He’s cleaning up America, one river at a time

May 14, 2008


By Bill Newcott

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s obsession with rivers has its headwaters in the mid-1960s, when he and his famous dad paddled along the towering walls of the Grand Canyon. Now 54 and chief prosecuting attorney for the Riverkeeper environmental alliance, he goes after river polluters nationwide with a vengeance…and returns to the Colorado River in the new IMAX movie Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk.

Q: Why is the Grand Canyon at risk? “Forty-five years ago, when my dad and I went down in some military-surplus pontoon rafts, we were told that we were within the first couple of hundred people who had ever been down the Grand Canyon. Before the Glen Canyon Dam was built upstream from the canyon in the 1960s, you still had these big sandbars, and we camped on them. There were eight native fish that had a healthy population; four of those are now extinct, and the others are on their way to extinction. There were colonies of mammals—beavers, muskrats, otters—that have disappeared.”

Q: What happened? “The thing that’s destroying the Grand Canyon is not the visitors. It’s the friggin’ dams. The Glen Canyon Dam at the Glen Canyon reservoir took what was a warm river and turned the Grand Canyon into a big plumbing conduit, a cold-water canal between reservoirs.”

Q: Don’t we need the dams to protect against water shortages? “There’s enough water for everybody, but it’s being allocated to benefit a few utilities and developers, building golf courses and growing rice in the desert.”

Q: Are our environmental laws too lax? “We have very good environmental laws in this country. If we enforced them, we probably wouldn’t have environmental problems.”

Q: Where did you get the inspiration to become an environmentalist? “My father was an environmentalist, and so was my uncle—President Kennedy. He tried to launch the first Earth Day in 1962, but people wanted to focus on nuclear disarmament and other issues.”

Q: Are tourists “loving” our national parks to death? “Human beings are a part of nature. I spent time in the rain forests of Hawaii, and I have to say I was a little bit bored because there are no people in them. The rain forest I want to be in is the one that has human beings in it, so you can see human beings interacting with nature. I love to camp on an island in the Hudson and see the same blue silhouette of the Catskills that Henry Hudson saw when he came up in the Half Moon in 1609. I see the boatmen, the water-skiers, the big freighters. And I think, ‘You know, the Hudson is big enough for everybody.’ ”

Q: What can people do? “Get involved in the political process, and get rid of all these rotten politicians who are indentured servants to the big polluters. And I’m talking about Democrats and Republicans alike!”

Wake Them Up With a Splash

March 14, 2008

Outdoor Magazine

How to bring the world’s freshwater woes into focus? Try 3-D. On one of the most ambitious Imax projects to date, 44 river warriors including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Wade Davis go sloshing down the Grand Canyon—and try not to drop the million-dollar cameras into the drink.

By Michael Roberts

HE RAFTED THE GRAND CANYON lying on a mattress.

Greg MacGillivray, 62, had concluded that this was the only way he could make his movie. He was suffering from a herniated disk and unable to endure the spinal compression that comes with sitting upright while boinging down Class IV and V rapids. So the veteran Imax director went to Home Depot and bought a waterproof chaise lounge mattress designed for the rigors of outdoor barbecues and mounted it in the bow of a guided raft, adding straps for his arms and legs so he wouldn’t be bucked into the Colorado. On September 13, 2006, he put in to the river at Lees Ferry as the grinning figurehead of one of the largest expeditions in modern Grand Canyon history.

Forty-four team members in eight rafts, six kayaks, and two wooden dories started downriver that day. Led by guide Regan Dale, they were packing some 10,000 pounds of gear, including 20 cameras, 57 miles of 70mm film, 600 eggs, and 200 loaves of bread. Concealed in cameraman Doug Lavender’s lens case were bottles of Grey Goose and Johnnie Walker. MacGillivray’s four Imax cameras included two massive, boxy 3-D models, each worth a million dollars and weighing 350 pounds. It took at least four people to lift one.

