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For the Sake of Our Children

By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

EarthLight Magazine #52, Winter 2005



Editor's Introduction:  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has a passionate desire for a sustainable future. The economic, the political, and the personal worlds are all part of this evolving vision. So too, is our spiritual life. Kennedy views the corporate assault on the environment as "a moral assault on future generations." And he has worked tirelessly to defend and preserve the common ecological birthright of our children.

In the 1990s, Kennedy helped lead the fight to turn back the anti-environmental legislation during the 104th Congress. The New York Watershed Agreement, which he negotiated on behalf of environmentalists and New York City watershed consumers, is regarded as an international model in stakeholder consensus negotiations and sustainable development. Currently, he acts as Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Riverkeepers, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and is President of the Waterkeeper Alliance. In addition to work on environmental issues across the continent, Kennedy has assisted several indigenous tribes in Latin America and Canada in successfully negotiating treaties protecting traditional homelands.

In this article, the author warns us of the attack underway on our natural heritage, of the dangers of domination of the government by large corporations, and of the spiritual implications of our plunder of the Earth.

ó K. Lauren de Boer   

 

I have been an environmental advocate for twenty years, and Iíve been disciplined during that period about being nonpartisan in my approach to this issue. The worst thing that can happen to the environment is if it becomes the province of a single political party. Most of the environmental leaders in our country agree with me. Five years ago, if you asked the leaders of the major environmental groups in America, Whatís the gravest threat to the global environment?, they would have given you a range of answers: overpopulation, habitat destruction, global warming. Today, they will all tell you one thing: itís George W. Bush. This is the worst environmental president that we have ever had. You simply cannot speak honestly about the environment in any context today without speaking critically about this president. If you go to the Natural Resources Defense Councilís web site you will see over 400 major environmental rollbacks that have been promoted by this administration over the last three and half years. It is a concerted, deliberate attempt to eviscerate thirty years of environmental law. It is a stealth attack, one thatís been hidden from the public.

We found, in 2003, a memo from Frank Luntz, the presidentís pollster, to the president saying that if you go through with the evisceration of Americaís environmental law, you are going to alienate not just Democrats but the Republican rank and file. Eighty-one percent in both parties want clean air, they want stronger environmental laws and they want them strictly enforced. Luntz said that to the president, and he said, if we do this we have to do a stealth attack. He recommended using Orwellian rhetoric to mask this radical agenda: They want to destroy the forest, they call it the Healthy Forest Act, they want to destroy the air they call it the Clear Skies Act. Most insidiously, they have installed the worst, most irresponsible polluters in America, and the lobbyists from those companies, as the heads of virtually all the agencies and sub-secretariats and even Cabinet positions that regulate or oversee our environment. The head of the Forest Service is a timber industry lobbyist who is probably the most rapacious timber industry lobbyist in American history. The head of public lands is a mining industry lobbyist who believes that public lands are unconstitutional. The head of the Air Division at the EPA is a utility lobbyist who has represented the worst polluters in America for twenty years. The head of Superfund is a woman whose former job was advising companies how to evade Superfund. The second in command of EPA is a Monsanto lobbyistóthese are not exceptions, these are the rules across the agencies. I think itís a good idea to bring business people into government, to bring that experience and expertise. These individuals did not enter government service for the purpose of promoting the public interest, but in each of these cases, rather to subvert the very laws that they are now charged with enforcing. We are seeing the impacts of this already. This year, for the first year on record, the EPA announced that the dead zone in Lake Erieóyou remember Lake Erie was declared dead prior to Earth Day 1970óis growing. Our water in this country, according to EPA, is getting dirty for the first time since the Clean Water Act was passed.

The rollbacks from the Bush administration have affected the lives of millions and millions of Americans adversely. Consider just one industry: the coal-burning utilities. One out of every four black children in New York now has asthma. I have three sons who have asthma. We donít know why we have this epidemic of pediatric asthma, but we do know that asthma attacks are caused primarily by two components of air pollution: ozone and particulates. In the Los Angeles Times recently there was a description of a study thatís about to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows that even small amounts of ozone pollution do permanent damage to childrenís lungs. In San Bernardino, for example, ten percent of the children have lungs that are permanently damaged, that will never recover; and that lung injury precipitates in human beings a whole host of other diseases throughout their lifetime.

