Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says environmental justice must transcend political partisanship.
By Amanda Griscom
At first glance, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s cluttered office at the Pace University Law School in White Plains, N.Y., seems an odd place for a member of one of the world’s most distinguished political families. Only one old photograph, of Kennedy as a boy giving a salamander to his grinning uncle, President John F. Kennedy, gives an outward indication of his family legacy, and it is unceremoniously tacked to a bulletin board next to snapshots of his children and students, and memorabilia from his Indiana Jones-style wilderness adventures.
Nearby, Kennedy’s academic credentials, diplomas with high honors from Harvard and the University of Virginia School of Law, hang crooked on the wall. Festooning other walls are prints of dappled fish, river scenes and sailboats, and portraits of St. Francis of Assisi and Lewis and Clark. Hundreds of reference books on constitutional law, ecology and economics fill floor-to-ceiling shelves. Piles of newspaper clippings, science journals and loose manuscript pages from Kennedy’s new book, Crimes Against Nature, which is his critique of the Bush administration’s environmental policies, are stacked in piles on the floor.
“You can’t talk about the environment today honestly in any context without being critical of this president,” Kennedy says, describing the mission of his book. “More than ever before in American history, the White House is allowing industries to buy clout in Washington and influence federal laws to serve their own interests.”
One of the most prominent environmental lawyers in the United States, Kennedy has fought regional pollution battles for decades as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and as a clinical professor and supervising attorney for the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University Law School.
Kennedy says we all share a fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment, and he’s as committed to protecting that privilege as his father and uncle were to advancing the civil rights movement. He thinks that just as the letter of the law helped deliver this country from deep racial inequality, the government officials who draft and enforce environmental regulations — and the public-interest lawyers and activists who keep pressure on those officials to do the right thing — are the most powerful agents in the battle for environmental good.
Any concerned citizen who wants to advance this cause, he says, must make politics a priority: “The most important thing you can do is participate in the political process — support the environmental groups that take legal action and lobby, and vote to get rid of the politicians who are whoring for industry,” Kennedy says. “It’s more important than recycling. It’s more important than anything else you can do.”
For a man who can’t go anywhere in the world without being identified first as a Kennedy and second as a visionary in his own right, it’s not surprising that Kennedy is understated about the role his family — and particularly his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 5, 1968, while campaigning to become president of the United States — have played in his life’s work. But he is proud and forthright about his mission to continue his family’s legacy of civil rights defense. “The principal issue that came to govern my father’s politics and his personal mission was civil rights,” Kennedy says, “and the environment, to my mind, is the most basic of civil rights.”
He notes that in the word “ecology,” the Greek root “eco” means “house.” Environmental issues, therefore, are essentially about how we care for our home, or the commons — the publicly owned resources, such as air, water, wildlife and fisheries, that cannot be reduced to private property. “These are resources that are not owned by governors, legislatures or corporations, but by the people,” he says. “Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others.” Kennedy adds that the most important measure of how a democracy functions is how it distributes the goods of the land, the commons. “Democracy must ensure that these public assets stay within the hands of the people.”
But protecting the commons in an age of rapid population growth and industrial expansion is a complex affair. And despite the sophisticated environmental protections that have been established in the United States, our commons are routinely exploited. Worse still, Kennedy argues, our society invariably allows the burdens of pollution to fall on the backs of the poor and minorities. To support this observation, he rattles off the following statistics:
Three out of five African-Americans and Hispanics live in communities with toxic waste sites.
The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps is on Chicago’s South Side, a predominantly Hispanic and African-American area.
The most contaminated zip code in California is in primarily Hispanic southeast Los Angeles.
300,000 mostly Hispanic farm workers are poisoned by pesticides every year.
