Former Clinton Adviser Tells Colleges to Get Radical and Work Outside the System

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Warns Higher Education Consortium of “The Specter of Failure”; Calls for Redesign of Environmental Education

Gus Speth delivers keynote at environmental conference

A specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists -- the specter of failure.

In a speech marked by pointed criticism of American environmentalism, James Gustave “Gus” Speth told regional colleges this weekend, “It’s time for a new environmentalism” and for “going back to the ideas of the 1960s and early 1970s, rediscovering their more radical roots, and stepping outside the system in order to change it before it is too late."

Speaking at Pace University, the former adviser to Presidents Clinton and Carter and former Yale University Dean pulled no punches with the Environmental Consortium of Colleges & Universities.

“The environment continues to go downhill, fast,” he told the group. “Bottom line: a specter is haunting U.S. environmentalists -- the specter of failure.”

Now a professor at Vermont Law School, Speth made headlines in 2011 when he was arrested and jailed for three days following an environmental protest at the White House.

Echoing Speth’s theme, Michelle Land, Director of the Pace University Academy for Applied Environmental Studies and Director of the Consortium, told the 170 representatives from colleges and universities, “It is our duty in the decade ahead to use our unique resources to transform our region into a world capital of environmental research, education and knowledge. Never have our collective talents and resources been more needed. And never has our duty to the future of the human and natural world been more clear.”

Land stunned the audience with an assessment of the size and impact of the region’s colleges and universities which she said number 130, and teach 870,000 students, employ 93,000 staff and faculty, occupy more than 40,000 acres of land and consume more than 20 billion gallons of water annually.

“Collectively, we are the largest community in the Hudson-Mohawk watershed, and the second largest community in the state of New York,” she said.

Speth was presented with the Environmental Consortium's Great Work Award, in honor of Father Thomas Berry, former Riverdale resident and environmental author, and delivered his keynote address on Saturday.

Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs at Pace, John Cronin, said, “Professor Speth is calling on us to radicalize or face environmental failure. He sees higher education as an institution that has the talent, knowledge and influence to lead society to success.”

Speth’s message to teachers and students was clear on that point: “We environmentalists can legitimately claim many victories but we are losing the struggle--losing the overall effort to pass our beleaguered planet on to our children and grandchildren. My hope is that you can help redesign the university's approach to environmental studies, and environmental education generally, in a way that embraces the true keys to environmental success."

About the Conference
Other conference highlights included the opening keynote by David Hales, President, Second Nature, on Friday. Hales spoke about living sustainably in the future climate. He believes that while evidence of climate change mounts, colleges and their communities are not prepared and have not assessed the impacts of climate on their missions, curriculum, infrastructure, operations, students, workforce, investments, and endowments.

“Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to create research-based knowledge aimed at assessing and responding to climate impacts and to prepare themselves and help others prepare,” said Hales.

Plenaries included “Preparing our Campuses for an Uncertain Future” (Fri.) moderated by Andrew Revkin, New York Times Dot Earth blogger and Senior Fellow of Environmental Understanding at Pace; and “The Middlebury Campus as a Learning Laboratory via the Classroom and the Boardroom” (Sat.) moderated by Jack Byrne, Director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College.

Revkin pointed out at the end of his panel that it is important to know your audience when framing discussions of climate resilience, because – in the business world particularly -- “Not everyone believes climate change is a clear and present danger” but almost everyone agrees that it’s a bad idea to build in harm’s way.

Breakout sessions included discussions of various topics on sustainability in higher education. On Friday afternoon, Professor Ghassan Karam, a Pace University environmental economist, led a spirited discussion of limits to growth in which Liu Mingming, a visiting associate professor of environmental law from Shandong University of Science and Technology, took the stance that developing countries cannot be denied the right to advance their economies. There was wide agreement that the status quo is not sustainable and that universities play a vital role in testing new ideas.

There was also an exhibitor expo and musical performance by Revkin’s Breakneck Ridge Revue.

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