The group included elite paddlers Steve Fisher, Anthony Yap, Rush Sturges, and other pros from the Teva Tribe (the shoe brand was a principal funder for the project), and a Park Service ranger who helped them avoid fragile areas. While they were granted a special permit to combine motorized and nonmotorized craft, they were forbidden to spend more than two nights at any campsite or to backtrack upriver, which meant they had to get their shots right the first time and move on. (Given that it costs $40 a second to shoot in 3-D, this wasn’t an entirely unwelcome situation.)

MacGillivray’s goal was to create an enthralling adventure story that would lure millions into those steep Imax theaters so he could terrify—and motivate—them with the stark realities of America’s growing water crisis. To boost the film’s pop appeal, he asked Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard to compose the soundtrack (see “Rockin’ the Boat,” page 106) and signed up two charismatic environmental advocates: Waterkeeper Alliance chairman and NRDC senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and anthropologist-explorer-author Wade Davis. Both experienced river runners—Kennedy, a kayaker, has made first descents of several remote rivers in South America, and Davis is a licensed whitewater guide in his native British Columbia—they are known for their passionate defenses of wild places. Their role was to articulate the ominous challenges facing rivers across the West, but especially the Colorado, a once vibrant waterway tamed by massive dams and endangered by thirsty crops and sprawling development. To add character appeal to the story (or maybe to keep the guys’ orating habits in check), MacGillivray also invited their oldest daughters.

The result, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, rolls out in mid-March. In December, I sat down with MacGillivray, Kennedy, and Davis in Washington, D.C., to talk about the pleasure and pain of the trip, America’s scary freshwater problems, and the solutions that are within our grasp—if we can just commit to them.

OUTSIDE: Rat on each other: Who fought on the river? Who was the crybaby?

DAVIS: It’s embarrassing to say, but everything went remarkably smoothly. On river expeditions, there’s generally a point when things begin to unravel. But in this case, it was almost effortless.

MACGillivray: There was that time Jack Tankard jumped into the fire.

OUTSIDE: !?!?!

MACGILLIVRAY: He was one of our trusted cameramen and that crazy guy everyone falls in love with. He’d write music and perform it at the drop of a hat—and he’s unique, let’s say. So, yeah, one night he fell into the campfire. It was out, but the coals were still warm. He didn’t really feel much pain. He’d, uh, had a few drinks.

DAVIS: In retrospect, this trip was quite a gamble. You take Bobby and his daughter Kick, myself and my daughter Tara, and put us all together, and none of us knew each other. If for some reason there had been a personality clash, it would have been impossible to hide. But Tara and Kick are now bosom buddies, and Bobby and I found out that it was almost a miracle that our lives haven’t intersected before.

KENNEDY: I had owned a whitewater company that did first descents all over Latin America, and I’d lived in Indian villages. When Wade and I started talking, we figured out that we had been in the same river valley in Colombia at the same time. We’d probably been the only two white people there at the time.

DAVIS: On this trip, part of the joy was the challenge of dealing with all the equipment. Carrying a 350-pound camera to the top of a 1,000-foot wall was certainly a bonding experience.

MACGILLIVRAY: That was remarkable. About eight people, including Wade and Bobby, lugged that thing for an hour and a half up switchbacks—with all the accessories, all the batteries, all the magazines of film. We strapped it to the cliff and left it there overnight, then went back up for another shot the next morning.

OUTSIDE: Wade, you’ve descended dozens of rivers, but this was your first run down the Colorado. How does it compare?

DAVIS: It’s so unrelenting—one cataract after another. My highlight was probably Lava Falls, which I’d been hearing about forever. When I floated the idea that I’d like to take a crack at rowing Lava, Greg lit up and said, “That’s cool—we can film it!” But I had no idea what he had in mind. I woke up the next morning and they were rigging this Rube Goldberg contraption for mounting the Imax 3-D camera right behind my head. There was another great moment when we were all at a spot called Redwall Cavern and suddenly this storm gathered. You study the geology of the canyon and you read Thoreau writing about the gentle movement of wind upon rock, and then you suddenly see a flash flood for the first time and you see that this is not about anything gentle.

