Q&A with Robert F Kennedy Jr.

The Kennedys are by far the closest America gets to an actual royal family. Their political reach is far, wide and bi-partisan, and they have been influencing this nation in one way or another for half a century. Family members have held every level of office and have founded organizations like the Special Olympics and the Peace Corps.

Stepping out from behind the shadow of his uncle Ted, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has become one of the more prominent members of the family. No stranger to the public eye, nor to controversy, his notoriety is surprising given his apparent
 lack of interest in running for public office. This approach has afforded him a strong platform on environmental issues that is swayed by neither public opinion polls nor party lines.

Kennedy began working with the New York-based organization Riverkeepers back in the 1980's, first as a volunteer and soon after, as the group's prosecuting attorney. He dove into its mission, fighting for the environmental health of the Hudson River and its tributaries, and has not stopped since.

In 1999 he founded, and serves as current president, the Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella organization that works for the health of waterways all around the world. Acting as a "neighborhood watch" for 157 rivers, lakes, bays, sounds and coasts the world over, the group is active and vocal in making sure the public knows the value of water.

Kennedy was in Detroit in 2002 to commemorate the founding of the Detroit Riverkeepers and returned this past weekend to speak at Wayne State University on the topic of "Our Environmental Destiny."

Metromode writer Kelli B. Kavanaugh was given the opportunity to ask Mr. Kennedy a series of questions that spoke specifically to the destiny -- both environmental and economic -- of Southeast Michigan.

Mr. Kennedy was frank and insightful, speaking about Detroit's maritime legacy, the success of other cities, the value of fresh water to this area's future and the Big Three's impact on the current economy.

metromode: Clearly you have an affinity for the water and, of course, in this area, we have the Detroit River. Its return to health over the last three decades, as well as the recent efforts of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to greatly improve the public's access to this resource has been a real boon. Can you speak to how you have seen these types of efforts affect other areas of the country for the better?

RFK: Ultimately, Detroit is a maritime city. It is located where it is because of its proximity to the river and lakes, a nexus between Great Lakes. That's part of its culture, of the city's history.

If you look around the country, all of the great urban resurrections that have occurred over recent decades have begun with the restoration of the relationship between the city and its waterfront. Baltimore, San Francisco, San Antonio, Boston have all have made great efforts, focused urban renewal efforts connected to their waterfronts.

What happened during the 20th Century was that in these port cities, including New York City, the public was cut off from the waterfront. In New York, the biggest port in the world, there was no way for the public to access the waterfront. Only one [of the five boroughs] is connected to the mainland and yet people had completely lost their relationship to the water. In recent years, an effort has been made to build waterfront public parks and the public has flooded to them.

We've also seen this up and down the Hudson. The Hudson was polluted and its least valuable land was the closest to the river. Now it's the most expensive land that is near the river. And towns themselves are experiencing revitalization and rebirth efforts.

mode: Access to water is an increasingly hot issue, not just in the developing world, but here in America. As rustbelt cities like Detroit work hard to regain population lost over the past half-century while desert metropolises like Phoenix and Las Vegas boom and sprawl, it appears that the US is headed down a scary path…Can you share your thoughts on the subject?

RFK: It's backwards.

Ultimately, in Detroit, the city's water is going to dictate its health. [We have an] enormous problem in the Southwest with sprawl development that is irrational, dangerous and careless.

The Colorado River is drained dry, it never reaches the city, evaporating ignominiously in the desert. The Ogallala Aquifer, which provides most of the irrigation water to the American Midwest is being sucked dry in Arizona, with water 100 feet below initial levels. Population increases increase water demand from Louisiana to Texas, and global warming is causing the evaporation of major reservoirs.

There's a train wreck coming, and the cities that are going to end up with the strongest economies are those with the strongest environmental base, and Detroit can be one of those cities. Detroit has a future based on its waterways, and its water is the best investment that Detroit can make right now: restoring public access to waterways and fighting pollution in waterways.

Detroit -- looking at its landscapes and surroundings -- is one of the greatest places to live, and that value will be recognized by the marketplace and by people.

mode: There is a huge push from the state government for growth in the alternative energy industry, which seems to make sense considering the technical skill set of Michigan workers along with its manufacturing infrastructure. What would be your advice for policy makers and business leaders as to where Michigan should go and how to get there in the world of alternative energy?

RFK: Look around. The states with the strongest economy are the states that have invested in energy efficiency. California has the strongest economy and Californians use half the energy per capita as the rest of the country.

Detroit, and the state of Michigan, has many exciting options for reducing energy usage, which will also enrich the people of the state and improve the state's economy.

I wrote an article for Rolling Stone two months ago that talked about what all states should be doing to release the market forces. In order to cure our energy crisis, we need a true free market, true capitalism -- which we don’t have. We would have a much cleaner environment because a free market economy encourages the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste.

One way is to decouple utility profits from sales of energy. Utilities make money by selling you more and more energy, which is not encouraging good social behavior. California utilities are making money by conserving. The utilities are paid premiums for getting their consumers to reduce the amount of energy they use. The utility makes money by doing good things rather than things damaging to society.

Another way is net metering. If an individual installs power generation capacity, like solar or a windmill, he can sell energy when he is not using it. The utility has to buy that energy back, which would encourage millions of Americans to make their homes into power plants.

This is good for the country because it makes us much less vulnerable -- not only less dependent on foreign oil -- but less vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It's an easy thing to bomb a power plant, but much less difficult to bomb a million homes.

And there is the automobile, which accounts for 47% of our energy use. Detroit has fought fuel economy standards for 30 years and it has not only damaged our country enormously, but it has made it so Detroit is much less competitive with Asian and European manufacturers.

[Because of emission standards,] it is almost impossible for any American car to be sold in China. That is a billion auto consumers over the next three years that Detroit has no access to.

That couldn’t possibly be good business logic. Detroit automakers dug their own grave.

mode: There are other environmental initiatives in Michigan right now, such as the Greenways Initiative, which is investing millions of dollars into a network of trails and bike lanes in Southeast Michigan. Can you speak to how such investment can spur economic development and whether or not such an investment is prudent in a time of recession and high unemployment?

RFK: Let me say this: Good economic policy is, 100 percent of the time, good environmental policy. Conservation produces many more jobs than does the exploitation of virgin resources. If, on the other hand, we treat the planet as a business in liquidation for a few years of pollution prosperity, for an illusion, our children are going to pay for our joyride. It is deficit spending -- our prosperity on the backs of our children.

We are not protecting fish and birds here. Nature is the infrastructure of our community. If we want to meet our obligation as a generation, as a nation, as a civilization and provide the next generation with the community that our parents gave us, we have to start by protecting our environmental infrastructure. This is our lakes, bike ways, rivers -- the landscapes that connect us to our past, our history, and provide a context to our communities. They are our source, ultimately, of values, virtues, our character as a people.

Investment in the environment does not somehow diminish our nation's wealth. It is an investment in infrastructure, like telecommunications and roads. It ensures the economic vitality of our generation and the next generation.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a regular contributor to metromode and Model D's development news editor. She clearly has water on the brain because her last article for 'mode was Fishing Michigan.


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Wayne State University on November 2nd, 2007 - Detroit

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni

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