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Tearing Pages from the Bible

Why environmental destruction is an offense against God
by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F.
Kennedy, Jr.

I remember what it was like before Earth Day 1970. I remember the Cuyahoga River burning for a week, with flames that were eight stories high, and nobody being able to put it out. I remember when they declared Lake Erie dead. I remember that I couldn't swim in the Hudson, or the Charles, or the Potomac growing up, and what the air smelled like in Washington, DC, which wasn't even an industrial city. Some days you couldn't see down the block for the smog. We had thousands of Americans dying every year in the sixties during smog events. And in 1970, this accumulation of insults drove twenty million Americans out onto the streets—ten percent of our population, the largest public demonstration in U.S. history—and the political system responded. Republicans and Democrats got together. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and we passed twenty-eight major environmental laws over the next ten years to protect our air, water, wetlands, endangered species, and food safety.

What's more, those laws became the model for over 120 nations around the world that had their own versions of Earth Day and made their own investments in environmental infrastructure. But there are a lot of countries that didn't do it. And invariably, those were the countries that didn't have strong democracies, because democracy and the environment are intertwined. You cannot get sustained environmental protection under any system except for a locally based democracy, because the fishes and birds and future generations don't participate in the political process. Their voices and interests are not heard in that process, except in a locally based democracy, where individuals who harbor those values have the opportunity to stand up and inject them into the political dialogue. That doesn't happen in a tyranny, and that's why there's a direct correlation around the planet between the level of tyranny in various governments and the level of environmental degradation—whether it's in right-wing tyrannies like Brazil during the seventies and Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the eighties and nineties, or in left-wing tyrannies like Eastern Europe, China, and the Soviet Union, where they're now facing economic catastrophe because of their failure to invest in their environmental infrastructure.

Russia is a great example. Russia didn't have a democracy, so it had no Earth Day, and therefore, it had no environmental law. It didn't, for example, have NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act], which is the most important of our environmental laws, the first one we passed at the time of Earth Day. That's the law that requires government agencies to perform environmental impact reviews before they destroy or disperse an important public trust asset. Because they didn't have NEPA in Russia, the Aral Sea, which is the fourth largest freshwater body on earth, is now a desert. It's as if all the Great Lakes dried up at once. Because they didn't have a Clean Water Act, the Sea of Azov, which was the richest fish nursery on earth after Chesapeake Bay, is now a biological wasteland. Because they didn't have nuclear regulatory review requirements, one-fifth of Belorussia is now permanently uninhabitable due to radiation contamination. In Turkey, they don't have a Clean Water Act either. Three hundred species have disappeared from the Marmara Sea over the past fifteen years. The Black Sea will be dead within ten.

In those nations, and in many, many others, environmental injury has matured into economic catastrophe. That's what would have happened here if we hadn't made that investment back in the seventies, and that's what will happen if we allow this foolhardy Congress and this reckless White House to dismantle thirty years of environmental law. The biggest environmental problem today is not global warming, or population, or sprawl—it's George W. Bush. Some of the worst damage has already been done, and we're going to be paying for it for generations. But if even a fraction of the over two hundred rollbacks currently being proposed by the Bush Administration are passed or enacted, by this time next year we will have effectively no significant federal environmental law left in our country.* That's not exaggeration. That's not hyperbole. It is a fact. They didn't have NEPA in Russia, and we're about to not have it here, too, because the Bush Administration is destroying it. Many of our laws will remain on the books, in one form or another, but they'll be unenforceable. And we'll be like Mexico, which has these wonderful, poetic environmental laws, but nobody knows about them and nobody complies with them because they can't be enforced.

If you ask people in the White House and on Capitol Hill why they're doing this, what they invariably say is, “The time has come in our nation's history when we have to choose between economic prosperity and environmental protection.” But that is a false choice. One hundred percent of the time, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy—that is, if we want to measure our economy (and this is how we ought to be measuring it) based upon how it produces jobs, and the dignity of jobs, over the generations, and how it preserves the value of the assets of our communities. If, on the other hand, we want to do what they've been urging us to do from this White House—which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity—then we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy. But our children are going to pay for our joyride. Environmental injury is deficit spending. It's a way of loading the cost of our generation's prosperity onto the backs of our children. And they're going to pay for it with denuded landscapes, poor health, and huge cleanup costs that are going to amplify over time.

So actually, environmental protection enriches us economically, and we ignore that at our peril. But it also enriches us aesthetically, and recreationally, and culturally, and historically, and spiritually. The reason we protect the environment is not for the sake of the fishes and the birds—it's for our sake, because nature enriches us. Human beings have other appetites besides money, and if we don't feed them, we're not going to become the kind of beings our Creator intended us to become. When we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves, and we impoverish our children. And this is really important for Americans to understand, because we have a closer connectedness to nature than any other industrialized nation in the world. From the beginning, our cultural and political leaders told the American people, “You don't have to be ashamed that you don't have fifteen hundred years of culture like they have in Europe, because you have this relationship to nature, to the land, and particularly to the wilderness, which is the undiluted work of the Creator. And that will be the source of your values, your virtues, and your character as a people.”

That same connectedness was recognized by great spiritual leaders and moral theologians throughout every religious tradition in the history of mankind, who used parables, allegories, and fables taken from nature as morality plays to teach us the difference between right and wrong—to teach us what the face of God looks like. I don't believe that nature is God, or that we ought to be worshipping it as God. But I do believe that it's the way God communicates to us most forcefully. God talks to human beings through many vectors—through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through art, literature, music, poetry, and dance—but nowhere with such force and clarity and texture and grace and joy as through creation. And therefore, destroying the environment is the moral equivalent of tearing the last pages out of the last Bible, Torah, Talmud, Qur'an, or Upanishad on earth. It's a cost that I don't believe is prudent for us to impose upon ourselves, and I doubt if we have the right to impose it upon our children. And that's all that environmental advocacy is about—recognizing that we have an obligation to the next generation.

Excerpted from a speech given in New York at the Omega Institute's “Living a Fearless Life” conference on April 2, 2004.

*See for details on the Bush administration's environmental policies.


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