Gus Speth Reflection, November 12, 2020

We invited Gus Speth to offer some post-election thoughts about where we go from here on our way to creating a loving, sustainable, healthy, just world—what we call the realm of God on earth.  It will help you appreciate the huge significance of Gus’s new message if you place it in the context of his previous thinking about the six ingredients necessary to accomplish the change of consciousness we need in order to restructure society as he describes. You can find that context at

Here is Gus’s new, hopeful and inspiring message:

Something beautiful has begun. Advocates for racial justice and for environmental protection are beginning to come together in new ways. What these efforts have in common is an advocacy for deeper change beyond what is commonly associated with the traditional civil rights and environmental movements.

These new efforts at Black-Green fusion are grounded on a strong foundation. When one explores the roots of both the environmental movement and the civil rights movement, one finds a radical critique in both cases. Moreover, these critiques are strikingly similar. Both have called for a deep restructuring of society and economy. And in both cases that call rests on an affirmation of life in all its fullness and of the devoted care that life requires of us.

Also, both communities of color and environmentalists have had to struggle against a cluster of longstanding cultural prejudices and misguided values.  These habits of thought have encouraged the subjugation and exploitation of both non-human life and certain human groups, typically relegating these human groups to a less-than-fully-human status.

Let’s start with the environmentalists. They must confront a haunting paradox. Our environmental organizations have grown ever stronger, more sophisticated and better funded, winning many battles along the way. Yet, 50 years after the first Earth Day, we find ourselves on the cusp of a ruined planet. Imagine.

Clearly, it’s time for a new environmentalism. Past time. One can begin by asking: What is an environmental issue? I’d say that an environmental issue is any issue that affects environmental performance. When answered that way, environmental issues must include our failing political system; the pervasive economic insecurity that paralyzes political action; and the materialistic, racially divisive, and completely anthropocentric values that tend to dominate our culture.  Environmental degradation is also driven by a triple imperative:  GDP growth at almost any cost,  ever enlarging corporate profit, and runaway consumerism.

These are among the underlying, root causes of our environmental decline.

They are also essential features of our political economy. If American environmentalists hope to ever succeed, we must find ways to address these systemic issues, which to date our movement has largely ignored.

In the environmental movement’s early days in the 1960s and early 1970s, those at the forefront asserted the need for radical restructuring of economy and society. Environmentalists must revive our legacy of radical critique.  As the expression goes, system change, not climate change.

As in the environmental world, a great many in the Black community are seeing limits to traditional advocacy. Achieving equal legal rights has enabled a modest Black upper middle class to prosper, but hasn’t prevented the deep problem now still afflicting Blacks and other communities of color. Faced with this realization, a number of black leaders, from grassroots movements (such as Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign) to scholars, are calling for the rediscovery and revitalization of the radical roots of the civil rights movement to address the deeper structural issues facing minority communities in America.

Martin Luther King, Jr., turned increasingly to these broader issues in his later years. In 1967, a year before he was shot, he called upon his followers to “honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy….We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

If we review the radicalism that can be found in the early years of both the environmental and civil rights movements, their shared roots are apparent. The best traditions of both movements are very much aligned. Both see the origin of our country’s problems in the socio-economic system as a whole and in the values and institutions that support it. Simply put, the operating system in which we live and work is programmed for the wrong results. It needs to be reprogrammed so that it genuinely sustains and restores human and natural communities. This task is daunting, but rich with opportunity.

In short, this Black-Green fusion is a powerful basis for dialogue and collaboration between two of our country’s greatest social movements. It holds the potential for a common language, a common critique, and a common agenda.

Moreover, there is an even deeper and more profound set of considerations that unite Black and Green. King called for “a radical revolution in values.” He spoke with clarity about what was at stake. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Subjugation of nature and non-human life creates the model for the subjugation of human beings. Human dignity cannot be restored fully without first displacing the exalted status that Western thought has bestowed on some at the expense of others. Full dignity requires that humans be re-connected to each other and to the natural world that sustains all life.

This attitude of control and dominion over “soulless” matter and animals, as well as “inferior” non-whites, is an evil embedded deeply in the culture of modern society. It also haunts and weakens our democracy. Unless we counter the white supremacist attitude of control and domination of both nature and non-white Others, building the cross-racial solidarity needed to deepen democracy, change the economy, and save the environment will continue to elude us.

How do we overcome our tragic legacy of subordination of nature to humans and of humans to other humans? Surely one step is to see this historical pattern for what it is: the product of pure arrogance. While recovering the deeper sources of civil rights radicalism in unwavering belief in the equal dignity and moral worth of all human beings, we can also connect to the deeper sources of environmental radicalism, restoring the connections between human beings and the natural world. Love, care, respect—these we owe both to each other and to the natural world.  Their common wellspring is an attitude of the heart – an abiding humility, awe, and reverence in the face of life’s wondrous creations. That’s the very opposite of arrogance.


One Comment on “Gus Speth Reflection, November 12, 2020

  1. Pingback: On Line Worship Service, November 22, 2020 | United Church of Strafford, Vermont

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