Navajo youth have 17 times the rate of sexual organ cancer as other Americans because of the thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings dumped on their reservation land by mining companies
In addition to his legal work, Kennedy is one of the country’s most respected environmental orators and authors. Last May, during a Hollywood fundraising dinner at which he delivered a characteristically stirring speech, Kennedy helped pull in nearly $3 million in donations for NRDC. John Adams, NRDC president, says Kennedy is one of the country’s best spokespersons for the environment, in part because of his charisma. “He’s a combination of his father and his uncle,” Adams says. “He’s a strong person, with will and determination, and he’s up for anything — there’s nothing that he’s afraid to tackle.”
The May NRDC benefit is one example of Kennedy’s influence with celebrities, including Ed Begley Jr., Ted Danson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meg Ryan and Laurie David, who is married to “Seinfeld” creator Larry David, who drives a gas/electric hybrid Toyota Prius on his current TV show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“My husband and I sat down for breakfast with Bobby Kennedy, and we have not been the same since,” says Laurie David. After meeting Kennedy, she left her job as a Hollywood producer to become an environmental fundraiser. “When Bobby talks about the environment, he frames it as a civil-rights issue, a human issue, an ethical and spiritual issue. And whether he’s speaking to one individual or to an audience of thousands, he gives it the same amount of emotional intensity. You get the feeling you’re listening to a prophet.”
Part of Kennedy’s widespread appeal is his ability to position environmental issues outside the fray of partisan politics. “When Bobby talks about how bad President Bush is [on the environment], he makes a point that it is not about bashing Republicans,” says Steve Fleischli, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “I’ve seen many Republicans come up to him and say they really appreciate that he recognizes that this is not a partisan issue. It’s really about people wanting what’s best for their communities, and people expecting the best from corporate America.”
At the core of Kennedy’s message during most speeches is the idea that corporate money and influence sully politics. “The most important environmental bill of all time is Campaign Finance Reform,” he says.
Among his earlier books is The Riverkeepers, co-written with John Cronin, about the struggle to protect the Hudson River from polluters. His new Crimes Against Nature is a timely political treatise written to help foster a political awakening. “The mission of this book is to help the voting public recognize the truth,” he says. “Right now much of the public is unaware that the cornerstones of America’s environmental laws, which date back over 30 years, have been rewritten under the current administration. Simply put, today more than ever before the public interest has taken a back seat to corporate interests.”
This shift has taken a personal and professional toll, Kennedy says. “For decades, I’ve been fighting battles at a local level, protecting the interests of farmers, fishermen and their families, but in the past three years, industry has fixed those victories at the federal level. I can’t just sit by and watch this happen. It angers me to the marrow — as a lawyer, as a citizen and as a father.”
According to Fleischli, who also is an attorney, Kennedy is a successful lawyer because “he has the legal acumen to make a good argument and the passion to follow through and be persistent. He also can take an argument that might be dry and make it real, because he has a connection to the issues, to his clients and to the community. And not all judges are machines — they can read the law but they need context as well.”
One of Kennedy’s primary concerns is the struggle of traditional farmers against the rising tide of large-scale agribusiness. Kennedy dismisses the conventional wisdom that traditional farmers are disappearing because of economies of scale and the inevitable forces of globalization. “I believe if small farmers could compete head-to-head with industrial farming, the traditional farmers would come out on top,” he says. “But the game is fixed — it’s fixed by the federal government and the USDA, which have implemented policies and huge subsidies that benefit the top multinational factory farms and help them dominate the markets.”
According to Kennedy, the federal Clean Water Act requires industrial meat factories, as it requires cities, to treat sewage before discharging it into waterways or onto the land, but the law is not always enforced. These massive pork, poultry and cattle operations confine large numbers of animals in cramped, unnatural conditions, producing huge amounts of manure: For example, one hog produces 10 times more fecal waste than one person, so a hog factory with 100,000 animals produces waste equal to a city of a million people. The largest confinement livestock companies often beat the system by locating their facilities in poor, rural states where they can easily dominate the political landscape.
