Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s affinity for the water world dates to his childhood, when his father would take the family on rafting trips. These days, in addition to working as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy is founder and board president of Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide network of river and bay activists. He spoke with Oceana’s Suzannah Evans about his passion for water activism.
Why are water-related environmental issues so important to you?
I grew up on the water. Cape Cod, Nantucket Sound. I spent most of my childhood there in the summers. On vacation, my father would take us whitewater rafting on the Colorado, the Snake, the Green, the Upper Hudson. My favorite occupation when I was a kid was tramping through local streams, a tributary of the Potomac River we had near our home. I always had an affinity for water, and a fascination for it, I’d love to go into the water and turn over rocks, and to go fishing and diving. I got my first scuba tank when I was nine years old. It just seemed magical to me.
What would you say is your favorite watery place?
I do a white river trip in Patagonia once a year which to me has a special magic to it. I had a chance to do a shark dive near the Bahamas and that was one of the peak experiences of my life.
You’ve used the law to address a lot of serious environmental issues. How can the law enable conservation?
The law establishes legal barriers that protect the commons and protect private property from nuisances. Pollution is a classic nuisance. Law is a tool because it not only discourages activity that is injurious to the commons, it also establishes small milestones of a society. If somebody goes to jail for overfishing, suddenly people look at people who do that differently. They say, oh that person’s a criminal, that’s a bad thing. When I was younger it was common to smoke in restaurants, but when we made a law against it, suddenly people’s attitudes toward smoking and toward smokers changed. If you went into a restaurant in New York City and lit up a cigarette today, you’d be regarded as a dangerous sociopath.
You’ve represented shrimpers who were hurt by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. What do you think will be the legacy of that disaster?
One of the legacies that it left is bringing on the reality of the true cost of oil to our society. Even along the Gulf Coast, where so many jobs are tied to the oil industry, people are saying we’ve got to find an alternative to this. This is not a sustainable way to live.
What path can we take to save our environment for future generations?
I think ultimately the battle for the environment is a battle for democracy. Free market capitalism is the greatest economic engine ever devised, but it has to be harnessed for a social purpose or it will devolve into a kind of corporate feudalism that is not that much different from the kind of feudalism our European ancestors came to the United States to escape.
The oceans are a prime example of the tragedy of the commons, especially with overfishing.
Right. Free market capitalism does not work in the commons. You need to have regulations, otherwise that’s just an intractable law that the commons will be devoured if everyone follows their own self-interest.