He was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1942. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1964, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Yale Law School, where he was a member of the Yale Law Journal, in 1969. He served in 1969 and 1970 as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black.
Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he served as senior attorney from 1970 to 1977.
He served from 1977 to 1981, as a Member and then for two years as Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President. As Jimmy Carter's Council on Environmental Quality Chairman, he was a principal adviser on matters affecting the environment and had overall responsibility for developing and coordinating the President's environmental program. In 1981 and 1982 he was Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, teaching environmental and constitutional law.
In 1982, he founded the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank; served as its president until January 1993. He was a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, heading the group that examined the U.S.'s role in natural resources, energy and the environment.
In 1991, he chaired a U.S. task force on international development and environmental security which produced the report Partnership for Sustainable Development: A New U.S. Agenda.
In 1990 he led the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development which produced the report Compact for a New World.
From 1993 to 1999, he served as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; he served as Special Coordinator for Economic and Social Affairs under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and also served as Chair of the United Nations Development Group.
In 1999, he became the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. He served the school as the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean and Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy when he retired from Yale in 2009 to assume a professorship at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont. Speth was succeeded as Dean at Yale by Sir Peter Crane.
Speth has been a leader or participant in many other task forces and committees aimed at combatting environmental degradation, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment.
Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Environmental Law Institute, and the Blue Planet Prize. He holds honorary degrees from Clark University, the College of the Atlantic, Vermont Law School, and Middlebury College.
- Globalization and the Environment, Island Press (2003) (as an editor)
- Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (2004)
- Global Environmental Governance, Island Press (2006)
- The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Yale University Press (2008) ISBN 978-0-300-13611-1
- America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, Yale University Press (2012) ISBN 978-0300180763
- (chapter) Nelson, Michael P. and Kathleen Dean Moore (eds.). Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Trinity University Press, 2010 ISBN 9781595340665
- Beyond Reform
- America the Possible: A Manifesto, Part  From decline to rebirth, Part  A new politics for a new dream
- World Resources Institute Biosketch of James Gustave Speth. Accessed March 27, 2012.
- "Who we are & What we do". United Nations Development Programme. 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-24.
- "F&ES unearths new dean". Yale Daily News.
- "Sir Peter Crane Appointed Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies". Yale daily News. 2009-03-04. Retrieved 2011-08-24.
New book: America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Works by or about James Gustave Speth in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- James Gustave Speth home page at the Wayback Machine (archived July 1, 2007) at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, archived July 1, 2007
- Radio interview Monday, March 31, 2008 on Focus 580 at University of Illinois
|Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality
William Henry Draper III
|Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
Mark Malloch Brown