KENNEDY: There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was pouring rain. Waterfalls started bursting off the sides of the canyon, but they were brown.

DAVIS: Brown and kicking off stones with these explosions. It was really wild.

OUTSIDE: Bobby, you first ran the Colorado 40 years ago with your family. How different is the river today?

KENNEDY: When we took our trip in ’67, Lake Powell was just filling up, so the river was still turbid and warm. There were eight species of native fish—now there are only four. A lot of the mammals that lived near the river then, like the otter and the muskrat, are gone. We went down with a large group and camped on these giant sandbars, and now most of those are gone. The Colorado has been degraded from this monument to America’s heritage into a glorified plumbing system that connects these two big reservoirs. It’s lost a lot of its natural values. And it’s being sucked dry. What’s happening to the Colorado is a warning of what’s happening to the whole desert West.

DAVIS: There’s a historical genesis to all this. The entire western reach of this country was known as the Great American Desert, and many parts are still as dry as the Sahara. But as the frontier moved west, suddenly, instead of speaking about the “desert,” we were speaking about the “Great Basin.” We thought we could impose this Jeffersonian ideal of each man to a farm on the western landscape. That’s what John Wesley Powell found so ridiculous. And if you look at the Grand Canyon from space now, you’ll see the Painted Desert and the reservoirs on the river. What you won’t see is cultivated farmland. We’ve ruined every river in the arid West but have only managed to cultivate an area the size of Missouri.

OUTSIDE: And nobody is facing up to this problem?

KENNEDY: I don’t see any sign it’s being dealt with in ways that are commensurate with the crisis in the West, and particularly the Southwest. There’s new sprawl development everywhere.

DAVIS: With the Colorado, you’ve really got to deal with water rights. The annual flow estimates were made in the 1920s, and we now know that those were unseasonably wet years and that the flow was overestimated by at least three million acre feet when it was partitioned between the states. And now they’re all scrambling to maintain their share.

OUTSIDE: How does global warming affect the crisis?

DAVIS: Water is intricately linked to climate change. And all current climate models suggest that we are entering a period of profoundly lower flows in the Colorado. We are not in a drought—drought is a misnomer.

KENNEDY: The hotter it gets, the larger the water crisis is going to become. When you ask people who are promoting development how we can go on, they think we’ll end up getting water from Canada, that these huge engineering projects are going to rescue us. That just isn’t realistic. If you had to go to Las Vegas and place a bet that we can rely on the Canadians to save us—well, it’s not a good bet.

MACGillivray: Some people might not really wake up to change until the water company says, “Folks, you’ve got to use half as much water, and guess what? We’re going to double the cost.”

KENNEDY: Or until the water dries up at the Bellagio.

OUTSIDE: Tell me some good news.

KENNEDY: In some specific areas things have gotten better. The discharge of raw sewage has largely stopped. And if you look at the technologies that are available today, it’s really exciting. Right now in New York City, you’ve got 50 buildings costing $25 million each being constructed, and all of them are green. We can preserve the countryside by having the municipalities grow upward, not outward, and we can preserve existing water supplies and even accommodate a lot more people than we have today.

DAVIS: Like all great issues, water will find its moment. It took us years to get to a point where people recognized that climate change existed and was a serious challenge. Social change happens that way. Al Gore could have easily released An Inconvenient Truth four years ago and just provoked more Al Gore jokes.

KENNEDY: The people of our country want to be mobilized. They want to feel they’re participating in something greater than themselves. We have extraordinary opportunities to do that right now just by making a few tiny changes in how the market functions. New York City only installed water metering in the nineties. For 150 years, if you left your water running all day, you didn’t get charged. Now the city’s saved hundreds of millions of dollars because there’s less water going into the sewers.

DAVIS: If we manage to green the economy, you’re going to see a level of wealth that will make the dot-com thing look like a blip. It’s going to be a total transformation of the urban-rural landscape. Every single thing we engage in is going to be replaced. That’s our great hope: American ingenuity, entrepreneurial energy, greed—whatever you want to call it.

KENNEDY: Just let people make money doing good things. Stop subsidizing the most wasteful resource users and give renewables an even shot. We have the scientific capacity to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming. The question is, do we have the political will?

MACGILLIVRAY: That’s why the big important message at the end of the film is to vote. Don’t just sit on the side and be pessimistic about government and your choices. Actually try to effect change.


In a career spanning 40-plus years, director Greg MacGillivray has worked on 34 giant-screen projects and taken Imax cameras to the top of Everest and hundreds of feet below the surface of the South Pacific. For Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, he spent about $8 million (roughly 1/25 the cost of The Golden Compass) and followed a proven method to success.

1. Bring Two of Everything

That includes the 350-pound Imax 3-D cameras. MacGillivray didn’t ever plan to use both at once, but he wanted an extra just in case. The film team packed the million-dollar machines in watertight plastic boxes, and when it was time for an action shot they simply fastened one to a raft and hoped for the best. Neither camera got hurt, though one lens suffered $12,000 of damage.

2. Hire Multitaskers

MacGillivray’s film crew consisted of just ten people. His assistant director, Brad Ohlund, was also the director of photography. “It’s better to work with a small, talented crew for a longer time than rush things with a giant team,” he says.

3. Know the Flow

Two years before the trip, the director and his wife, Barbara, ran the Colorado on their own, scouting and taping locations. “You have to work out every move ahead of time,” he says. “You can’t waste a setup.”

4. But Don’t Plan It All

“It’s a documentary—you don’t really know where you’ll get your best stuff,” says MacGillivray. He planned 50 percent of his shooting locations—the rest of the time, he reacted to conditions.

5. Think Fast, Move Slow

Every morning on the river, MacGillivray and lead guide Regan Dale, from Angels Camp, California–based outfitter OARS, went over hazards. Safety is a big concern for the filmmaker, who in 1976 saw his business partner Jim Freeman die in a helicopter crash on location. “If you move slowly and cautiously, you can avoid injuries. On this trip, we didn’t have any.”

Vanity Fair presents its first “Green Issue”

May 14, 2006

Vanity Fair

Beginning an “increased commitment to reporting on the threat to our precious environment,” says editor Graydon Carter. The May cover features a quartet of eco–power players, capturing Hollywood glamour and activist passion: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Al Gore, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

A natural devotion

March 15, 2005

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s faith inspired his children’s book
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. — The first sign of devotion to St. Francis is right there in the driveway, a small statue on a stone wall standing like a sentry in front of the Kennedy home.

There’s another statue in the backyard where four peacocks roam, a set of illustrations depicting scenes from Francis’s life upstairs, and an icon in the den stashed among the water buffalo skull and the taxidermal blowfish and the dried skin of the giant anaconda that was beheaded in Colombia for eating a pet deer.

But the Franciscan iconography is just the most visible manifestation of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s devotion to the popular saint, a childhood hero transmitted from famous father to famous son beginning with that middle initial, F, for Francis.

Today, at 51, Kennedy is a big-shot environmental lawyer, a charismatic figure who dances on the edge of New York state politics, and who is now, for the first time, the author of a children’s book, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi.

Kennedy inherits his public side from his fabled family — he is, of course, one of 11 children left fatherless in 1968 when his dad, Robert F. Kennedy, was gunned down while running for president. He is a nephew of President John F. Kennedy, assassinated five years earlier, and of Edward M. Kennedy, who has represented Massachusetts in the US Senate since 1962.

But there is a private side as well, a deeply devout Catholic who attends daily Mass, a blue state Democrat who prays nightly with his wife and six children and who doesn’t need a consultant to help him talk passionately and convincingly about the role of faith in his life, a thoroughly modern man who is unashamed to talk about his old-world devotion to saints.

