World Resources Institute (WRI) founder Gus Speth recently returned to WRI to share his new memoir, Angels by the River. More than 200 friends and admirers gathered to welcome him. A global leader in addressing the environmental and development issues that are the great challenge of our age, Gus told why and how he founded WRI and urged staff to persevere in pursuit of WRI’s mission—to protect the environment so that it can provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations.
WRI president Andrew Steer welcomed Gus by recalling that he created WRI to be “a world class analytical organization that brings our results to the marketplace of ideas in order to make the world a better place.” Gus created a precious asset that we need to nurture and sustain, Andrew said. “Everyone who works here realizes that they stand on very tall shoulders,” he added.
I had known Gus by reputation but never met him, so I felt lucky to interview him and moderate the Q&A after he spoke. That gave me reason to read the book, which begins with Gus’s boyhood in South Carolina and his dawning awareness—vastly accelerated when he enrolled at Yale University—of the racial injustice that permeated his hometown.
After graduating from Yale in 1964, Gus attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, then graduated from Yale Law School and served as law clerk at the US Supreme Court. He and fellow Yale Law graduates started the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as a public interest law firm for the environment. Gus went on to serve as advisor to President Jimmy Carter and chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, which was at the center of the first serious effort to draw US attention to climate change.
Upon leaving the White House, Gus saw the need for an independent policy center that would focus on global environmental and resource concerns. That led to conversations with Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist then serving on the board of the newly created MacArthur Foundation. In 1982 the foundation awarded Gus a $15 million USD grant to start WRI. Gell-Mann, who defined and named the quark, said that shepherding the grant through the foundation was the hardest thing he ever did.
WRI’s achievements under his leadership included the launch of the first World Resources Report, organizing the first international meeting on climate change, pioneering natural resources accounting, and laying the foundation for the Global Environment Facility, which has since mobilized more than $25 billion to support over 1,800 projects with environmental benefits in 140 countries.
Gus went on to serve as the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; as Special Coordinator for Economic and Social Affairs under UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and as chair of the United Nations Development Group.
In recent years he has become increasingly outspoken about the intersection between environmental ills and social and economic issues, including inequality, stagnant wages, and big money politics, problems he has addressed in a series of books including America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. In 2011 he was arrested in front of the White House along with 350.org founder Bill McKibben, kicking off a protest against the Keystone Pipeline that in the two weeks that followed became the largest act of US nonviolent civil disobedience since the Vietnam War, with more than 1,200 arrests.
“We need to change the system,” Gus told the audience at WRI. “We need a new system of political economy, one that is programmed to give priority to people, place and planet, not power, production and profit.”
“How can you make progress in a country where half the country is living paycheck to paycheck, where 40 percent of the families have incomes of less than half of the poverty level, where most of the new jobs that have been created are pretty crumby and part time?” he asked. “It’s hard to move on the environment with such vast social and economic insecurity.”
But Gus is not about to throw in the towel, if only because fighting the good fight is what gives life meaning and joy—and just might eventually be successful.
“The climate struggle has been like rolling the rock up the hill only to see it roll to the bottom again," Gus writes in Angels by the River.
He goes on to recall Albert Camus’s interpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus and his rock: the struggle itself is full of meaning, so we must imagine Sisyphus as happy, even when he stands at the bottom of the hill getting ready to push the rock up once again.
“My advice to young people today is: find your rock,” Gus writes. “Start pushing. You never know, it might just stay up there one day.”