As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. begins speaking, people lean forward in their seats. They check his mannerisms for something familiar. They hold their breath as they hear the voice of nostalgia. They wonder if he carries, along with the name, the charisma and character his father exuded in his campaigns for justice, equality and, in 1968, the United States Presidency. It’s not just his words they note; it’s the Kennedy demeanor. His sleeves are rolled up past his elbows, his slightly mussed hair is graying at the temples, his steel blue eyes remind us of someone. We feel we know him.
“When I was 9 or 10 years old,” he says, “I used to go to DC once or twice a week with my brothers and sisters, and sometimes we’d go visit my uncle at the White House. Whenever I was in town, I’d look up at the old post office where a pair of Eastern Anatum peregrine falcons nested. They’d been there for generations. All falconers and bird watchers in the area knew about them,” he continues. “They were the most spectacular predatory bird, and they could fly more than 200 mph. I would watch them come off the roof of the post office and fly down Pennsylvania Avenue at top speeds, picking pigeons right out of the air. Seeing those falcons was much more exciting than visiting my uncle.”
Kennedy smiles at the memory, but it fades. “That is something my children will never see because that species of falcon became extinct in 1963 from DDT poisoning, manufactured by Monsanto.”
Like his uncle and his father before him, Kennedy, 46, is at the helm of something big. Since 1984, when he became involved with an organization called Riverkeeper, he has been fighting Big Business in an effort to keep America’s waterways clean. The group has managed to resurrect the Hudson River, once infertile and dead, by suing over 200 Goliath polluters. Over $2 billion in fines levied by the courts were funneled back into the cleanup effort, resulting in a hugely successful comeback for the river.
Currently, Kennedy is senior attorney of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York and president of the Water Keeper Alliance, the umbrella organization for more than 50 clean-water custodians across North America. In his fight for healthy water, he has become one of today’s most significant advocates for safe sustainable agriculture and, consequently, organic farming. Kennedy is passionate about preserving natural resources, and while he says he currently has no intention of running for public office, he is a skilled politician who knows how to push patriotic buttons.
From Community Service to Public Service
Citing the events that brought about Earth Day, Kennedy believes we have the power — and the responsibility — to manifest our own destiny by assuming our inherent rights. “In 1970, the accumulation of environmental insults drove 20 million Americans into the street — 10 percent of our population, the largest public demonstration in our history — demanding the government return to them the ancient environmental rights that had been taken from our citizens,” says Kennedy. “The political system responded, and the Democrats and Republicans passed an extraordinary deluge of environmental laws, 28 major environmental statutes over the next 10 years, to protect our air, water and food safety,” he says. “You must empower individuals on a community level to protect those interests.”
As a young adult, Bobby Kennedy Jr. modeled himself after his father, graduating from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School in 1977 and 1981, respectively. While it may appear that Kennedy — only 14 when his father was assassinated — chose to follow in familiar footsteps, his path was hardly straight. Kennedy also lost siblings and cousins along the way and battled a drug addiction that threatened his future. Ironically, his environmental career began, not so much as his chosen service to the community, but as his community service chosen by the court.
In 1983, Kennedy — 27, assistant to a Manhattan district attorney — was found guilty of possession of heroin and sentenced to 800 hours of community service. Kennedy received another devastating blow when, the next year, his brother David died of a drug overdose. Forced to take a hard look at his life, it was the Hudson River Foundation work, part of his community service, that gave him focus.
A River Runs Through It
In 1966, the Hudson River and its fishermen were in trouble. One of the oldest commercial fisheries in North America, the river had become too polluted to serve as a resource. The fishermen were desperate, exploring all viable solutions. “They were former marines,” explains Kennedy. “They weren’t radicals or militants; their patriotism was rooted in the bedrock of this country.” But when they turned to the government for help, “they were given the bum’s rush. The government agencies wouldn’t protect them because the agencies were in cahoots with the big polluters.”
Fortuitously, the fisherman discovered a 19th century navigational statute which stated that violators polluting any waterway in the United States — an illegal action — were subject to fines. Furthermore, explains Kennedy, the law asserted that anyone who turned in a polluter would receive half the fine. In the 80 years the law had been on the books, it had never been enforced. So the fishermen put the law to work and used the courts as their battleground. In 1973, they built a boat and trolled the river in a sort of neighborhood watch program. Ten years later, Kennedy joined the team. “The families of the people I represent,” says Kennedy, “have been fishing the river continuously since Colonial times.”