”At this point we’re being sold role models like Donald Trump — television is saying this is a guy that we ought to be apprenticing for and modeling our lives after,” Kennedy said in an interview in the sprawling home here he acquired 21 years ago. ”I think we need some positive role models as well, that stress what’s important about life — that we’re not just materialistic beings, we’re not just biological beings, we are spiritual beings as well. . . . It’s tough living with one foot in the spiritual world and another foot in the material world, and the saints were people who showed us how to do that.”

For Kennedy, the obvious role model is St. Francis, who in the early 13th century gave up a life of privilege to devote his life to preaching to the poor, and who has been designated the patron saint of ecology because of a deep connection to nature represented in stories that recount Francis preaching to birds.

Kennedy has devoted his own professional life to environmental protection, particularly as a fierce advocate for safeguarding New York’s Hudson River. But he also has a deep connection to animals, particularly birds. As a child, Kennedy wanted to be a veterinarian; at 10, he picked up his fascination with falconry by reading T.H. White’s ”The Goshawk.” Today he trains and hunts with red-tailed hawks, keeps an owl in his den, and is licensed to operate a wildlife refuge from his house, where he nurses injured and orphaned animals and birds back to health. Animals are everywhere, alive and deceased — his property includes a mew, where hawks sleep, and a garage in which, on a recent visit, were the skin of a coyote that had been run over nearby and the shell of a leatherback turtle sent to Kennedy by his mother, Ethel. Kennedy said his mother’s brothers were all hunters and fishermen; he confesses some conflictedness about his own willingness to kill and eat animals, saying, ”I’ve kind of reconciled myself to the idea that an animal has given its life so that I can have a meal, but I’m ambivalent about it.”

”To me, the environmental work is spiritual work — we have a biological drive to consume the planet, to compete, and ultimately to destroy what God has created, and that can only be overcome with a spiritual fire,” Kennedy said. ”I don’t think nature is God, or that we ought to be worshiping it as God, but I do believe it’s the way that God communicates to us most forcefully.”

Devotion to social justice
The estate where Kennedy grew up, Hickory Hill in Virginia, had a lot of Franciscan iconography, Kennedy said. Today not only does he have the statues and pictures, but his children each join him in reciting the prayer of St. Francis every night.

”Francis is the obvious saint for me because . . . he’s a patron saint for me and for my family really, and I’m named after Francis,” Kennedy said. ”His love for animals and wildlife is something that resonated with me from when I was a little kid, and then also, his devotion to social justice issues essentially is something that continues to have appeal to me.”

Kennedy’s book, titled simply ”Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy,” is being published this month by Hyperion Books for Children. The illustrator, Dennis Nolan, lives in Williamsburg, Mass., just north of Northampton, and teaches illustration at the University of Hartford. When Disney called Nolan to ask him to work on the book, it turned out the illustrator was about to leave to lead a painting workshop in Assisi, which was Francis’s hometown.

Kennedy sees Francis as a historical figure who challenged both an out-of-touch church hierarchy and the influence of fundamentalism on the broader culture — two issues he believes are very much present today.

”At the level of the hierarchy, at least in this country, what’s happened to the Catholic Church has been disheartening to me, particularly with the pedophile scandals,” Kennedy said. ”I don’t even blame the priests who were doing this, because they’re pathetic creatures, but I do blame the bishops who were moving them around. . . . And then, when the whole thing exploded, some of these fellas put their own careers ahead of the institution, after putting the institution ahead of people, and that was really dismaying for a lot of Catholics who believe that the church is supposed to embody the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

As he talked about the Catholic Church today, Kennedy leaned forward on his couch. He said he is content to focus on elements of the church that he loves, and that he considers many priests to be role models, but he is impatient with the church’s leadership. Kennedy, who describes himself as ”pro-life,” appears particularly incensed by the argument put forward by some Catholic bishops that last year’s Democratic nominee for president, Senator John Kerry, should have been denied Communion because of his support for abortion rights. ”The debate was a silly one, to try to deprive people of their opportunity to get closer to God, when we should be encouraging people to get closer to God, and to commune with the community,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy describes his parents as ”extremely devout.” (”We went to Mass daily from when we were kids, sometimes twice.”) He says his parents had their children say daily prayers, grace before and after meals, read from the Bible, and attend retreats.

