A Clear View of Bobby Kennedy's Position on Cape Wind (and Why I Think He's Probably Wrong Anyway)
I’ve known Kennedy professionally for almost 20 years and have talked with him about environmental issues dozens of times. Based on that, I don’t hesitate to say that the argument is baloney -- a simplification, probably made willfully, of the real reason for Kennedy’s opposition.
I’m not trying to argue that Kennedy doesn’t claim that scenic views are important; nor am I saying that the environmentalists who wrote to him in response to his op-ed piece in the New York Times have not taken into consideration the range of his arguments. (The Times wants you to pay to read his piece, but he also published it in a paper on Cape Cod, and you can read it here.)
Instead, I’m saying that some critics have reduced the issue to a question of elitists wanting to protect their views. And in doing so they risk making it easier for those who oppose environmental progress to challenge Kennedy’s leadership on global warming in particular and other environmental issues in general.
Here, for example, is what Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the authors of the forthcoming "The Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of a New American Politics," said about Kennedy’s reasoning:
Kennedy's confusion about what is more important -- protecting his view of the ocean or global warming -- is emblematic of the moral and intellectual exhaustion of modern environmentalism.
… environmentalists such as Kennedy fail to distinguish between their personal use of the landscape and the ecological issues at stake.
It’s of course easier to call Bobby Kennedy an elitist and to therefore dismiss his arguments than to deal with why he opposes Cape Wind. The elitist label is a stereotype that many are happy to embrace, not the least of whom are the people who simply hate the Kennedys, no matter what they do.
Even in its simplest sense, the idea that Kennedy opposes Cape Wind primarily to protect his view is silly. Bobby Kennedy lives in Mount Kisco, New York. The view from his front window is of a state highway; from his back window he overlooks a pond. Kennedy’s family may still gather at Hyannisport, and I’ve no doubt that Bobby himself goes there frequently and would hate to see the view change, but nowhere has he claimed that it’s the only or even the most important reason to oppose Cape Wind.
Kennedy opposes Cape Wind because his environmentalism is informed by a sense of the beauty of the natural world and of the vast parts of it that we have lost and are in danger of losing. What he opposes is technology and “progress” replacing or pushing into extinction all the old ways of subsisting on and living with nature.
Kennedy came of age as an environmentalist in the 1980s, when he began working as an attorney for the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (before it changed its name to Riverkeeper). His bosses were Robert H. Boyle, the organization’s president and the author of the "Hudson River, A Natural and Unnatural History"; and John Cronin, whose title was Riverkeeper. Both were dedicated to the proposition that the traditional Hudson River fishery was significant culturally and was the outgrowth of a healthy ecosystem, and needed to be supported and sustained. The corollary was that anything that threatened the traditional fishery – GE, for example, which dumped a million pounds of PCBs into the river, thereby making striped bass and other fish, inedible – was bad and needed to be opposed and driven out.
They mythologized men such as Ace Lent, Henry Gourdine, Tucker Crawford, Bob Gabrielson and others who fished for shad in April, sturgeon in June, crabs in summer, and striped bass whenever they could get them. When Boyle was hanging out with and interviewing Hudson River fishermen for his book in the 1960s, he was witness to the end of a centuries-old way of life, whether he recognized it or not. When Cronin became Riverkeeper, in the early 1980s, they crusaded, on behalf of fishermen, against every corporate and government insult to the river.
At Riverkeeper, Kennedy became as much a champion as Boyle or Cronin of the rugged individualist fisherman. I remember him saying he had taken his sons to Ossining on several occasions to meet Henry Gourdine, whose strength as a fisherman and skill as a net-maker were legendary, and he commissioned Gourdine to make a net – probably a gill-net – for his sons. When Gourdine died, in the fall of 1997, Kennedy spoke at his funeral.
So when he says the Cape Wind project would destroy the traditional fishery of Horseshoe Shoal, a part of Nantucket Sound that is rich with marine life, that’s what he’s thinking of – the way industrialization destroyed the traditional fishery of the Hudson River. It would be as inconceivable for Kennedy to think it’s a good idea to put wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal as it would be for him to think it would be a good idea to put them on Haverstraw Bay, the most productive part of the Hudson estuary.
Reducing his opposition to a matter of not wanting to spoil his view also ignores the depth of his feeling for wildlife. When he says the Cape Wind turbines could kill thousands of sea ducks and migrating birds a year, he isn’t rationalizing. He seems to have a true affinity for animals. It’s well known that he’s a licensed falconer and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. One of the first times I met him, at his office at Pace University in White Plains, he was feeding gobs of cat food by hand to a young crow that had been abandoned. I went to talk to him once and found his office dominated by a makeshift cardboard pen inside of which was a young cormorant that he was nursing back to health. I rode back with him to Westchester from Manhattan in his minivan one night and before he dropped me off, we stopped at Pace so he could feed the fish in a saltwater tank he had set up in the lobby of his building; he fed the fish and then told me to watch as one small fry rose to the surface and rubbed its head against his finger. “He likes to be pet,” Kennedy said.
Many environmentalists of my generation became environmentalists because we were witnesses, as children, to the incredible changes and destruction that happened almost overnight to the natural world we were growing up in. If you were born in the early to mid-1950s (Kennedy and I are the same age, Cronin is a couple of years older), you saw as a child beaches closed because of pollution, woods plowed down to make way for houses, towns and neighborhoods severed by highways. They were not abstract problems. When I was 12, I woke up one morning to find that bulldozers were knocking down the woods I played in and explored (this was two years after Robert Moses’ latest bridge, the Verrazzano, opened and made Staten Island far more accessible). Cronin remembers that, growing up in Yonkers, he was allowed to swim in the Hudson one year but that the next year swimming was prohibited. Kennedy told me he remembered the construction of a highway that forever changed his neighborhood in Virginia. Forty years later, there aren’t all that many places left that are worth saving, and to see another one destroyed when there might be an alternative spot nearby is galling.
I say all this because I admire and respect Bobby Kennedy and because I think if we allow his argument against Cape Wind to be over-simplified, we risk weakening one of the country’s most effective environmental advocates, we risk making it easier for anti-environmental forces to dismiss what he says about other issues.
Having said this, however, I think that on balance, Bobby Kennedy might be wrong about the Cape Wind project. Twenty-first century environmental issues are nowhere near as easy to grapple with as the simple clean water and clean air battles that groups like the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association fought from the 1960s on. If a lot of serious, smart environmentalists think that Cape Wind will be an important step toward controlling global warming, then it might be worth the cost of a number of fishing jobs on Nantucket Sound, worth the lives of some migrating birds, worth the change in the view of the seascape, worth the loss of yet another place that is otherwise worth saving. I think.
So disagree with Bobby Kennedy and argue with him on the merits. But don’t make absurd claims that all he is interested in is his view.