H2O Radio
Robert F Kennedy, Jr. Environment
Democracy, Environmental Justice, and Protecting the Public Commons
RFKJr_WebSq2The environmental movement struggles daily to protect waterways, keep air clean, and ultimately stop the destruction of our planet. All over the globe people are organizing. For example, in North Carolina they work to mitigate pollution from industrial hog farms; in India citizens fight to keep garbage from being tossed into the Yamuna River; and, in China organizers try to find solutions to stop coal pollution. All of these localized efforts are part of a larger global attempt to create sustainable environments.

What they each have in common is their requirement for success: a fully functioning democracy.

H2O Radio's Jamie Sudler and Frani Halperin had a conversation with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., about the overarching issue facing the environmental movement.


Jamie: When we think about the environmental movement today we might have preconceived notions it’s about saving whales, protecting spotted owls, or cleaning up polluted rivers.

Frani: What we don’t expect to think about: Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution and fairness but according to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., that’s precisely where the conversation needs to go to have a sustainable future on the planet.

Jamie: We met with the longtime environmental attorney and president of Waterkeeper Alliance, at the organization’s annual meeting in Boulder, Colorado to talk about the environment, democracy, and why the two are indivisible.

PullQuoteRFKJr3 Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: The best measure of how a democracy functions is how it distributes the goods of the land. How it distributes the commons. Those assets; the air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries, the public lands, the aquifers, the beaches, the shorelines, the rivers, those assets that cannot be reduced to private property ownership, but by their nature are owned by the whole community.

And the function of the government is to allocate...to make sure that everybody gets to use those resources. Nobody can use more than their share. Nobody can privatize those resources, and turn them into private profit. Everybody, whether you're black or white, rich or poor, humble or noble, everybody should be able to go down to their local river pull out a fish, and bring it home and feed it to their family.

And the big battle that you see in a democracy are efforts by powerful private entities within the society to privatize the public trust, to steal the air by polluting it, to steal the water and fisheries by dumping their waste into our rivers and streams.

And what a democracy...one of the principal functions of democracy is to make sure that those assets stay in the hands of all of the public. And today as you see huge concentrations of and aggregations in the energy sector and the agricultural sector, which are the biggest polluting sectors, and the pharmaceutical of course, you also see those same aggregations of power occurring in our political system.

One of the reasons Thomas Jefferson was fixated on keeping America an agricultural economy is because he thought that the only way to preserve democracy was if you had tens of thousands of yeomen farmers each with a stake in our political process who were also the backbone of the economy, that you would have a democracy that was fully functioning. In other words he felt that we had to create a middle class, that the major producers in a society had to be spread.. had to be diverse and had to be spread across a large and pluralistic base. And you know democracy and human rights and civil rights and all the values that we cherish as a nation that are embodied in our Constitution are tied up in the way that we allocate the resources of the environment.

Frani: Has the environmental justice movement always been important to Waterkeeper Alliance?

PullQuoteRFKJr2 RFK, Jr.: From the beginning, in fact my first case with Hudson Riverkeeper was a case in which the co-plaintiff was the NAACP, and it was a case involving the construction of a highway, the proposed construction of a highway, on the Hudson River that would have been on pilings on the river and then it would come, it would have come to shore in a community in Ossining, New York that was one of the oldest black communities north of the Mason Dixon Line. It was really an extraordinary community, and a cohesive community, and it was picked to come ashore there because these were people who didn’t have the political power.

And throughout my career as an environmental attorney I’ve found that story again and again. Four out of every five toxic waste dumps in America is in a black neighborhood. And where does the landfill go and where does the sewage treatment plant go. And where do we put these obnoxious facilities? The fact is that we are putting them in the poorest neighborhoods, and we’re putting them in the neighborhoods where people have no political power.

Jamie: What do you view right now as the major upcoming issues as far as the Alliance is concerned and just water in general?

RFK, Jr.: Well you know the primary issue is always intertwined with the way we use energy. You know we find that agriculture and energy are two kind of big issues and the agriculture we target primarily the industrialization of agriculture and factory farming of meat. And then on the energy side we target carbon. What we do essentially is we try to force the carbon incumbents to internalize the cost of their energy production, much of which lands in the water. Whether there is mercury or acid rain, or carbon it’s going to impact the waterways and it’s going to aggravate global warming. It’s going to aggravate the acidification of the oceans, the acidification of lakes at high altitude, forests, and of course mercury contamination.

PullQuoteRFKJr4 According to the National Academy of Sciences there is now dangerous levels of mercury in every freshwater fish in America. We know about the mercury contamination in the saltwater species. But we're living in a science-fiction nightmare today where my children and the children of most Americans can now no longer engage in the seminal, primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father or mother in the local fishing hole and then come home and safely eat the fish.

So it's been a continuing theme of my career and it’s been one of the founding tenets of Waterkeeper Alliance that protecting the environment is about protecting democracy, and protecting notions of justice and fairness and equality, and human rights and civil rights and all those things are wrapped up into one package.

Frani: We’ve been speaking with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., environmental attorney and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. To learn more about Waterkeeper Alliance visit waterkeeper dot org. To hear upcoming interviews with other waterkeeper members visit our website at h2o radio dot org.


Sound Files

This interview is available for download at PRX.org and Audioport.org. It cannot be broadcast or reproduced without the permission of H2O Media, Ltd.


Waterkeeper Alliance

The vision of the Waterkeeper movement is for swimmable, drinkable, fishable waterways worldwide. Today, Waterkeeper Alliance is the world’s fastest growing environmental movement, with over 240 Waterkeeper Organizations protecting rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents. Their proudest accomplishment is the depth and breadth of their member organizations and the unity of their vision for clean water and strong communities.


Photo: Smokestack Belle Glade, Florida, Kim Seng, Creative Commons

Photo of Mr. Kennedy: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, LTD.

Published: June 14, 2015
© Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
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