To boost manpower and provide law school students with a taste of the real world, Kennedy established the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University Law School. “Pace specializes in environmental law,” says Kennedy. “Through the litigation clinic, I supervise 10 third-year law students who, by a special court order, are permitted to practice law under my supervision as if they were attorneys.” He continues: “We give each of them four polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester. They file complaints, they do discovery, they do depositions, they go to court and argue their cases. Since we started the clinic, we’ve had more than 200 successful legal actions against polluters along the Hudson, forcing them to spend billions of dollars on remediation,” he says. “This river was a national joke in 1966. It was an open sewer, dead for 20-mile stretches north of New York City and south of Albany. Today it’s one of the richest bodies of water in the North Atlantic.”
Riverkeeper organizations are now set up around the nation. While they are autonomous groups responsible for organizing and funding local efforts, the Water Keeper Alliance provides them with blueprints for taking legal action against polluters, usually corporate giants with deep pockets and political muscle.
A Whole Lot of Hogwash
Kennedy’s latest targets are commercial farms, specifically hog farms, around the country. While he believes these animal factories undermine clean water, he also notes destruction on another level. “It’s not just about farming, it’s not just about agriculture,” says Kennedy. “It’s about industry. They are destroying the fabric of our rural communities. Ten years ago,” he explains, “there were more than 600,000 hog farms in this country; now there are 157, and we’re producing more pigs. They control everything from pig to pork chop, from ‘squeal to wheel,’ as they say. What they do to these animals is a crime.”
Kennedy pauses for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts. “Now I am not an animal rights fanatic, but any human being who watches the way these animals are treated would be horrified. They shoehorn 100,000 hogs into a warehouse. They are given high doses of antibiotics — which go right into the waterways — that are necessary to keep them alive and growing under those stressful conditions.” Kennedy notes that the pig population in North Carolina now outnumbers people. “They produce more pig waste along the east side of the state than humans produce in New York, California and Washington combined.” The effects of this, according to Kennedy, are polluted waters, unhealthy fish and unhealthy people.
Kennedy isn’t afraid to cite names, specifically hog heavyweight Wendell Murphy and chicken generators Don Tyson and Frank Perdue. “They haven’t made farming more efficient,” says Kennedy. “In fact, it’s a lot less efficient. You and I pay the cost of their profits. They make profits by forcing the cost of waste disposal on us. They have stolen the water of that state [North Carolina] and are now moving across the country.” He adds: “I believe these people are breaking the law, I believe they should be in jail for what they’re doing. And I’m going to have fun proving that over the next couple of years.”
Dismissing the argument that this country must choose between economic prosperity and environmental protection, without hesitation Kennedy says, “That is false. In 100 percent of cases good environmental policy is identical with good economic policy. We can measure our economy based on how it produces jobs and the dignity and sustainability of jobs for generations to come. Or,” he says, “we can treat the planet as if it were a business of liquidation and convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible…and our children will pay for our joyride.”
Clarity and Grace
Kennedy has a reputation for getting his hands dirty — in the courtroom and out in the field. He personally visits the waterways, exploring the consequence of polluted waters. In the case of Vieques, a Puerto Rican island the United States Navy has been test-bombing, Kennedy went scuba-diving to see for himself the unexploded bombs resting in the reef. A lawsuit against the U.S. Navy is currently in the works.
“If we destroy nature,” Kennedy states, “we diminish ourselves and we impoverish our children. I don’t want to live in a world where there are no landscapes left, where we’ve lost touch with the seasons and the tides…things that ultimately connect us to God,” he says. “God talks to humans through many vectors: through each other, through organized religion, through art, literature, music and architecture—but nowhere with such clarity and texture and grace and joy as through nature. And for me, destroying these things is the moral equivalent of tearing out the last pages of the last Bible or Torah or Koran. If we don’t return to our children roughly the equivalent of what we received,” Kennedy, father of five, finishes, “they’ll have the right to ask us some very difficult questions.”
Photography by: Gus Butera