An interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental advocate and Bush basher
Photo: John Chrisitn.
He has the distinguished mien, the political brio, and the eloquence of his ancestors, not to mention degrees from Harvard and the University of Virginia School of Law. Yet despite Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s sterling credentials, he’s never run for public office, much less held one. That’s fine with him, and with his many supporters, who contend that he’s likely making more of a difference to American politics from outside the Beltway than he ever could from the inside.
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Lately Kennedy ranks with Michael Moore, Al Gore, and Al Franken as one of the most vociferous and effective critics of the Bush administration. But unlike many other detractors, Kennedy concentrates his reproach on environmental rollbacks — an issue that usually registers as barely more than a tremor on the Richter scale of election-year concerns. For the past six months, Kennedy has been storming the lecture circuit and helping to fill the coffers of the John Kerry campaign. This August, he will release Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy, a book that will be, if all goes well, the green community’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
Given his reputation as one of environmentalism’s most powerful advocates, Kennedy’s official titles seem rather unglamorous: clinical professor and supervising attorney at Pace Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic; chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, a New York-based environmental organization that has fought to protect the Hudson River and its tributaries; president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella group protecting waterways worldwide; and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he has helped develop the organization’s international program. More provocative, perhaps, are his license as a master falconer and role as a white-water paddling guide.
Grist met with Kennedy at his office in White Plains, N.Y., to discuss his forthcoming book, his reputation as a champion of free markets, the connection between environmentalism and civil rights, and the ecological burden of having six kids.
You are well-known for converting celebrities and politicians to the environmental cause through speeches in which you frame environmentalism as a civil-rights issue. Let’s start there. How is environmentalism a civil-rights issue?
The environment is the most important, the most fundamental, civil-rights issue. In the word ecology, the root “eco” is the Greek word for home. It’s really about how we manage our home. The environmental movement is a struggle over the control of the commons — the publicly owned resources, the things that cannot be reduced to private property — the air, the water, the wandering animals, the public land, the wildlife, the fisheries. The things that from the beginning of time have always been part of the public trust.
From the beginning of time?
Environmentalism didn’t begin on Earth Day. It’s been recognized for thousands of years as a basic human right. The code of Justinian for the first time outlined environmental rights as essentially fundamental rights. If you were a citizen of Rome, you had an absolute right to cross a beach to catch a fish. The emperor himself couldn’t stop you. In England, in the 13th century, they had a clean air act. It was illegal to burn coal in London. It was a capital crime and people were executed for it.
When Roman law broke down in Europe during the Dark Ages, a lot of the feudal kings began reasserting control over the public-trust resources. For example, in England, King John began selling monopolies to the fisheries and he said the deer belonged to nobility. The public rose up and confronted him at the Battle of Runnymede and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which of course was the beginning of constitutional government. In addition to having virtually all of our Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta has two other chapters on free access to fisheries in navigable waters. And those rights descended to the people in the States when we had the revolution. And virtually every state constitution says the people of the state own the waters and the fisheries, the wildlife, the air. They’re not owned by the governor, the legislature, the corporations. Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others.
We often think of environmental justice as the term that describes the intersection of civil-rights issues and the environment.
That’s certainly a critical part of it. In terms of the conventional way that we think of civil rights, the burden of environmental injury always falls on the backs of the poorest people. Four out of every five toxic-waste dumps in America is in a black neighborhood. The largest toxic-waste dump in America is in a community in Alabama that is 85 percent black. The highest concentration of toxic-waste dumps is in the South Side of Chicago. The most contaminated ZIP code in California is East L.A. There’s 150,000 Hispanic farm workers that are poisoned by pesticides every year. And God knows what’s happening to their families. Navajo youth have 17 times the rate of sexual-organ cancer as other Americans because of the thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings that have been dumped on their reservation land. So the poor are shouldering the burden for pollution-based prosperity by large corporations who have control of the political process.
Really all environmental injury is an assault on democracy, because the most important measure of how a democracy is functioning is how it distributes the goods of the land, the commons. Democracy must ensure that the public-trust assets stay within the hands of the people.
You have three kids with asthma and focus much of your criticism of the Bush administration on clean-air rollbacks. Do you believe that the public asset of air has been stolen from your kids by polluting corporations?
We don’t know why we’re having this explosion of pediatric asthma — whether it’s hormones in food or antibiotics or whatever — but asthma rates have doubled again over the last five years. We do know that one of the primary causes of asthma attacks are particulates in ozone in our air. I watch my kids gasping for breath on bad air days. We know that the source of half of that material in our air in New York, for example, are a handful of coal plants in the Ohio Valley that are burning coal illegally. They were supposed to install emissions-control equipment to protect the public right of the commons in our air. They didn’t do it.
The Clinton administration was prosecuting 51 power plants on their violations of the Clean Air Act. But the coal industry and the coal-burning utilities gave $4.8 million to President Bush during the 2000 election. When Bush came in, he repaid the favor by ordering the Justice Department and the EPA to drop all those lawsuits. We’ve never seen anything like that in American history before — where a president comes in having accepted political contributions from criminals and then orders the prosecutions dropped against them.