“Again, these industrial facilities could not compete against traditional family farmers if they had to actually treat their waste,” he says, adding that some progress is being made. He cites his current court battle against a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest hog-raising company, on the grounds that it’s violating the Clean Water Act and federal solid waste law. Also, he cites another of his cases, on behalf of North Carolina fishermen who suffer from exposure to Pfiesteria piscicida, a hog-factory-connected microbe. The microbe kills fish and causes lesions, severe respiratory illness and brain damage in humans who handle contaminated fish or swim in contaminated waters.
When he’s not on the lecture circuit, or in the courtroom or classroom, Kennedy is usually at home with his family. He and his wife, Mary, live with their six children on the shores of a 30-acre lake in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Four pet peacocks wander the woods surrounding the house. And a barn in the back yard houses two Harris’ hawks that nest in the rafters, and chickens in a coop.
Despite his bucolic home setting, Kennedy struggles with environmental concerns there, too. Three of his children suffer from chronic asthma. “I watch my kids gasping for breath on bad air days,” he says. “Asthma rates in the United States have doubled again over the last five years. We don’t know why we’re having this explosion of pediatric asthma. We do know that the source of half of the pollution in New York’s air is a handful of outmoded coal plants in the Ohio Valley that are burning coal illegally.” Under the Clean Air Act, these plants are supposed to install state-of-the-art emissions-control equipment whenever they expand or upgrade their facilities, Kennedy says, but few of them do. The Bush administration attempted to exempt the plants from the equipment-upgrade rule, but even after a federal court of appeals blocked this effort, the administration has dragged its feet on prosecuting the polluting culprits.
Mercury pollution is another issue Kennedy deals with at home: Most of the fish his family catch in the rivers near their home are unsafe to eat because of high mercury levels — public health officials now warn it is unsafe to eat freshwater fish in most of New York, and all of Connecticut; 38 other states from Wisconsin to Florida also have issued warnings against eating locally caught fish because of mercury pollution. Eating mercury-contaminated fish can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and neurological damage, especially among children and pregnant women. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 40 percent of mercury emissions in the United States come from coal-burning power plants.
Outraged by the mercury warnings in his state, Kennedy recently had himself tested and discovered toxic mercury levels in his body. “If I were a pregnant woman, my child would have cognitive impairment — permanent IQ loss,” he says. “That’s what Dr. David Carpenter of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany told me. I asked Dr. Carpenter, ‘You mean might have?’ He said ‘No, the science is pretty certain that those levels would impact a baby’s IQ.’” The EPA estimates that one out of every six American women carries unsafe levels of mercury in her blood, putting 630,000 newborns a year at risk of IQ loss, blindness and autism. Adults with high exposure to mercury, mainly from eating contaminated fish, are at risk of kidney failure, tremors, heart disease, severe liver damage and even death. Kennedy criticizes the Bush administration’s plan to weaken rules intended to dramatically reduce mercury emissions, and postpone the compliance date. (For more information on mercury pollution, visit cta.policy.net.)
A devout Catholic, Kennedy says protecting the environment has to ultimately be a spiritual and moral issue, too. “I believe humans are hard-wired to compete, consume and ultimately destroy the planet,” he says. “That biological urge can only be transcended with a spiritual fire. People have to recognize that our obligation to the rest of the planet demands sacrifice, demands sublimating our biological drives, which otherwise guide most of our decisions.”
Kennedy names St. Francis of Assisi as the most influential hero of his youth. “St. Francis saw nature as the vector by which God communicates with human beings most clearly,” he says. “I began to see at a very early age that if we destroy nature, we destroy our connection to God.”
Although Kennedy promotes political activism as the best way for concerned citizens to make a difference, he agrees that personal actions can complement and reinforce that effort. “It’s important for all of us to practice an environmental ethic in our everyday lives, and I try to do it as best I can,” he says.
