The Conscience of a Moderate

Angels by the River: A Memoir by James Gustave Speth is pleasantly written but painful to read. Speth knew about the dangers of global warming before the majority of today’s climate change deniers were born. He was an advisor to President Jimmy Carter and advised him and the public to address the matter before it became a crisis.

Carter and the U.S. capital of his day weren’t about to take the sort of action needed. Remember, Carter was despised for a speech promoting green energy and celebrated for a speech declaring that the United States would always go to war over Middle Eastern oil. Ronald Reagan and his followers (in every sense) Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama wouldn’t come within 10 miles of a reasonable approach to climate.  But Speth has spent the decades since the Carter administration trying to maintain a career within the system, a choice that he acknowledges has required compromises. Now he’s pushing for radical change and takes himself to be a radical because he was arrested at the White House opposing a tar sands pipeline.

Here’s a photo of Speth at the White House wearing the campaign symbol of the man at whose house he was protesting (Speth doesn’t discuss the uniqueness of this form of opposition).

Speth writes as if President Obama were trying to protect the planet from Republicans, in contrast to the real-life Obama who has sabotaged climate talks in Copenhagen and at other summits over the years. Speth gives Democrats a pass, promotes electoral work, pushes nationalism, and believes the world needs U.S. leadership to address climate change. I think the evidence is clear that the world would be fairly well along if the United States would just stay out of the way and stop leading the destruction.

This image is from a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Speth’s book tells a story of racist and sexist Agrarians who wanted to resist corporatism but didn’t really do so; of “moderates” who blandly hinted at opposing segregation but didn’t; of a Carter White House that didn’t act; of a Clinton Administration that decided against even pretending to act; of a statement Speth wrote immediately after September 11, 2001, in which he took a both-and position, supporting both insane war and sane peaceful policies; and of the age of Obama in which one admits that the facts demand swift radical change while embracing lesser-evilism, not in voting but in activism and speech (that inevitable tendency being the main reason some of us oppose it in voting).

Of course I’m being unfair and Speth won’t necessarily have any idea what I’m talking about. He doesn’t have a chapter dedicated to nationalism, he just frames all of his proposals in terms of being a good patriot and fixing one’s country — even though the problem facing us is global. And when he worked in the Carter Administration he actually did good work and got things done. We celebrate — hell, we practically worship — whistleblowers who spent decades doing bad work, murderous work, before speaking out. Here’s a man who did good work, who nudged things in a better direction for decades, before speaking out in the way he does now. With most people contributing little or nothing to the sustainability of the planet, and with radicals living through decades of failure just the same as moderates, Speth is not someone to criticize. And his book is quite valuable. I just want to nudge him a bit further.

Speth’s account of his childhood in South Carolina is charming and wise. His account of unfulfilled dreams for the South and of undesirable Southern influence on the rest of the country is powerful. Instead of losing its bigotry, the South took on the North’s consumerism. Instead of losing its consumerism, the North took on the South’s reactionary politics, including what Speth calls “antipathy toward the federal government” — I would add: except for that 53% of it that’s dedicated to killing foreigners. Speth’s account of the Nashville Agrarians’ opposition to corporate consumerism is valuable. It’s not that nobody knew; it’s that not enough people acted. Of course, with my focus on the problem of war (which somehow, at best, squeezes into the last item on each of Speth’s lists of issues) I’m brought back to wondering where we would be if slavery had been ended differently. I know that we’re supposed to cheer for the Civil War even though other nations (and Washington D.C.) used compensated emancipation and skipped war. I know we’re supposed to repeat to ourselves over and over “It’s not Lincoln’s fault, the slave owners wanted war.” Well, indeed they did, but what if they hadn’t? Or what if the recruits had refused to fight it for them? Or what if the North had let the South leave? It’s difficult to bring up such questions while simultaneously convincing the reader that you know none of this actually happened. So, for what it’s worth: I’m aware that’s not how it happened; hence the need to bring it up. As it is, Vietnam has gotten over the war of the 1960s, and the U.S. South can, at long last, get over the war of the 1860s if it chooses to.

Speth was a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council which helped win important struggles to halt a major expansion of nuclear power, to implement the Clean Water Act, and to protect wetlands. He also did great work at the World Resources Institute. Yet, he writes, there have been countless victories during an ongoing major defeat. “Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill. The prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet.” Speth recounts the perils of working as a D.C. insider: “Once there, inside the system, we were compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed there. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.” And of being a global insider: “Thus far, the climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries.”

Speth’s conclusion is not entirely unlike Naomi Klein’s. Speth writes in this book: “In short, most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today, and long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism.” Klein quotes Speth in her book: “We didn’t adjust with Reagan. We kept working within a system but we should have tried to change the system and root causes.”