We know that the principal source of ozone and particulates in our air is coming from 1,100 coal-burning power plants that are burning coal illegally. They were supposed to install controls over fifteen years ago. The Clinton administration was prosecuting 75 of the worst of those plants. But this industry gave $48 million to President Bush during the 2000 campaign, and theyíve contributed $58 million since. One of the first things that President Bush did when he came to office was to order the Justice Department to drop all 75 of those suits. The Justice Department lawyers were shocked. This has never happened in our history before, where somebody running as a presidential candidate accepts money from a criminal and then lets that criminal off the hook. Many of you remember what happened when President Clinton pardoned Mark Rich and how indignant the press and the public was at that action. But Mark Rich was one person, and he never killed anybody. According to EPA, these 75 plants, just the criminal exceedences from these plants, kill 5,500 Americans every year. After letting these criminals off the hook, the president then went and rewrote the Clean Air Act, illegally we believe. Weíre suing him, weíll win the suit, but it may take ten years, and in the meantime theyíll discharge what they want.

I live in New York State. Most of the fish in New York are now unsafe to eat from mercury contamination. I live two miles from the state of Connecticut; in Connecticut every freshwater fish is now unsafe to eat. Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that in 19 states it is unsafe to regularly eat any freshwater fish, and in 48 states at least some fish are unsafe to eat. The mercury is coming, largely, from those same 1,100 coal-burning power plants. We know a lot about mercury that we didnít know five or ten years ago. We know that one out of every six American women of childbearing years now has so much mercury in her womb that her children are at risk for a grim inventory of diseases: cognitive impairment; mental retardation; autism; blindness; kidney, liver or heart disease. I have so much mercury in my body, I was told by Dr. David Carpenter, who is the national authority on mercury contamination, that if I were a woman of childbearing years and produced a child, that the child would have cognitive impairment, and, he estimated, a permanent IQ loss of five to seven points. There are 630,000 children born in this country every year who have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb.

Recognizing this threat to the American public, the Clinton administration reclassified mercury as a hazardous pollutant under the Clean Air Act; that triggered the requirement that those companies remove 90 percent of that mercury within three and a half years. It would have cost, according to EPA, less than one percent of the revenues of those plants for them to do that. Thatís a great deal for the American people, but itís still billions of dollars for that industry. Eight weeks ago, Bush announced that he was scrapping the Clinton-era rules and substituting, instead, rules that were written by the industryís lobbying firm Latham and Watkins. On their face, they say that they have to clean up, within fifteen years, 50 percent of the mercury. But theyíve woven so many loopholes into the new rule that they will literally never have to clean up. The chief lobbyist for the firm who wrote it is now the head of the Air Division at EPA.

We are living today in a science fiction nightmare, a world where, because somebody gave money to a politician, our children are brought into a world where the air is too poisonous for them to breathe. This is a world where, because somebody gave money to a politician, my children and the children of millions of other Americans can no longer enjoy the seminal, primal activities of their youthówhich is to go fishing with their father or mother and come home and eat the fish. I live two hours south of the Adirondack Mountains. This is the oldest protected wilderness area on the face of the Earth; itís been protected since the 1880s. Today, one-fifth of the lakes in the Adirondacks are sterilized from acid rain which is coming from those same coal-burning power plants, and this president has put the brakes on the statutory requirement that those companies remove the materials that are causing the acid rain.

I flew recently over the coalfields of the Appalachians. I saw something that if the American people could see there would be a revolution in this country. We are cutting down the mountains, literally cutting them down. The coal companies blow off the tops of the mountains, using 2,500 tons of dynamite in West Virginia alone every year. They fire the workers: When my father was fighting strip mining in West Virginia in 1968 there were 114,000 coal miners digging coal out of West Virginia. He told me that strip mining was not only going to destroy the economy of West Virginia in the long term but it was designed to destroy the jobs so that they didnít have to employ union labor. Now, there are only 12,000 miners left to get the same amount of coal. They do it by blowing off the tops of the mountains, and they take that rubble and they dump it into the adjacent river valley. Theyíve already covered up 1,200 miles of our streams. We are destroying, flattening this landscape that is a part of American history. Itís the source of our values, our virtues, our character as a people; the landscapes, the mountains where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed, and we are cutting them to the ground. Of course itís illegal, you cannot take rubble and debris and toxic waste and dump it into a river without a Clean Water Act permit, and the Clean Water Act could never let you get a permit to do that. So we sued. Joe Lovett, the attorney from West Virginia, sued the Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers for allowing this practice to happen. We won the lawsuit, and the judge enjoined all mountain top mining. Two days from that victory, the Bush administration rewrote the Clean Water Act to allow mountain top mining to continue forever; not only that, but changed the structure of the act so that anybody can dump rubble and debris simply by getting a rubber stamp permit from the Corps of Engineers.

If you ask the people in the White House who are promoting this legislation, Why are you doing this?, what theyíll say is: We have to choose between economic prosperity and environmental protectionóthat is a false choice. In 100 percent of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy. We want to measure our economy based upon how it produces jobs and how it preserves the value of the assets of our community. If, on the other hand, we want to do what the Bush administration has been urging us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, to convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy. But our children are going to pay for our joy ride. They are going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that are going to amplify over time and that they are never going to be able to pay. Environmental injury is deficit spending. Itís a way of loading the costs of our generationís prosperity onto the backs of our children.