A recovered heroin addict, Kennedy describes his piety as a necessary way to keep himself on the right path. ”I don’t do it because I’m a holy person or a particularly good person, but because I’ve got a constant struggle going on in my head between doing good things and bad things, and I need a lot of help in order to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis,” he said when asked why he attends daily Mass.

Kennedy, who has written books about the environment for adults, said he decided to write a children’s book because he wanted something to read to his kids and he couldn’t find a good book about saints. He is among an increasing number of celebrities who have tried their hands at children’s books in recent years, including two of his first cousins, Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

Children are everywhere in the Kennedy house — the youngest, 3-year-old Aidan, sports a red streak of makeup on his forehead so he can look like Harry Potter, and points visitors to the owl, named Hedwig, after Harry’s loyal pet. The house features a mix of memorabilia, including a stuffed Sumatran tiger shot by Sukarno and presented to Kennedy’s father; a shrinelike table with photos of the late Michael Kennedy, who died in a skiing accident in 1997, and John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999; a hallway lined with letters signed by famous Americans including Henry Clay, Andrew Johnson, John Tyler, and Earl Warren; and a stack of videos ranging from ”The Little Mermaid” to ”Pirates of the Caribbean.”

”The more I learn about fatherhood, the less I know,” said Kennedy, whose children range in age from 3 to 20. ”One of the central functions for me of parenthood is to try to imbue children with noble thoughts and heroic thoughts, and I think that you’ve got to give them role models who acted heroically during their lives and made sacrifices.”

Environmental Justice

October 14, 2004

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says environmental justice must transcend political partisanship.

Link >

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.”

Civil Rights

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

Inspiring and Fearless

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.”

Beyond Partisan Politics

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.

Family and Faith

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.”

Putting Ethics Into Practice

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.”

Kennedy in His Own Words

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.

HEROES FOR THE PLANET: In Search of the Beauty and Mystery of Home

August 2, 1999


By Roger Rosenblatt | Hudson, N.Y.

Since the plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. went down on July 16, observations about the Kennedys have mainly connected the family with calamity and grief. But the environmental work of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his partner, John Cronin, remind one that the Kennedys are more lastingly characterized by public service. In May I went out with Kennedy and Cronin on New York’s revitalized Hudson River, a fluid monument to the devotion so many Kennedys have felt for the country.

What we will see on the river, John Cronin tells me, is the past, present and future–“what we have been fighting against and fighting for.” The against comes first. On a late-spring morning full of sunshine and blue water, we push off in a 26-ft. sportfishing boat used by Cronin’s watchdog group, Riverkeeper Inc., to patrol the Hudson. Heading north, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, we see the Lovett Power Station on the west bank. The old, dark, brick coal-, gas- and oil-burning tangle of structures looks like a giant outdoor furnace. Beside it is a quarrying operation that once dumped a load of sand and gravel from a conveyor belt into Cronin’s boat while he was in it, to discourage scrutiny.

“We were so dumb,” he laughs. “We watched the belt swing over our heads, never suspecting what they were going to do.”

On the east side is a plant that uses gypsum to make Sheetrock and that, thanks to Riverkeeper, has done a cleanup. Just beyond it rise Units 2 and 3 of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Two mosquelike domes flank a sky-high smokestack painted in red and white stripes. It looks like a lighthouse that has been converted into a festive nuclear missile. Beyond that, at Charles Point, lies a garbage-burning plant, which turns trash into energy.

All the plants, says Cronin, are located in exactly the wrong part of the river–the broad, shallow heart of the estuary that serves as a nursery for striped bass, bay anchovies and American shad. The plants suck in water with great force; Indian Point alone uses a million gallons a minute. Fish small enough to slip through the meshes are killed at once. Larger fish are impaled on the screens and killed or maimed. Riverkeeper has forced Indian Point to install $25 million worth of fish-saving equipment, and in 1994 the group successfully sued to make the Environmental Protection Agency set official safety standards for power plants.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr