Adapted from RFK: His Words for Our Times
Happy Earth Day! Observers have argued that Robert Kennedy was on his way to becoming our first environmental President by 1968. He had been advocating for landmark clean air and clean water legislation, sought to focus public attention to the issues, and put the debate in moral terms.
On January 4, 1967, before the issue captured the widespread attention of either the public or politicians, Kennedy addressed one of the first major conferences to examine the consequences of fouling the environment: the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan Area Air Pollution Control Conference. There, he said:
“On a trip to Latin America last year, I saw people in Recife, in the poorest part of Brazil, who ate crabs which lived on the garbage that the people themselves threw in the shallow water near their shabby homes. And whenever I tell this story to Americans, the reaction is: How sad, how terrible, that such poverty, such underdevelopment, should exist in the world.
But we New Yorkers are in a poor position from which to extend pity. For every year, the average New Yorker—old and young, rich and poor, athlete or infirm recluse—breathes in 750 pounds of his own wastes . . . And because there are so many of us, crowding into this tiny fraction of the United States, a great pall of filthy air blankets the entire metropolitan area, and we all must breathe the same air into which we carelessly spill our refuse . . .
But we should not—we cannot—wait for technology to make clean air entirely painless, to be achieved without effort, like a genie waving a magic wand. We will never get anywhere unless we begin now to apply what we do know . . .“
Stewardship of the earth was related to Kennedy’s lifelong view of generational responsibility – on April 25, 1963, he had noted that “every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after. In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.”
By the 1968 Presidential campaign Robert Kennedy was weaving these ideas into a broader moral call to overcome “the poverty of satisfaction“, beautifully enunciated on his first full day of campaigning, before an audience at the University of Kansas (March 28, 1968). It became a signature expression of his vision for a new America:
“[E]ven if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—a lack of purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.
Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP—if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
(Photograph of Robert and Kerry Kennedy courtesy of George Henry (c)