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HAPPY WARRIOR Gus Speth was jailed after protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Ted Genoways Talks to Gus Speth

In the summer of 2011, 350.org founder (and OnEarth contributing editor) Bill McKibben asked a small group of environmental leaders to consider lending their names to an open letter calling for a large-scale protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. It was to be held outside the White House. Among those approached was James Gustave "Gus" Speth, a co-founder of NRDC, a senior adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton, a former dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and a longtime administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

But the invitation came with a catch: McKibben anticipated that the protesters might be arrested. And in fact, the first wave of protesters -- of which Speth was a part -- were not only arrested, but spent three days in the District of Columbia jail, often in leg irons and handcuffs, crowded 15 or more into a 6-by-9-foot cell. When called upon by his fellow prisoners to help pass the time, Speth, who was 69 at the time, spoke of how their opposition to Keystone could potentially coalesce into a bona fide grassroots movement. Those ideas became an important part of his new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. He and I spoke recently in Washington, just a few blocks from the White House, the site of his arrest.

Tell me about your time in jail.

We slept on stainless steel plates -- there was no bedding -- and we literally had bread and water to eat and drink. But our spirits were high. We told a lot of jokes. And our arrest galvanized a lot of attention. It morphed into two more weeks of protests -- and then [that November] into a gigantic circling, two bodies deep, of the block around the White House.

At the end of our incarceration, when we thought we were going into court, they took us down to these large holding cells underneath the courthouse. And that's when you saw it: hundreds of mostly black young men, moving through this so‑called criminal justice system. We knew we were going to be walking out into broad daylight any minute -- they dropped all the charges against us -- but we also knew that those kids were going to be bouncing around in that system for a long time.

That's one thing that struck me about your book: the way you openly link the environmental agenda to social justice. Not long ago I interviewed Robert Bullard (see "Truth to Power"), a pioneering figure in environmental justice. He described the Keystone XL pipeline as a project that starts by despoiling the land of Canada's First Nations tribes, then cuts through parts of the United States where corporate farming has led to depopulation and economic stagnation, before terminating in an all-black community in Houston. A trajectory like that does suggest that you can't organize effectively to oppose certain environmental threats if you're not also addressing some of these other issues.

The environmental community has got to confront these issues -- such as the stark levels of inequality we face and economic insecurity -- because they can be powerful determinants of environmental outcomes. If you place them off limits, you're really saying that you're not willing to deal with factors that could affect the achieving of our goals.

You have to ask yourself, "What is an environmental issue?" Well, one way to answer that question is: water pollution, air pollution, climate change. But another way of answering it is to say that an environmental issue is any issue that has a big impact on environmental outcomes. That's a very different way of looking at it.

You're acknowledging something that makes some people uncomfortable. There has been a tendency in the broader environmental movement to try and paint "the environment" as something that can and should be outside the political process so it appeals to members of both parties. You're essentially saying, "No, this is something that we should claim as a progressive cause."

The absence of bipartisanship on environmental issues is a tragedy. Republicans and Democrats worked together closely on the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. One of the best people working on both was a man named Tom Jorling, who'd been brought onto the staff of what was then the Senate Public Works Committee by John Sherman Cooper, a Republican from Kentucky.

But just take a look at who's been voting which way on clean air issues lately. I think it would be great to see a revival of bipartisanship, but the Republican Party has been moving away from the center, and the Democratic Party has tended to move to the right just to stay in the game. One-sixth of the country now lives in poverty or is on food stamps; 15 percent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed or has dropped out of the labor force. When you have such vast economic insecurity, it's easy to mobilize opposition to environmental measures that look like they might cost jobs.

You discuss the crucial need to form partnerships that would bring progressives with different ideologies together in common cause. But how can you make those sorts of relationships more than just fleeting ones, rooted in a single issue? How can you craft a durable coalition?

In the book I talk about the need for a fusion of progressive forces -- the need for a common identity, a common platform, a more systematic approach to messaging. One springboard to that vision of progressive fusion might well appear after this election. I suspect a lot of people are going to be really fed up with the political process they just went through.

There's actually a strange and ironic bit of truth to Ronald Reagan's famous statement: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." The government we've had lately is clearly a big part of the problem. There's a feeling out there that politics is not responding to real national needs.

Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post, said, "In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements." I believe that. But what are the forces that drive transformative change? The first is when people are not only fed up with what they see going on around them but also see the problem as a system. To recognize -- when you have problems in the economy, in society, in the environment, in politics -- that it's the system, stupid.

What signs are you seeing that people are finally starting to come together in this way?

You're seeing it in cities like Detroit, where there's a lot of excitement about how to go about rebuilding the community. You're seeing it in the way the co‑op movement has taken off, the way the cooperative idea is being emphasized in many community-development corporations and community-development financial institutions. Right now there's a drive to create a public bank in the District of Columbia modeled on the Bank of North Dakota [a state-owned bank -- the only one in the country -- that has made reinvestment in local projects one of its chief missions].

There's just a lot of ground-up building going on right now, because people are despairing about things happening at the national and international levels. They're saying: "Let's do something locally." And so it's happening. The list of things we could begin to move on right now is real, and it's big. We don't have to wait around for some magic moment.

image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >