|August 11, 2016|
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the Environment, the Election, and a "Dangerous" Donald Trump
|The Waterkeeper Alliance supports a relatively new but fast-growing professional corps. At their annual conference in Wilmington, North Carolina, in June, there were more than 200 riverkeepers, baykeepers, coastkeepers---even a Himalayan glacierkeeper. Collectively, the keepers patrol millions of square miles of waterways, inland and along the coast, defending watersheds that billions of people rely on for drinking, bathing, and food production. The keeper mission is stated on the T-shirts many of them wear: "We hold polluters accountable." Members of the alliance can be individuals, or they can be bustling organizations that employ lawyers, scientists, educators, and community organizers. Hudson Riverkeeper---the first keeper organization---now has a full-time staff of more than two-dozen people.|
At the helm of the Waterkeeper Alliance is its founder, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who now serves as its president and senior attorney. Kennedy's early work with Hudson Riverkeeper set lasting standards for environmental law and inspired the creation of hundreds of similar organizations throughout the United States and abroad, helping to fuel the keeper movement. With Hudson Riverkeeper and the N.R.D.C., he won historic victories against massive corporate polluters such as Con Edison and General Electric, forcing the former to abandon development plans that would have destroyed critical spawning grounds and the latter to contribute to cleanup efforts for P.C.B.s and other poisons dumped in the river. He also led negotiations on a crucial watershed agreement providing reservoirs for New York City's drinking water, now regarded as an international model in sustainable development.
Kennedy maintains a busy schedule. He is also a professor of environmental law at Pace University's law school and co-director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, which offers legal support to keeper organizations. He co-hosts a radio show (Ring of Fire on Air America Radio) and has written numerous magazine articles as well as several books, including The Riverkeepers (1999) and the New York Times best-seller Crimes Against Nature (2004). Kennedy has two new books forthcoming (on public health and on U.S. foreign policy under the Kennedys) and one released last month (on his cousin Michael Skakel). When he's not working he spends much of his time outdoors, often with his six children (now mostly grown). He is a licensed master falconer, and a veteran of white-water paddling trips, having led the first descents on three little-known rivers in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela.
This year's conference marked the 50th anniversary of the keeper movement, and Kennedy delivered his keynote address to the largest group of keepers ever. Many in the assembled crowd clamored for a view of Kennedy's tattoo (an Atlantic sturgeon, the official logo of the Waterkeeper Alliance). Nearly 100 of the keepers have similar tattoos, either as a sign of their commitment to the cause, or perhaps just because they're a venturesome bunch. Kennedy, in his venturesome way, spoke to Vanity Fair about the keeper movement and where it's headed.
Vanity Fair: In 2008 you wrote an article in Vanity Fair urging the next president to promote clean-energy markets and innovation. How do you think President Obama has done on that front, and on environmental stewardship in general?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I think he's been a good environmental president. In comparison to his predecessors, he's done an extraordinary job. In comparison to what I'd like him to do, it's been less extraordinary, but I think we should put the United States on a war footing; we ought to take the same steps that we did during World War II and say this is the biggest challenge that humanity faces, the biggest threat to our security and our nation, and we need to convert off coal and oil and do it within a decade. And I think a president could do that. That's not what he did, but, you know, he did make tremendous changes. One of the most dramatic things he did very early in his presidency was to get higher fuel-economy standards, which have dramatically changed the profile of how we use fuel energy in this country for transportation fuel.
Looking forward, are there any thoughts you want to share about the current presidential campaign?
I think Donald Trump is dangerous, and he's deceptive, and he's a demagogue. I don't think it should surprise anybody to see how well he's doing, because that kind of demagoguery is formulaic, and it's easy. There are buttons that you can push, of bigotry and xenophobia and prejudice and anger and self-interest and nationalism---false patriotism. Look at what happened in 1972: a large percentage of the people who supported my father in 1968, a very idealistic campaign, switched to support not George McGovern but George Wallace in 1972, and what that illustrates [is] that every person, like every nation, has a lighter side and a darker side. The easy thing is to appeal to bigotry and anger and fear; and it's much more difficult to appeal to our lighter angels, to get us to transcend our narrow self-interest and see ourselves as part of the community and inspire people to make sacrifices and take risks in their own lives, to contribute to the welfare of our nation, and to look beyond the horizon and try to compel our country to live up to her ideals, her great ideals. It's much easier to see America as a place where you come to make a big pile for yourself and whoever buys the most stuff wins. That we have to fight off people who don't look like us, or who don't love like us, or whatever---who are different. And I think those are the dark angels that Donald Trump appeals to, and I very much hope that his campaign of hatred dies on the vine. It's not surprising, because those are the passions that the Republican Party has been stirring---those kind of hatreds in the service, of course, of other interests. And Trump is actually coming out and saying the stuff that they've been saying cryptically for all those years with dog-whistle slogans.
Can you tell me what a waterkeeper does?
Waterkeepers patrol local waterways and prosecute polluters. Essentially, they act as the community's coast guard.
Why are the keepers so important? What's the special value of the keeper movement?
Well, we have very strong environmental laws in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The problem is that they're seldom enforced. The polluters are wealthy, and very powerful, and are able to subvert democracy, capture corrupt politicians, and capture the regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect the public from pollution; so the waterkeepers serve the role of an independent ombudsman that forces government to do its job, that forces polluters to stop polluting. It fills a vacuum between the public and the enforcers who seldom do their job.
And what is the Waterkeeper Alliance?
The Waterkeeper Alliance is a group of some 300 independent organizations that use the Waterkeeper name under a licensing agreement that requires them to comply with certain conditions, including that they have a boat, a full-time paid waterkeeper; that they do advocacy on a specific water body; [and] that they enforce environmental laws against polluters, on a local waterway, to protect it from individuals or entities that would damage it or compromise the public trust by damaging or polluting the waterway.
Why all the licensing requirements?
Because there were problems controlling the name. For example, Audubon lost control of its name. If you were a developer, you could call yourself the New York Audubon Society or whatever, and nobody could stop you. You could print T-shirts. So we didn't want that to happen to us. And in fact there were bad guys using the Riverkeeper name, [including] a developer on the Delaware. We needed to show that we have standards, that the name means something, that there's uniformity, and that we're actually part of one organism.
Does the effort to maintain those standards conflict with the Waterkeeper ideal of being a grassroots organization?
Yes. Democracy is messy, and it's hard. It's never easy. Peter Bahouth, who ran Greenpeace, I asked him one time what it was like running Greenpeace, and he said it's like being in charge of a million people and the only thing they have in common is that they all hate authority. It's the same thing with this organization; it's like herding cats. You have these very tough, turf-conscious, ornery, talented, smart local leaders, who are suspicious and don't want to be told what to do, and the job of national organization is to try to funnel them all into what is a movement. And so there's always a tension between the democracy and the effectiveness. That's why we've created governance institutions and mechanisms to manage that tension. I think they're pretty unique.
The Alliance has its roots in a fisherman's association. Does it feel overly institutional to you now?
I think it's important to have an institution, because that's what makes democracies function. Democracy is about institutions: it's about having things like schools and judiciary and the Ford Foundation,or The Nation magazine---you need progressive institutions, you know what I mean? Those are important institutions to make sure that the government functions.
Are you building a professional organization or a movement?
I hope it's a movement. I hope it's both of those things. I think that the commitment that you need to be a keeper has almost a military feel to it. And you'll see a lot of the keepers are former marines. . . . Every year we have a lot of people who get the Waterkeeper logo tattooed on their body, the sturgeon tattoo. We have about 20 people who get it every year.
The keepers here at the conference all speak with passion about the work they do, but as you noted, some of them can be ornery---many disavow the label "environmentalist." Do you have some insight into that?
These people see themselves as community activists, and they may want to disassociate themselves with the term "environmentalist" because it's come to mean someone who elevates the environment over humanity. And what this movement has always understood is that we're not protecting nature so much for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we're protecting it for our own sake, because we recognize that nature is the infrastructure of our communities, and that if we want to meet our obligation as a generation and a civilization and a nation---our moral obligations---that we've got to do that by creating communities for our children that give them the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment and prosperity and spiritual enrichment and good health as the communities that our parents gave us. So it's really community focused.
Some environmentalism---and this isn't true of all of it---is kind of "look, don't touch" environmentalism. Whereas I think the first waterkeepers, because of their history as people who were part of the Hudson River ecosystem---they were commercial and recreational fishermen, and they were in waders, and they were in the muck, and they were handling the fish, and they were seeing nature as a renewable resource---they didn't necessarily want to turn the Hudson River into a park. They said, "It's big enough for all of us," and that we've got to have rules and regulations that protect the commons on behalf of everybody, so that you can have housing, you can have oil tankers, you can have fishing boats, you can have recreational swimming; and in some parts, you ought to be able to drink it, and everybody ought to be able to eat the fish, and that there's room on it for everybody, and everybody can use their share---but nobody gets to use more than their share, nobody gets to pollute it, or ruin it for everybody else.