There is no stronger advocate for free-market capitalism than myself. The free market spawns efficiency, and efficiency means the elimination of waste. Waste is pollution, so in a true free-market economy you would eliminate, as nearly as you can, pollution. In a true free-market economy you canít make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community. Polluters make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves by lowering the quality of life for everybody else, and they do that by escaping the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay their production cost. You show me a polluter, Iíll show you a subsidy. Corporations are externalizing machines; they are constantly trying to figure out a way to avoid their own costs and foist it out on the public.

Iíll give you an example. When the coal companies, the utilities, discharge mercury into the air they are avoiding one of the costs of bringing their products to market, which is the cost of properly disposing of a dangerous processed chemical. When they avoid the costs they can out-compete their competitors, they can out-compete gas and oil and wind power. But the costs donít disappear. They go into the fish, they make children sick, they permanently injure childrenís lungs, they put people out of work, they acidify the lakes in the Adirondacks and theyíve destroyed the forest cover of the Appalachian Mountains all the way from Georgia up into Quebec. Those impacts impose costs on the rest of us that should be reflected in the price of that product. All of the federal environmental laws are meant to restore free-market capitalism in America. I donít even consider myself an environmentalist anymore. Iím a free marketeer. I go out into the marketplace, I track down the polluters and I say to them, We are going to force you to internalize your costs the same way that youíre internalizing your profits. Americans have to understand that there is a huge difference between free-market capitalism which democratizes our country, that brings us prosperity and efficiency, and the kind of corporate crony capitalism which is as antithetical to democracy in America as it is in Nigeria.

I work a lot with farmers trying to fight industrial hog meat production, which is not only one of the primary threats to the American environment but also one of the primary threats to the American worker. Itís allowing a few monopolies to control our food supply and to put farmers out of business. Fifteen years ago there were 27,000 independent hog farmers in North Carolina, today there are none. They have been replaced completely by 2,200 hog factories, 1,600 owned or controlled by Smithfield Foods, one large corporation. They produce such huge amounts of waste they have to dispose of it illegally, and so they have to corrupt political officials in order to continue operating.

I gave a speech a group of 1,200 farmers in Clear Lake, Iowa, and I said that I am more frightened of these large multinationals than I am of Osama bin Laden. I got a standing ovation from all the farmers in the room, but I got six months of abuse from the farm bureau. I stand by what I said. Itís the same thing that Teddy Roosevelt said, that our country was too strong and too committed to ever be destroyed by a foreign enemy, but our democratic institutions would be subverted by what he called "malefactors of great wealth," who would destroy them from within. Another great Republican, Abraham Lincoln, during the heat of the Civil War in 1863, said, I have the South in front of me, and the bankers behind me and for my country, I fear the bankers more.

From the beginning of American history our greatest political leadersóThomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and Andrew Jacksonóhave warned America against allowing large corporations to dominate our political systems and our lives. Another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, the most famous speech he made was warning America against the domination by the military-industrial complex. Franklin Roosevelt said that the domination of our nation by large corporations is the definition of fascism. I have an American Heritage Dictionary, and the definition, if you look up fascism, says, "the domination of government by large corporations driven by right-wing ideology and bellicose nationalism"óthatís getting to look pretty familiar. The problem with letting large corporations dominate our government is that it erodes democracy, it erodes our capacity to participate in public life, our capacity for dignity, and it allows these entities to squander resources that belong to our children. But the thing that weíve squandered worst of all is our natural heritage: the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the wildlife, the landsóall these things that make us proud to be American. This administration has taken the conserve out of conservatism. They claim to like the free market, but what they are really embracing is corporate welfare capitalism, socialism for the rich. They claim to love property rights, but only when itís the right of a polluter to use his property to destroy his neighborís property or to destroy the public property. They claim to like law and order, but they are the first ones to let the large corporations and their corporate contributors violate the law at public expense. They claim to love local control and statesí rights, but itís only in those instances when theyíre taking down the barriers to large corporations.

They claim to embrace Christianity while violating the manifold mandates of Christianity: that we are stewards of the land, and that we are meant to care for nature. They have embraced this Christian heresy of dominion theology, which James Watt was the first to enunciate when he told the Senate, I donít think that there is any point in protecting the public lands because we donít how long the world is going to last before the Lord returns. The woman he mentored for twenty years, Gale Norton, is running the Department of the Interior.

