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Will Grunewald / MEDILL

Environmental lawyer and activist Gus Speth calls for a tranformation of America's political and economic systems. "Reformist approaches are not enough.  What's desperately needed now is transformative change," He told an audience at Northwestern University on Thursday.

Environmentalist Gus Speth advocates a transformation of American politics, economy

by Will Grunewald
Nov 08, 2012


Will Grunewald / MEDILL

Speth's most recent book - a synthesis of ideas about politics, economy, culture and the environment - outlines his vision for America.


Will Grunewald / MEDILL

Speth drew a standing-room-only crowd to the event.

Environmental attorney and activist Gus Speth spent much of his professional life advocating for environmental reform.


On Thursday, though, he told an audience at Northwestern University that “reformist approaches are not enough. What’s desperately needed now is transformative change.”

In his latest book, “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy,” Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and advisor to President Jimmy Carter's administration, lays out an argument for transforming America’s political and economic systems.

His America emphasizes sustainability with more self-sufficient smaller communities, less industrialization and other social reforms.

Climate change, resource depletion and ecosystem destruction threaten food supply, economic well-being, peace and much more, he writes.

It no longer suffices, he concludes, to compartmentalize environmental issues.

“Political reform is not thought of as an environmental issue,” he said. “The environmental community doesn’t see the social fairness, social justice, social inequality, and security issues as part of its environmental agenda. So what I tried in this book was to pull the whole picture together.”

Speth, a law professor at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., spoke to a supportive audience of about 150 people.

He has authored numerous books on the environment, but, he said “The books that I did earlier convinced me that we really weren’t going to be able to deal with environmental issues unless we dealt with them in a much broader context.”

“America the Possible” contains ambitious, unorthodox and certainly controversial proposals. His vision abandons GDP – the Gross Domestic Product (or Grossly Distorted Picture, Speth jokes) – as a primary economic indicator, for example. That is part of a broader aim of halting economic growth as we know it. But Speth is arguing from the perspective that the future, due to on-going environment consequences such as climnate change, is going to be a radical departure from the present, whether humanity shapes it for better or worse.

“With the publication of Gus Speth’s new book, it was really a great opportunity for us to bring him in,” said event organizer, Northwestern University political science professor Yael Wolinsky, whose own research interests are about environmental policies at the local and state levels. “There’s no better time than two days after the election to start thinking about the future – how to change into a more sustainable society,” she added.

The Thursday lecture was co-sponsored by the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. The series of lectures are a response to increased interest in environmental and sustainability issues among students, said Wolinsky. In five years, Northwestern student enrollment in environmental courses has grown from about 500 to more than 2000 students.

In the winter and spring, Northwestern will host additional talks, open to the public, on topics such as environmental justice and the politics of food.

“We’re really trying to reach the broader community on campus and beyond,” said Wolinsky.