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Photo of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

A Kennedy in Action

Attorney, activist, outdoorsman, teacher. It's never enough. Now there's a new book.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likes to say he's been an environmentalist all his life. As a young boy, he kept pet snakes and raccoons, bred homing pigeons and pheasants in his backyard, and learned to train hawks. He even considered becoming a veterinarian. At the age of 10, he told his father, who was then a United States senator from New York, that he wanted to write a book about pollution.

Forty years later Kennedy has written that book, Crimes Against Nature, a scathing indictment of current federal environmental policy. Given the present threat to our air, water, and land, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Widely recognized as the country's most prominent environmental attorney, Kennedy has worked tirelessly to safe-guard the environment and public health. Besides his longtime senior attorney post at NRDC, he's the founder and director of Pace University's Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York, and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international coalition of 99 grassroots groups. He co-hosts a weekend radio show on the fledgling Air America network. His op-ed columns appear regularly in The New York Times and other major newspapers. And the peripatetic Kennedy crisscrosses North America several times a year, stirring audiences of college students, community groups, and elected officials.

Kennedy's indefatigable drive is sustained by his personal connection to the outdoors -- he's a master falconer, an accomplished kayaker, skier, sailor, and fisherman -- and by fatherhood. His four sons and two daughters which gives him the long view. Despoiling our air, land, and water may make corporations richer in the short term because they don't address the costs of pollution, he says, but it steals from the next generation. "Our children are going to pay for our joyride. And they are going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that they are never going to be able to afford.

"Environmental injury is deficit spending. It is just a way of loading the cost of our generation's prosperity onto the backs of our children."

But Kennedy's new book is more than a denunciation of current environmental policy. That policy, he charges, is emblematic of a much larger problem, "a kind of corporate crony capitalism that is antithetical to all the values that we cherish," he says. "The head of public lands was a mining industry lobbyist, the head of the forest service was a timber lobbyist, the second in command at the EPA was a Monsanto lobbyist, and the man in charge of the air division of the EPA was a utility industry lobbyist." What's at stake, Kennedy says, is the common wealth, and ultimately democracy.

"Really all environmental injury is an assault on democracy, because the most important measure of how a democracy is functioning is how it distributes the goods of the land -- the commons."
-- Elliott Negin

Crimes Against Nature

"PCBs have put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of work, dried up the [Hudson] river's barge traffic (because the shipping channels are too toxic to dredge), contaminated waterfront towns, and infected virtually every person in the Hudson Valley. (My own PCB levels are double the national average!) In February 2002, we finally forced the EPA to sign the long-awaited order requiring [General Electric] to dredge the river and recover its PCBs. But our celebration was short lived. In October 2003, after President Bush failed to renew an envrionmental tax on oil and chemical companies, Superfund went bankrupt. With no money in the fund, the EPA has lost its leverage to force General Electric to act." -- From Crimes Against Nature, by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (HarperCollins, August 2004).

Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council