But he does not feel inclined to promote or discuss those choices, saying to do so would distract from the real issues. “Industry wants us reading books that list 50 things you can do to help the environment because that distracts you from the things you ought to be doing, which are joining an environmental group, voting for politicians who support the environment and fighting against the lobbyists on Capitol Hill.”
Kennedy applauds consumers who buy, for example, hybrids and other fuel-efficient automobiles (he drives a Chrysler Voyager minivan — among the most fuel-efficient vehicles with room for his family), but argues that the environmental benefits of such a decision pale in comparison to the efforts of those who stand up to the auto industry’s lobbyists and encourage Congress to pass standards that would require every car in the United States to get at least 40 miles per gallon. “If your choice is to buy a hybrid or go work for a politician who is going to increase industry-wide fuel economy standards, you better work for the politician,” Kennedy says.
It may seem surprising that Kennedy has not chosen to become a public official himself — he clearly has the necessary credentials and potential endorsements. “He would make an absolutely first-rate political leader because he is totally honest, and incorruptible on these issues,” the NRDC’s Adams says. “The country would be better off if we had a few people like Bobby Kennedy [in office].”
But for the moment, Kennedy says he’s immensely content spending time with his family and working as an attorney, teacher and activist from his cluttered office. “My family and my political upbringing have definitely played an important role in what I do,” he says. “But I do what I do because I love it. I don’t think I’m making a sacrifice to do this; I feel privileged every single day from the moment I wake up.”
In his new book, Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and his Corporate Pals are Plundering the Country and Hijacking our Democracy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. explains why environmental protection transcends partisan politics. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Earlier this year I was invited to speak at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Conn. It was the club’s annual meeting — always well attended — and as I stepped to the podium I looked out over a sea of skeptical faces, the faces of affluent conservatism.
I spoke for an hour — about why the environment and a healthy democracy are intertwined, and about the way that President Bush is allowing certain corporations to destroy our country’s most central values. I pulled no punches, and I got a standing ovation.
A month before, I got a similar response at the Woman’s Club of Richmond, Va., where someone boasted that no member had voted for a Democrat since Jefferson Davis. They told me it was the first standing ovation there in 38 years. Earlier that week I had spoken at an oil-industry association meeting in the Northwest, and I received an equally enthusiastic response.
I got these reactions not because I’m a great speaker (I’m not), but because I talked about the values that define our community and make us proud to be Americans — shared values that are being stolen from us. Those oil executives, Richmond Republicans and Round Hill Club members have the same aspirations for their children as I have for mine: clean air and water, robust health, beautiful landscapes in which to play and grow and be inspired, and a community that stands for something good and noble.
I want to be very clear here: This book is not about a Democrat attacking a Republican administration. During my two decades as an advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance, I’ve worked hard to be nonpartisan. The fishermen and farmers whom I represent as an attorney run the political spectrum, and I’ve supported both Democrats and Republican leaders with sound environmental agendas.
Moreover, I don’t believe there are Republican or Democratic children. Nor do I think that it benefits our country when the environment becomes the province of one party, and most national environmental leaders agree with me. But today, if you ask those leaders to name the greatest threat to the global environment, the answer wouldn’t be overpopulation, or global warming, or sprawl. The nearly unanimous response would be George W. Bush. You simply can’t talk honestly about the environment without criticizing this president. George W. Bush will go down as the worst environmental president in our nation’s history. In a ferocious three-year attack, his administration has launched more than 300 major rollbacks of U.S. environmental laws, rollbacks that are weakening the protection of our country’s air, water, public lands and wildlife.
Such attacks are hardly popular. National polls consistently show that more than 80 percent of the American public — with little difference between Republican and Democrat — want our environmental laws strengthened and strictly enforced.
But this book is ultimately about more than the environment. It’s about the corrosive effect of corporate cronyism on free-market capitalism and democracy — core American values that I cherish. There are, of course, good and even exemplary corporations in every sector. But corporations, no matter how well intentioned, should not be running the government.