You are an avid fisher and president of Waterkeeper Alliance. Do water issues hit home for you even more than air issues?
They hit home quite literally. It’s now unsafe to eat any freshwater fish in Connecticut because of mercury contamination. The New York City reservoir system is so contaminated with mercury that no fish in them can be safely eaten. Most of the fish in New York state can no longer safely be eaten. All the fish in 17 states can no longer safely be eaten because of mercury contamination.
I have so much mercury in my body right now, having tested it recently, that if I were a woman of childbearing years, my child, according to Dr. David Carpenter, the national authority on mercury contamination, would have cognitive impairment — permanent IQ loss. I said to Carpenter when he told me this, “You mean might have?” He said no, the science is very certain on this. She would have. One out of every six American women of childbearing years now has so much mercury in her body that her children are at risk for permanent IQ loss, kidney and liver damage, blindness, and possibly autism because of the mercury. And this of course is connected to air issues, too. Half of the mercury emissions in our country are coming from those coal-burning plants in the Ohio Valley.
Does the problem lie more with the Bush administration or the corporations that are demanding the payback?
It’s the political system that allows corporations to have so much influence in the political process. We’ve got to get the money out of politics. It’s overwhelming the Democratic process. Campaign finance reform is hands-down the most important environmental bill.
We are living in a science-fiction nightmare where children are gasping for breath on bad-air days because somebody gave money to a politician. And my children and the kids of millions of other Americans can no longer go fishing and eat their catch because somebody gave money to a politician. And where the oldest wilderness area on the face of the Earth — the Adirondack Mountains — has acidified lakes with sterilized fish because somebody gave money to politicians. And the Appalachian Mountains — the birthplace of American democracy, the landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed, the source of our values, our virtues, our character as a people — are being cut to the ground so somebody can make money.
What concerns you more — the contributions from industry, or the payback from the government?
The payback far outstrips the contributions. The Bush administration got a record-breaking $100 million in contributions in 2000, largely from corporations that are now reaping billions of dollars of relief. But you and I — the federal taxpayer and the American citizens — for generations are going to be paying that campaign debt and that is a civil-rights and a human-rights issue.
So is the culprit free-market capitalism?
No! The best thing that could happen to the environment is free-market capitalism. In a true free-market economy, you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community. In a true free-market economy, you get efficiencies and efficiency means the elimination of waste. Waste is pollution. So in true free-market capitalism, you eliminate pollution and you properly value our natural resources so you won’t cut them down. What polluters do is escape the discipline of the free market. You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy — a fat cat who’s using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market.
So you’re saying free-market economies have to be controlled by regulations and strong central government?
Laissez-faire capitalism does not work, particularly in the commons. Individuals pursuing their own self-interest will devour the commons very quickly. That’s the economic law — the tragedy of the commons. You have to force companies to internalize costs. All of the federal environmental laws are designed to restore free-market capitalism in America in this regard.
So you consider yourself a crusader for the free market first and an environmentalist second?
I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist anymore. I’m a free-marketeer. I go out into the marketplace and I catch the polluters who are cheating the free market and I say, “We are going to force you to internalize your costs the same way you are internalizing your profit.” That’s what the federal environmental laws allow us to do: restore real property rights in America. You cannot get sustained environmental protection under any system but a democracy. There’s a direct correlation around the planet between the level of tyranny in various countries and the level of environmental degradation.
Your upcoming book, Crimes Against Nature, addresses many of these issues. Is the larger mission of your book to help oust Bush?
It’s to help the voting public recognize the truth. We win this battle when the American public knows what’s going on. You can’t talk about the environment today honestly in any context without being critical of this president. A few years ago, if you asked the principal environmental leaders in our country, “What’s the greatest threat to our global environment?,” you would have gotten a range of answers from global warming to acid rain, overpopulation, etc. But today, they will all tell you the same thing: It’s George W. Bush. There is no other issue today. He is the only issue.
Is Bush’s anti-environmentalism simply practical politics — payback to corporate contributors — or is it ideological?
There’s a history since 1980 of a link between [anti-environmentalism] and the fundamental Christian right (which I don’t even consider Christianity but Christian heresy) called dominion theology. It’s driven by people like James Watt, who claimed that the Bible justified environmental destruction in the same way that white people in the South used to claim that the Bible justified slavery. God gave man dominion over nature, and that means man should dominate and destroy nature. But of course other people read in the Bible myriad mandates that we care for nature. It is not ours to own but ours to keep as a gardener would keep for the owner, who is God.
Does the religious right fund anti-environmental policies?
There’s a link between Christian fundamentalist evangelist leaders like Pat Robertson and Sun Myung Moon, who owns the Washington Times and funded the “wise-use” movement — originally called the Sagebrush Rebellion — which ultimately propelled both Reagan and Newt Gingrich. There was an unholy marriage during the ’80s between the paranoid right, including the fundamentalist Christians, and industrial polluters, who basically began funding the fundamentalist right because it was in their interest to use that movement as foot soldiers in the battle to retain their giant subsidies.
And students of the wise-use movement are still in the Bush administration?
Yeah, Gale Norton came right out of the rape-and-plunder crowd. She worked for James Watt. He was her mentor. Dick Cheney is one of the icons of the wise-use movement. It’s clear from all the insider reports — Paul O’Neill and the info we’ve gleaned from the energy task force, from the departments of interior, agriculture, and energy — that Dick Cheney is dictating the national environmental policy and they’re doing the same thing that Bush did in Texas: inviting the industrialists in to run the government.
You are a Catholic. Is your spiritual practice intertwined with your life work?
I think the environmental issue has ultimately got to be a spiritual issue and a moral issue. I believe we are hardwired to destroy the planet. We are hardwired to compete, to consume, and ultimately that biological urge can only be transcended with a spiritual fire. People have got to recognize that the obligation to the rest of the planet is a moral issue and it demands self-sacrifice and it demands sublimating our biological drives, which otherwise guide most of our decision making.
Who were your role models growing up?
The guys that were my heroes were the Catholic saints. Like St. Francis. I’ve got a book coming out on St. Francis in March, a children’s book. The Franciscans saw nature as the vector by which God communicates most clearly with human beings. And then the explorers, like Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Burton, Speke, the great naturalist Levi-Strauss — I read everything I could. Those were the people that were my heroes as a kid. Even the kind of bad guys, like Cortez and Pizarro and Fairmont, and Stanley and Livingstone and Powell. I loved to read about those guys slogging through the swamps. Balboa, Vasco da Gama, Speke, Burton, Cortez going through with his armor on and Pizarro and his men losing bowel control and bladder control when they were about to attack Atahuallpa because they were outgunned, they were facing 20,000 armed Inca warriors and there were fewer than 100 of them.
Photo: Esther Kiviat.
You are an avid hiker, falconer, kayaker, and skier. How does your personal connection to environmental adventure inform your politics?
I wouldn’t normally want to talk about that, because I really think it’s a distraction from the real issue. It’s what industry wants us talking about.
Industry wants us reading those books that say “50 things you can do to help the environment” because it distracts you from what you ought to be doing, which is joining an environmental group and voting for politicians who support the environment and fighting against the lobbyists on Capitol Hill. I mean, you can go out and buy a car that gets 40 miles per gallon, but it’s not going to change the planet. What’s going to change the planet is if we have somebody standing up to the auto-industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill to pass standards that require that every car in this country gets 40 mpg. I try to focus on that part, not on how individuals are incorporating environmental ethics into their lives. I think it’s important for people to do, but to the extent that it’s distracting you from participating in the political process, it’s not a good thing.
Surely political and personal actions don’t have to distract from one another, though. In fact, I’d say it’s more likely that they can reinforce each other. Isn’t there something you do on a personal level that informs your political work?
One thing I really try to do is to buy meat from organic producers and humane producers like Neiman Ranch, which you can get on the Internet. It’s the best-tasting meat and it’s raised humanely by family farmers. And we buy most of our other produce from Fresh Fields, from Whole Foods and Organic Valley. It’s good for you and it’s good for America.
What about the issue of population growth? You have six children. Do you think that this poses an excessive environmental burden or is it somehow an environmental advantage?
Do I think it’s an environmental advantage? No! [Laughter.] It’s both an environmental burden and a personal one! [Laughter.] But it’s also the product of negotiations between people and families. I’m not putting myself forward as an example on the population issue.
Are you concerned that environmentalism is increasingly becoming a consumer movement — that the message is that the most environmentally important thing we can do is buy a Prius or organic produce or rooftop solar panels?
It’s very important for us all to practice an environmental ethic in our lives, and I try to do it as best I can. But consumers buying Priuses is not going to change the globe nearly as much as a law that says you cannot market a car in this country unless it gets 40 mpg. And that’s going to happen on Capitol Hill. And the thing that corporate America wants to convince Americans of more than anything is that environmental injury is the fault of the consumer: The reason that we have environmental problems is that Americans want big cars, not because industry makes them. Or fisheries saying the reason we have to catch every fish in the ocean is because Americans want to eat the fish.
Corporate America may be manipulating this message, but consumers still have a big role here, right?
Above all, government has a role, which is to say: There’s a limited amount of fish out there. It’s a shared resource and we’re not going to let corporations exploit it in a way that’s going to destroy it. We’re going to use science and our regulatory authority to make sure that there is sustainable yield. Of course every American wants a big car. But government has to say to the automobile industry: Of course they want it, but you’ve got to make 40 mpg. And if we had that law, within a year, Detroit would be producing SUVs that have the same performance and the same comfort and safety as the ones they’re making today.
So if you were to tell our readers the single most important environmental action they should take, what would it be?
If your choice is to buy a Prius or go work for a politician who is going to implement the CAFE standards, you better work for the politician. The most important thing you can do is participate in the political process. Support the environmental groups that wage legal action and lobby for these bills. Get rid of the politicians who are whoring for industry. It’s more important than recycling. It’s more important than anything you can do.
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