The Man Who Would Save the World
By Vaira, Douglas
Discover why this year’s NRPA Congress & Exposition keynoter believes it’s high time to remove environmental issues from the back burner-and what he plans to do about it. If there’s anyone who is able to take the lead in resolving the environmental mess we find ourselves in now-lax regulations on drilling and pollution, a warming planet, and rapidly disappearing open space, just to cite a few examples-it’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. After all, he’s got some pretty good street cred: president of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and chief prosecuting attorney for the New-York based Riverkeeper organization, directing the charge to protect the city’s water supply.
A vocal critic of the Bush administration (Kennedy claims that the president is the number-one threat to the global environment), Kennedy has dedicated his adult life to the role of environmental protection. Along the way, his singleminded determination has earned him some flack from detractors, many of whom suggest that he could attract more flies with honey than vinegar.
But Kennedy remains resolute in his approach, arguing that the American public cares profoundly about conservation and sustainability; they’re just looking for a champion to enforce an environmental code of ethics that will guarantee clean air and water, hold corporate polluters accountable, and protect our public lands.
For the past 20 years, Kennedy, who will deliver the keynote address at next month’s NRPA Congress & Exposition in Baltimore, has advocated the adoption of a sound environmental policy, one that is good for business and for the natural world.
Parks & Recreation caught up with Kennedy to discuss the potential impact of a new administration, the role that NRPA can play in advancing environmental stewardship, and the struggle to reconnect our children with nature.
Parks & Recreation: With this being a presidential-election year, will environmental issues finally receive the attention they deserve?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I think Americans and the press and most of our political leaders have now made the connection we’ve long been urging that the environment is intertwined with all the other critical issues that concern us, starting with national security, our prosperity, jobs protection, and health care.
Our deadly addiction to oil is not just causing global warming, but it is the cause of the collapse of the American dollar, the erosion of our economy, and the entanglements that we now have with Middle Eastern dictators who hate democracy, who are despised by their own people, and who have embroiled us in a $3 trillion war that has cost America its international prestige and its moral authority.
It’s also draining us of $1 billion a day, which we’re borrowing from countries that don’t share our values to buy petroleum from countries that don’t share our values.
P&R: What can be done to intensify the public’s interest in environmental issues, both at the local and national level?
Kennedy: It’s important that people understand we’re not protecting the environment so much for the sake of the fish and the birds, but because nature is the infrastructure of our communities.
If we want to meet our obligation as a generation, as a civilization, as a nation-which is to create communities for our children that provide them with the same opportunities for dignity, enrichment, prosperity, and good health as the communities that our parents gave us-we need to start by protecting our environmental infrastructure: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wildlife, the public lands, the landscapes that connect us to our history, that provide context to our communities, and that are the ultimate source of our values and virtues and our character as a people.
P&R: The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its lack of commitment to improving the environment. Is a new administration the answer, or is that false hope?
Kennedy: I think it depends a lot on who we elect as president. I’m encouraged that both candidates are seriously making the connection between our carbon dependence and the erosion of American values, prosperity, democracy, and national security.
P&R: “Green” is widely regarded as a Democratic issue, but that hasn’t always been the case. Can the environment become a party- neutral issue?
Kennedy: It ought to be. It was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who was our greatest conservationist. Unfortunately, since that time, the modern Republican Party has torn the “conserve” out of conservatism. And that’s largely because the party is in the thralls of the largest polluters in America, who are also among the largest contributors to the Republican Party.
That’s not to say that Democrats don’t also take polluter money, but I always say that the Democrats are 75 percent corrupt and that Republicans are 90 percent corrupt, based upon the ratios of polluter money they take.
But generally speaking, it’s the Republicans whose entire agenda is being dictated by the worst corporate polluters.
P&R: In your opinion, what are environmental and conservation groups doing right today, and where are they falling short?
Kennedy: When you talk about environmental conservation groups, you’re really talking about a movement that has many parts. It’s like the Civil Rights movement or the Labor movement or any other successful progressive movement in American history. You need many different groups that take different approaches in order to bring in a diverse range of constituencies.
The Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have achieved its many accomplishments if it was just Martin Luther King. You needed Malcolm X and [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] and John Lewis and Eldridge Cleaver and all these different approaches to appeal to a variety of constituencies.
Similarly, the environmental movement has many parts that do different things. You have more conservative groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, which are happy to work with corporations and take corporate money. You have more middle-of-the-road groups, like [the Natural Resources Defense Council], which use the legal system to do enforcement.
Then you have groups like Greenpeace that are more likely to use civil disobedience and the other tools of more-radical activism. [You have] places like Waterkeeper and the Sierra Club, which focus on grassroots.
Through a collection of approaches and very talented people, [the outcome] has been generally very successful. I would not attribute the failures of the environmental movement to a failure of strategy or imagination or energy or organizational genius, but rather it’s a function of the power of the forces that we are battling.
