James Gustave Speth papers
Scope and Contents
These materials document Speth’s professional activities in the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, the World Resources Institute, the Clinton Transition, and the United Nations Development Programme. The papers show the progression of Speth's non-academic career and provide insight into his priorities in environmental protection and development, such as access to clean water, encouraging knowledgeable and productive leadership, and global climate change. The papers contain correspondence, speeches, writings, administrative memoranda, press releases, publications, photographs and meeting minutes. This collection does not contain material documenting Speth’s personal activities, teaching, or his tenure as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, the records of which are in School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, Records of the Dean (RU 40).
Materials documenting Speth’s work on the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as one of its founders focuses primarily on lawsuits against the United States government, but also contains important documentation on the early history of the NRDC. Speth's position with the NRDC led him to the Council on Environmental Quality, and materials in that series are primarily correspondence pertaining to environmental development and correspondence with the Executive Office of the President of the United States. After leaving the Council of Environmental Quality, Speth’s career focused more specifically on the development of impoverished countries and communities, specifically with his work as the founder and president of the World Resources Institute. The United Nations Development Programme series is the most robust and contains significant documentation of Speth’s work in development programs that he administrated, such as the Resident Coordinator program. Speth’s travel across the world and his activities in international development are documented in travel materials, including itineraries, agendas, and memorandums, as well as photographs from professional events. Photographs are primarily of individuals or professional groups and are mostly unidentified. Additionally, this material provides a snapshot of the larger initiatives taken by the United Nations in the 1990s, including the United Nations reform led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Language of Materials
Conditions Governing Access
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Immediate Source of Acquisition
40.25 Linear Feet (83 boxes)
Biographical / Historical
Upon finishing law school, Speth became a founding member and senior attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). With the NRDC, he brought civilian suits against the United States government on behalf of environmental issues. He left the NRDC, in 1977 to work for the Jimmy Carter's United States presidential administration as first a member, and then chair, of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). During this time, Speth became increasingly aware of the dangers of climate change, and in 1979 he asked prominent ecologists to write a report on global warming.
Following his work on the CEQ, Speth continued to advocate for the environment by launching and leading the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 1982 with the help of funds from a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. With the WRI, he continued to work on focusing global environmental attention on climate change and other environmental issues.
Shortly after the presidential election of Bill Clinton in 1990, Speth joined the presidential transition team as the head of the environmental team. This position led him to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where a recommendation from Vice President Al Gore led him to become an UNDP administrator. During this time, he was deeply involved with the UNDP's Resident Coordinator Program. The Resident Coordinator Program stationed UNDP offices in underdeveloped regions around the world. Speth was also involved in United Nations Reform, particularly the reforms implemented by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the 1990s that streamlined the development work done by the United Nations into one agency, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG).
Speth left the UNDP in 1999 to return to Yale University. He became the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Science, where he spearheaded the building of Kroon Hall, a then-new building for the school. Kroon Hall is notable for its adherence to sustainability. As dean, Speth taught classes that outlined his concerns on the environmental crisis, which resulted in his book Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. Speth later wrote the book The Bridge at the Edge of the World, a book that emerged from the DeVane lecture series, also at Yale University.
Speth retired from Yale University in 2009 to accept a teaching position at Vermont Law School. During his time at Vermont Law School, he wrote Angels by the River, his memoir.
In addition to his career in environmental law, Speth has also served as a fellow in research and innovation organizations, including Tellus Institute. He also received awards for his work in law, development, and environmentalism, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Environmental Law Institute.
Biographical information in this note is primarily drawn from James Gustave Speth, Angels by the River: A Memoir (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014)
- Annan, Kofi A. (Kofi Atta), 1938-
- Community development
- Council on Environmental Quality (U.S.)
- Environmental law -- United States -- 20th century
- Environmental policy
- Environmental protection
- International law
- Law and politics
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Speth, James Gustave
- United Nations
- United Nations Development Programme
- World Resources Institute
- Guide to the James Gustave Speth Papers
- compiled by Camila Zorrilla Tessler
- June 2019
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English.
Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository
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