.

Throughout the book, Speth never boasts when describing his prestigious achievements. Instead, he relies upon self-effacing humor, and credits much of his own successes to those around him. For example, at point when his younger self could have turned vain at his early successes, his mother cautioned, “Son, you are not great at anything, but you are very good at many things”. Speth’s career is a testament to his mother’s tough-love. Rather than specializing, Speth is a generalist who has led many types of institutions. He reminds the reader often that his own successes come from his ability to relate to many different people, and he encourages students to work together in pursuit of larger goals.

Speth emphasizes that he has always been “rich in the ways that counted” and gives much credit to his wife, Cameron, who has played a key role in Speth’s life since the first grade. He paints her as the ever-supportive wife but does not explain her own specific contributions. Speth uses his book to provide guidance for future leaders by espousing what he believes matters most in life: fight for justice however you can, surround yourself with loving family and friends, and work hard.

Speth has applied these values to address environmental injustices but believes future leaders must work outside the mainstream political and economic systems. He argues for the reader not to follow his career path, but instead to branch out into new forms of radical environmentalism. He does not endorse extreme measures but rather encourages students to think beyond his own generation’s environmental work, which was mostly through legal means. Speth believes the current state of environmentalism is so stagnant that any future changes to the movement could be deemed “radical”.

Yet, Speth’s work is not utterly radical. The NRDC and WRI both started with the financial help from those firmly entrenched within the system, and employed many of Speth’s Yale classmates. While Speth does explore his own trajectory in understanding racial inequality, he does not specifically address the relationship between social and environmental justice. He alludes to inequity in the environmental movement, but largely portrays the civil rights era as solving racial inequality. A stronger version of Speth’s book would tackle how to overcome the disparities still present in the environmental movement so more non-white males can become environmental leaders. Speth writes lovingly of his time spent at Yale College, Law School, and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He does not speak, however, about the unequal privileges and opportunities he gained by attending such a well-known institution, nor does he mention that many other qualified individuals without access to such an education do not have similar opportunities. Beyond that, one wishes this book contained fewer excerpts from his previous publications, clearer sentence structures, and a less muddled timeline.

Despite these faults, Speth’s take-away message rings true: much environmental work must still be accomplished by future leaders who should always value their friends and family. Students hear of great leaders but are often left with only best guesses as to why those leaders made the decisions that they did. Speth answers those questions in the hope of encouraging future generations of activists who are ready to tackle the intertwined issues of environmental degradation and social justice.


Sarah Casson

Sarah Casson, a graduate student of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Grinnell College. Her writing has also appeared on the Huffington Post.

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