The national advertising budget of the entire environmental movement is probably well under $ 10 million. The advertising budget for the automobile industry is $15.5 billion-that’s just one industry, one group of polluters.
If you add all the polluters together-from the oil and coal and nuclear and chemical industries-you’re talking about well over $100 billion a year that’s spent on propaganda. And that doesn’t include their lobbying budgets, which are astronomical, or their campaign contributions. In those realms, most of the environmental groups don’t even participate, because it’s illegal for charitable groups to participate in those ways in the political process.
So we’re outgunned in every theater of conflict. I would say that against those odds, the environmental [movement] has been able to get its message out with extraordinary success.
P&R: There’s little question that kids are losing touch with the outdoors today. Beyond expanding waistlines, what do we stand to lose from this disconnect?
Kennedy: There’s a terrific book that recently came out called Last Child in the Woods (Richard Louv, 2005) that documents the strong correlation between the decline in mental and physical health among American children and the divorce of this generation from hands-on contact with nature.
We have a plugged-in generation now that is experiencing unprecedented levels of obesity, depression, and anxiety disorders, and there’s a series of convincing research studies that link those ailments to the diminishing contact with the natural world.
Also, nature is the source of our spiritual values, ultimately, and it’s the source of our national values. If you look at every religious tradition, the essential epiphany always occurs in the wilderness. When we cut those roots, we risk losing a vital part of our humanity.
Traditionally, the strongest constituencies for protecting wilderness have been the people who utilize those resources.
P&R: Pro-business doesn’t normally translate to pro-environment and healthier communities. Talk a little bit about how-and why-we redefine this.
Kennedy: In 100 percent of the cases, good environmental policy is always identical to good economic policy. We should be measuring the economy based upon how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the long term and how it preserves the value of the assets in our communities.
If, on the other hand, we want to do what the current White House is urging us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, and 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 joyride with denuded landscapes, poor health, and huge clean- up costs that are going to amplify over time. Environmental injury is deficit spending; it’s a way of loading the costs of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children.
P&R: When does our culture of mass-consumption reach a boiling- over point? Or are we already there?
Kennedy: I consider it a hopeless task to change human nature and to stop people from the desire to consume. I think the increasing materialism of our society is extraordinarily destructive, but I don’t think it’s a feasible or pragmatic solution to try to persuade people to stop consuming.
What we need to do is create market rules that do what a free market is supposed to do, which is to reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and to punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste.
Right now, we have a market that is rigged to reward the least- efficient and filthiest producers, which is oil and coal and the carbon cronies and nuclear energy.
In a true free market, there’s no way that those fuel sources could prevail against their much more efficient and cheaper competitors: solar, geothermal, tidal, bio-mass, and conservation. The only way that they prevail is through giant subsidies that protect the carbon and nuclear incumbents and impede competition by more-efficient sources of energy.
I believe that a true free market would encourage us to properly value our natural resources. It’s the undervaluation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. In a true free market, you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community.
What polluters do is they make themselves rich by making everybody else poor, raising standards of living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everybody else. They do that by escaping the discipline of the free market.
You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production costs.
Corporations are externalizing machines; they’re constantly devising ways to get somebody else to pay their costs of production. If you’re in the polluting industry, the simplest way to do that is to shift your clean-up costs to the public, and make yourself a billionaire by poisoning the rest of us. And that’s what all pollution is.
As long as someone is cheating the free market, it distorts the whole marketplace, and none of us gets the advantages of the efficiency and the prosperity and the democracy that the free market otherwise promises our country.
P&R: What can participants at this year’s NRPA Congress & Exposition in Baltimore expect to take away from your keynote address?
Kennedy: I think the idea that the fight for wilderness is not an isolated fight for unspoiled places, that it is tied in with all of the battles to preserve America’s prosperity and democracy and everything that makes us proud of our country.
P&R: What role can NRPA play in advancing an environmental stewardship agenda?
Kennedy: It’s definitely something that [your members] ought to be involved in. Unfortunately, outdoor users have not been aggressive enough in protecting the public interest in wild places, and all of us need to get more organized in doing that.
Hunters, fishermen, hikers, recreationists, kayakers-if we came together, we would make the most powerful lobby in the country. Unfortunately, we have not yet done that. I hope your organization will take a role in making that happen.
Against tremendous odds, says Kennedy, the environmental movement has been able to get its message out with great success.
Don’t miss an exciting keynote address by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Wednesday, Oct. 75, at the NRPA Congress & Exposition sponsored by Landscape Structures
Douglas Vaira is executive editor of Parks & Recreation magazine. E-mail: dvaira@ nrpa.org.
Copyright National Recreation and Park Association Sep 2008
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