The U.S. environmentalist laments Washington’s focus on war—and profits
ROBERT F. KENNEDYMarch312003
‘AN IMBALANCE OF POWER’
The U.S. environmentalist laments Washington’s focus on war—and profits
ROBERT F. KENNEDY
ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. is one of America’s highest-profile environmental crusaders. Senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, he has successfully sued hundreds of polluters. The third child of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 5,1968, he also visits trouble spots throughout the Americas, where he and his celebrity connections help draw attention to the issues. Some of these have been in Canada: Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island where old-growth forests are being logged, and Alberta, where factory farms are causing water pollution. Kennedy recently spoke with environmental journalist and Maclean’s correspondent Stephen Leahy during a visit to Toronto.
How do you feel about the war with Iraq?
America should not go to war because it wants to. It should only go to war if it has to. If conflicts can be solved otherwise, then we have an obligation to do that. I think that has to be done through a combination of diplomatic skills, political adroitness and imagination. I think it’s obvious those virtues have been absent in a lot of our decisionmaking recently.
What about the United States’ move toward unilateralism?
I think that’s distressing. We’re losing a lot of the qualities that make people proud to be Americans, including the moral authority we once wielded around the world.
Has the conflict in the Middle East taken attention away from environmental issues at home?
It has made it easier for large corporations to operate without public scrutiny and enabled them to make deals that are scandalous. The fossil-fuel industry, and other commodity industries, are given much freer rein to operate. I’ll give you an example.
Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, invented a way of raising pigs in large factory farms, which creates huge amounts of pollution, impoverishes farmers, and distorts markets. By educating the public, politicians and press in other countries, like Poland, we’ve been able to stop Smithfield from expanding into those countries. But as a result of President Bush’s efforts to bring Poland into the coalition against Iraq, there was a $12.5-billion loan guarantee. Attached to that guarantee were a number of requirements that forced Poland to accept U.S. corporate presence—including Smithfield.
How would you characterize the current U.S. administration’s approach to environmental issues?
President Bush has a secret war against the environment. It is a stealth attack. He’s now eviscerating America’s environmental laws. He has 100 proposed rollbacks of environmental regulations that, even if just a portion goes through, by this time next year we will have no federal environmental laws. That’s not an exaggeration. These laws are being passed below the radar screen. They’re being attached to large budget bills that must be passed so there’s no public debate in Congress or elsewhere.
If you talk to the American people—and all the polling shows this—around 75 per cent, Democrats and Republicans alike, support stronger environmental laws. Only seven per cent say we need the laws weakened. But it’s those seven per cent that have influence with this administration. Those are the people from the oil, chemical and pharmaceutical industries and real estate developers. President Bush is the worst environmental president of the past 100 years.
Do you see the same trends in Canada?
There’s the same impulse in Canada for devolution of responsibility for regulation to corporate control. However, it’s refreshing
to come to Canada because there’s a strong ethical commitment to a clean environment. And there’s an understanding that the environment and nature are part of the infrastructure of this community. But both countries have the same fundamental problem: we have large corporations trying to treat our natural resources as if they were businesses in liquidation.
What’s wrong with corporations making a profit? That’s what powers our economies.
I believe in free-market capitalism. But in a true free-market economy you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbour rich. You show me a polluter and I’ll show you someone who’s imposing his costs of production on the public. Eastern Canadian lakes are contaminated with mercury and your forests are acidified. That’s the result of coal-burning power plants in the Ohio Valley. Those impacts pose costs on the people of Canada and should, in a true free-market economy, be reflected in the price of electricity generated by those plants. If those plants had to pay the true cost of bringing their product to market they would shift to natural gas or other less-polluting counterparts. We ought to force polluters to absorb the true costs of doing business. Not doing so distorts all of free enterprise.
What’s one of the big coming environmental issues?
Water is a major issue in the next decade, particularly for Canada, which has the highest percentage of fresh water in the world. There will be huge demands made on Canada’s water resources, not only from Canadian industry but from the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. would like to divert those water resources to obtain economic benefits outside of their watersheds in places like the Great Lakes and in Western Canada.
You’ve expressed opposition to a Newfoundland power company called Fortis Inc. and its
proposal to build a hydro dam on the Macal River in Belize. What’s the issue here?
I’ve been to the Upper Macal River and it’s one of the most extraordinary ecosystems I’ve ever seen. It’s the last intact rain forest watershed in all of Central America. It hasn’t been disturbed since the ancient Maya. It’s where the last major rookery is for the scarlet macaw, in all of Belize and probably all of Central America.
There are 13 species of animals that will probably go extinct in Central America if this dam is constructed. The proposed dam will only supply something like 2.9 megawatts of power—about enough just to power three small hotels. It’s an ex-
tremely small amount of energy to sacrifice these extraordinary resources for.
Why should the dam concern Canadians?
The Canadian International Development Agency provided the funds for the geological testing that underpins the environmental impact assessment requested by the Belize government. But studies actually show the geology in that area is fractured shale and sandstone, which is highly likely to rupture or fail if the dam is constructed there.
But won’t a new dam benefit Belize?
In terms of economics, the project makes no sense. Belize has a population of only 250,000
people, and if this dam is constructed, it will impoverish these people for 50 years or more. We are concerned that the Canadian government and CIDA have given legitimacy to a deal that most courts would rule as unconscionable.
Belize is a democratic country-why would it participate in a project that won’t be of benefit to its citizens?
There is an imbalance of power when a large multinational corporation comes into a very poor country like Belize and makes deals with government officials that impoverish an entire nation. This is the worst face of globalization.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.