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James Gustave Speth papers

Call Number: MS 2068

Scope and Contents

The James Gustave Speth Papers consist of Speth’s professional papers from 1977 to 2013, with the bulk falling between 1977 and 2000, and covers much of his career in environmental law. This material also documents his career in global development, particularly in facilitating the development of third world countries and creating international policies both on the behalf of the environment and the elimination of poverty.

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.


  • 1968-2013


Language of Materials

The materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The bulk of the James Gustave Speth Papers is open to researchers. Access to Series V, boxes 74-76 is restricted until 1 January 2021 by donor request.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by James Gustave Speth was transferred to Yale University in 2017. These materials may be used for non-commercial purposes without seeking permission from Yale University as the copyright holder. For other uses of these materials, please contact Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of James Gustave Speth, 2017.


The James Gustave Speth Papers are arranged in five series: Natural Resources Defense Council, Council on Environmental Quality, World Resources Institute, Clinton Transition, and United Nations Development Programme. These series are listed chronologically and reflect the timeline of Speth's career.


40.25 Linear Feet (83 boxes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


James Gustave Speth (1942-) is a lawyer, activist, author, and advocate for the environment. The James Gustave Speth Papers consist of Speth’s professional papers from 1977 to 2000 and cover the bulk of his career in environmental law, as well as his service as a fellow in research and innovation organizations.

Biographical / Historical

James Gustave Speth (1942-) is a lawyer, activist, author, and advocate for the environment. He was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and spent his childhood there before graduating from Yale College in 1964 (Jonathan Edwards College). He then attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and subsequently Yale Law School (JD, 1970). Speth states that his early life in Orangeburg shaped his attitudes both towards both the environment and social policy.

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)

Separated Materials

Materials documenting Speth's tenure as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental science, totaling ten linear feet, have been separated from the papers and are now incorporated as part of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, Records of the Dean (RU 40).

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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