James Gustave Speth is the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, founder of the World Resources Institute, and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He also served in the Carter administration and led the United Nations Development Programme. We asked him about Angels by the River, his new memoir just out from Chelsea Green Publishing.
Your new book is a memoir. What prompted you to write it?
People like memoirs, myself included. I think I’ve lived through, and been part of, events that were important and that still resonate today. So I think this memoir will help people understand how we got to where we are, and hopefully interest readers who haven’t read my more academic books.
This book is also an opportunity to recognize the amazing people in my life, thus the title. The preface to Angels by the River begins as follows: “I went into these woods to find myself and retrace some of the life I’ve lived, accounting for it along the way. I wanted to explore what became of the youngster born in the Deep South in 1942 and what became of the causes he pursued. And I sought to recapture a time and place now drifting away and to recall the people who have been the angels along the river of my life.”
You grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, just before the environmental movement really took off in this country. But you had an experience early in life, when visiting relatives near North Carolina’s Lake Junaluska, that got you thinking critically about the ways humans relate to the natural world. Tell us about that moment—how did it affect your thinking thereafter?
It was at Lake Junaluska that I first encountered serious pollution. For several summers around junior high school years, I went to visit my grandparents at their house on the lake, tucked in a lovely region between Asheville and the Great Smokies. Their house looked across the lake to Mount Junaluska. I swam in the lake and took Granddaddy’s small boat into every corner of it. But I began to notice things I had not noticed back home in Orangeburg. A strong odor hung over the community many mornings, a smell I did not know. They explained to me it was the paper mill at nearby Canton.
Once, when we were driving along the French Broad River, I noticed the water had a strange color and was foaming. When I asked about it, Granddaddy said it was the result of the rayon plant at Enka. And then one year I arrived back at Lake Junaluska to find that the whole, beautiful two-hundred-acre lake had been contaminated and closed to swimming. It was brown and smelly. Dead. I was told that a company had dumped its wastes into the lake, a tanning operation I think. I was devastated.
A seed was planted at Lake Junaluska, I’m sure of that. It wasn’t just pollution that I discovered there; it was also the sources of the pollution—large companies like Champion Paper and American Enka. I was beginning to connect the dots.
Much of Angels by the River discusses your identity as a Southerner, and how it’s something you carried, and thought about deeply, for a long time, especially when you began working and living in northern cities. What did being from the South mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now?
Growing up in my era, the South had a strong sense of regional identity. It rubbed off onto impressionable young people like me. Then when the civil-rights movement gathered strength in the 1950s, much of the white South felt under attack and dismissed as bigots, and, of course, many became defensive. I was too, for a while, but when I “went North” to school at Yale in 1960, I began to see things differently and, as I relate in the memoir, began to encourage the white moderates back home to move forward with integration and with ending the deplorable Jim Crow system.
The civil-rights movement had a huge influence on my life and work. It taught me that it was not wise to uncritically accept the status quo. I realized at Yale that I had, thank goodness, sidled away from the wrong side of history and that I never wanted to get close to it again. As a boy, I had accepted one grave injustice, and as an adult, I was determined not to let it happen again.
And you found in the environmental movement a cause that intersected with that sense of justice—for the earth, for human life, and for other species.
Yes. When I was in my last year of law school and thinking about what to do with myself, I read a story in the New York Times about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s litigation and another about an environmental issue. Lawyers are trained to think by analogy, and it hit me: Get a group of my impressive classmates together and start a public interest law firm for the environment. I did, and the idea evolved into the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Those of us who started NRDC in 1970 shared the 1960s sense of hope and the desire to bring about serious change in American society. We had studied the civil-rights litigation and other important cases, and we knew the importance of the law and good lawyering in the public interest. We had seen the impact of social movements, of citizens standing up and speaking out. We knew that government in Washington could do great things, in addition to getting us into great wars, and indeed that government was essential if great things were to be done. The civil rights movement of the 1960s taught us that activism could succeed, that government could succeed. We need to find that possibility again today.
You were among the very first to call for action on climate change; you urged the Carter administration to develop policies regarding fossil fuels and carbon emissions as early as 1979. What have you learned in the intervening years? What might you tell those who’ve grown skeptical of government’s ability to take action, or who’ve come of age in a time of deadlock and dysfunction?
The climate situation is much too bleak for pessimism! It’s time to double down on our efforts to force change. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that all progress depends on being unreasonable. It’s time for a large amount of civic unreasonableness. We need to protest, demonstrate, and march on an ever-growing scale. Progressives of all stripes need to come together behind reforms that can save our democracy from the creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy now growing stronger by the day. We need to take a page from the Tea Party and get into electoral politics. And we need to move forward now where we can, and that’s mainly at the local and state levels. We need to bring the future into the present in our communities. And it’s happening. It’s the best thing happening in America today.
Gus Speth’s previous books include Red Sky at Morning, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, and America the Possible. His two-part essay drawn from America the Possible appeared in the March/April and May/June 2012 issues of Orion.