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How to Change the World

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Gus Speth

James Gustave Speth is getting to know chickens pretty well and considering adding a few sheep to his experiment in growing his own food. Moose stroll through his yard, and occasionally the bird feeders fall victim to a peckish bear. A co-founder of NRDC and former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Gus Speth now lives in a tiny New England town and teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School. As he works on his new book, he surveys acres of forest rather than Yale's famous Gothic spires. If the man who spent six years traveling the world as the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme seems to be slowing his pace, rest assured: Speth remains relentless in his pursuit of new remedies for what ails the planet.

And visionary. Speth's first foray into environmentalism was inspired by the belief that a clean environment is a human right. He envisioned a public service law firm that would achieve for the environment what the NAACP Legal Defense Fund did for civil rights. John Adams, one of Speth's NRDC co-founders, describes him as one of the "thought leaders" for the fledgling organization, attracting early political support to NRDC and spearheading litigation to enforce the Clean Water Act.

After seven years at NRDC, Speth joined President Jimmy Carter's Council on Environmental Quality to "work on environmental issues from the inside" -- the first of many career moves in pursuit of new channels for environmental activism. "My own philosophy keeps me from staying at any job too long," explains Speth in his warm Southern accent. "I don't want to run out of ideas and steam."

When Carter left office, Speth again saw an opportunity to create what "didn't exist -- an environmental think tank," he explains. In 1982 he founded the World Resources Institute, which studies global environment and development. After he left WRI in 1993 to join the U.N. Development Programme, he traveled to developing countries to help implement programs that alleviated poverty while also protecting the environment. Beginning in 1999, his decadelong tenure at Yale gave Speth a chance to mold the next vanguard of environmental activists.

Along the way, he has written two influential books, Red Sky at Morning and The Bridge at the Edge of the World, which argue that voracious consumerism is outstripping the planet's resources and that only a change in economic values will promote sustainability. "We need to dethrone GDP," Speth says. Mere GDP growth mainly enriches corporations, not communities, individuals, or the environment. Speth is working to build new institutions to "knock growth off its pedestal," he says. One such organization, the New Economics Institute, envisions a "post-growth" economy. Fellow institute board member Neva Goodwin says Speth is "guided by very deep experience and knowledge" that enable him to appreciate the "scale of the problem." Yet Speth's optimism doesn't wane. "Passion," Goodwin says, "is his top attribute."

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Sabrina Richards majored in computational biology at Brown University and then earned her Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Washington, where she studied B lymphocyte responses to antigen. She has also worked knee-deep in pond water, attemptin... READ MORE >