Some keepers describe you as a spiritual leader; some as the captain of a ship. Your keynote address on the 50th anniversary of the movement was delivered to a packed hall, while just a generation ago there was only a single riverkeeper. When you look at their faces, what are you feeling?
I mean, I'm mainly grateful. What I do never seems like a sacrifice because I have so much fun doing it, and I'm grateful that I have the resources, and I have the passion, that I'm able to spend my life and support my family doing something that I believe in. But some of these people are making really profound sacrifices. Some of them have put their lives at stake, and their health, and many of them are working in remote areas, in isolation, where they're fighting forces that are much, much bigger than they are---David and Goliath forces---every day. All over Latin America and Asia, the keepers struggle not just with winning victories but staying alive. So I'm very proud and very grateful, and I'm proud of the way the movement's run. A long time ago I said that my dream would be to have 500 keepers, and we're more than halfway there.
Let's talk about some of the work you have done with Hudson Riverkeeper. Your first great success there was cleaning up the Quassaick Creek, a Hudson River tributary that flowed through several towns that were polluting the water. What were the lessons there?
When we started working on the Hudson River there were Hudson River towns like Newburgh or Irvington, where the lowest-priced properties in those towns were the properties that were closest to the water. The river had turned into a waste conveyance and people didn't want to live there. At that time, the highest use of the river was to dump stuff in it, and because of the work of environmentalists, the river now has many other higher uses. And in those towns, the highest-value homes and properties are now the ones closest to the river. That's where everybody wants to live now; and so the entire town benefits from it. That value reverberates back through the entire community, in terms of tax revenues from higher-value homes and tax assessments and property assessments, and the willingness of people to live in that community, and their pride in that community---their willingness to stay there and to play there and to work there. So those investments in the river and the waterfront have really restored the entire community.
The same thing's happened in New York City. New York spent a few dollars restoring its waterfront, and now you see there are millions of people every year who use the waterside parks, and it's become a different city because of that. When I started working, there was no public access in New York City to the water. All of the docks were closed off, they were privately owned---most of them by one company. They were decrepit, and then there was no activity on them. Today, these days, there are more people visiting the waterfront parks than there are in Central Park.
What are the changes that you see in the environmental movement now, compared to when you first got engaged in this work?
I think that there's more of a recognition that good environmental policy is always identical to good economic policy, and that the two are not separate, that we don't have to make a choice. People understand that pollution is theft; that its damage amounts to a subsidy; that it's contrary to free-market capitalism; and that the carbon industry in particular is inefficient and antiquated and hideously expensive. Nowadays, it's not just environmentalists who are saying that carbon doesn't make sense. There's an established disruptive industry of renewable energy, of solar and wind, with big players like General Electric and Tesla. When I first started in the environmental movement, people would laugh about electric cars and say that's not going to happen for a hundred years; and people would dismiss solar and wind as kind of a pipe dream. And now you have entire industries. It's not just hippies in tie-dyed T-shirts; it's national-security experts and industry titans in a war with oil and coal and the huge subsidies they receive, trying to rationalize the marketplace. And if we get a rational market, wind and solar will dominate it, because we can now understand how hideously expensive coal, oil, and the other incumbents are, including nuclear energy.
What are most urgent battles facing the waterkeepers today?
You know, we have a lot of priorities, including making agriculture sustainable by ending this very destructive and polluting transition to factory farming and away from family farms. But I think the single biggest battle is climate change. And that's intertwined with how we use energy, which is intertwined with other pollution---mercury pollution---which is a huge concern of Waterkeeper: that every freshwater fish now in America has dangerous levels of mercury in their flesh, and that mercury is largely coming from coal-burning power plants, which are also contributing to global warming. So I'd say that's the biggest issue.
Everything is in jeopardy now. I think it's one of the things that inspires people. What we're doing is critical.
A lot of the battles you've fought together with the Waterkeepers seem to stretch over years, if not decades. What does that mean for a keeper organization?
It means we've got to be here for decades. It means it's a long-term commitment.
People who start to notice these issues and care---what can we do?
Support your local keeper. And get involved in local politics. It's more important to change your politician than to change your lightbulb, or your car, or whatever. Get involved. Join the keeper movement and then go vote, or go run for political office.