The reason that we protect nature is because it enriches us. It enriches us economically, yes, the base of our economy, and we ignore that at our peril. But it also enriches us aesthetically and recreationally, culturally and historically, and spiritually. Human beings have other appetites besides money, and if we donít feed them weíre not going to become the kind of beings that our Creator intended. When we destroy nature we impoverish ourselves, we diminish ourselves and we impoverish our children. Weíre not protecting those ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, as Rush Limbaugh loves to say, for the sake of a spotted owl. We are protecting those forests because we believe that the trees have more value to humanity standing than they would have if we cut them down. Iím not fighting for the Hudson for the sake of the shad or the sturgeon or the stripped bass but because I believe my life will be richer; my children, my community will be richer if we live in a world where there are shad and sturgeon and striped bass in the Hudson. Commercial fishing on the Hudson is 350 years old. Many of these people come from Dutch families that learned the same fishing methods that theyíre using today from the Algonquin Indians during the Dutch colonial period. I want my children to be able to touch them when they come to shore to repair their nets or wait out the tides, and in doing that, connect themselves to New York history and understand that they are part of something larger than themselves. I donít want my children to grow up in a world where itís all Unilever and 400-ton factory trolleys 100 miles offshore strip mining the ocean with no interface with humanity, and where we have no family farmers left in America; where weíve driven the final nail into the coffin of Thomas Jeffersonís vision of an American democracy rooted in tens of thousands of freeholds owned by family farmers, each with a stake in our democracy. I donít want a world where weíve lost touch with the seasons and the tides and the things that connect us to the ten thousand generations of human beings that were here before there were laptops, and that connect us ultimately to God.

I donít believe that nature is God or that we ought to be worshiping it as God, but I do believe that itís the way that God talks to us most clearly. God talks to human beings through many vectors: through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through wise people, through art, literature, music and poetryóbut nowhere with such clarity, texture, grace and joy as through Creation. We donít know Michelangelo by looking at his biography, we know him by looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We know our Creator best by studying Creation, which all of the religious texts mandate us to do. If you look at all of the great, central epiphany in every religious tradition in mankindís history, the revelation always occurs in the wilderness. Buddha had to go into the wilderness to experience self-realization. Mohamed had to go to the wilderness of Mount Hira in 629 and wrestle an angel in the middle of the night to have the Koran squeezed out of him. Moses had to go onto the wilderness of Mount Sinai to get the Commandments. The Jews had to spend 40 years in the wilderness to purge themselves of the 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Christ had to spend 40 days in the wilderness to discover his divinity. His mentor was John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness who lived in a cave in the Jordan Valley and dressed in the skins of wild animals.

All of Christís parables are taken from nature: I am the vine; you are the branch; The Mustard Seed; the little swallows the scattering, the seeds on fallow ground. He called himself a fisherman, a farmer, a vineyard keeper, a shepherd. Thatís how he stayed in touch with the people. He was saying things to them that contradicted everything that they had heard from the literate, sophisticated people of their time. They would have dismissed him as a quack but they were able to confirm the wisdom of his parables about the fishes and the birds through their own observations of the natural world. They were able to say: Heís not telling us something new, heís simply illuminating something thatís very, very old.

When we destroy these things, weíre cutting ourselves off from the very things that make us human, that give us a spiritual life. And for these people on Capitol Hill to be saying that they are following the mandate of Christ by liquidating our public assetsówhat they are really doing is a moral affront to the next generation. Thatís why we preserve nature. Not for our sake, but for the sake of the future. That obligation is expressed by the term sustainability. All that word means is that God wants us to use the things weíve been given, to enrich ourselves, to improve our quality of life, to serve othersóbut we canít use them up. We canít sell the farm piece by piece in order to pay for the groceries; we canít drain the pond to catch the fish. We canít cut down the mountain to get at the coal. We can live off the interest; we canít go into the capital that belongs to our children.

 


 

See a review of the authorís new book, Crimes Against Nature on page 46 [of EarthLight Issue 52, Winter 2005]. This article is adapted, with permission, from a talk given at the Commonwealth Club on September 9th of this year. Questions in the sidebars are from questions asked subsequent to the authorís talk. To listen to the talk online, go to www.commonwealthclub.org.

As we go to press, the Bush Administration looks likely to reject ocean reform recommendations set forth by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy last year, despite warnings that the nation's ocean territories are facing an ecological crisis. In addition: the White House seems poised to increase logging in the Pacific Northwest; drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is yet again being brought up for a vote in Congress by the administration; a review of the Clean Air Act, one of historyís most successful environmental laws, is being brought up for review by Republican lawmakers, as are the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires that major development projects detail their effect on the environment before they can proceed.

What you can do. To track the Bush record on the environment, go to www.nrdc.org/bushrecord at the website for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where you will also find alerts, updates on victories, and opportunities for action.


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