The environmental movement gave birth to a vast body of law. But laws have not been enough. John Cronin explains why it will take a movement founded on moral and spiritual values to succeed where legislation has not.


On the day that Hudson Valley magazine asked me to contribute to this, the premier issue of the year 2000, I saw my first box of Millennios cereal at the supermarket in Cold Spring. I wondered if there was anything left to say about the start of the new millennium.

Predictions are easy. And they carry few liabilities. John von Neuman, the late Hungarian mathematician who is considered the father of the modern computer, predicted in the 1950s that computers would eventually become so big that only large governments and large corporations would be able to afford them. At the time, his observation was breathtaking. Today, almost no one remembers, or cares, how wrong he was.

It is tempting to follow von Neuman's lead and make bold pronouncements about the Hudson River. As Riverkeeper, the two questions I am asked most often are: "When will the river be safe for swimming and fishing?" and "When will pollution of the river be halted?"

The United States Congress already made those predictions 28 years ago. The 1972 federal Clean Water Act set a goal calling for all of the nation's waters to be suitable for fishing and swimming by 1983 and flee from the discharge of pollutants by 1985. It was an audacious and exciting plan, perhaps the most ambitious national initiative since President John F. Kennedy's May 25, 1961, commitment to land a man on the moon.

The unattained objectives of the Clean Water Act attracted about as much attention as the quiet passing of von Neuman's prediction. Why did the Act fail so miserably?

Perhaps because we were naive. Most of us were unaware, for example, that lurking in the sediments of the Hudson River were as many as two million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) discharged by the General Electric Company between 1946 and 1976. As a result, for the last 25 years most of the Hudson's commercial fishery has been shut down and consumers are warned not to eat most Hudson River fish.

Perhaps it failed because public support got off to a late start. Despite the passage of the Clean Water Act and a large body of federal environmental law in the 1970s, those who spoke out against pollution locally were often labeled communists, degenerates, and worse. One Hudson Valley state senator's 1974 campaign strategy included touring construction sites and distributing bumper stickers that read, "Out of work and hungry? Eat an environmentalist." He was re-elected handily.

Perhaps it failed because public officials lacked the political will. After all, it wasn't Newt Gingrich who invented anti-environmentalism. Prior to the 1994 takeover by the Republican Party, Democrats in Congress had been waging their own attack on the nation's environmental laws. From 1980 to 1988, Republican President Reagan led the most anti-environmental administration in American history. And Democratic President Carter, elected in 1976, was preoccupied by the energy crisis and the hostages in Iran and did not distinguish himself on environmental issues.

My belief is that goals such as those of the Clean Water Act fail when they are founded in the laws of our own making rather than in the spiritual and ethical values that are the foundation of all lasting standards in society.

"In the presence of the human, the natural world has no rights," wrote contemporary theologian and historian Reverend Thomas Berry in "Ethics and Ecology," a paper delivered at Harvard University in 1996. "We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide, and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide or geocide, the killing of the life systems themselves and even the killing of the Earth."

Bob Gabrielson is a traditional Hudson River commercial fisherman. He sets his nets by hand from his small open skiff where and when experience and tradition tell him the American shad will show themselves in the Tappan Zee.

The shad are reliable. Their arrival in the Hudson in late March is one leg of a never ending journey that takes them to the Bay of Fundy in August and to Florida in winter as they follow their ideal water temperature up and down the Atlantic coast. It is a marvelous plan, an amazing piece of ecological choreography that brings shad back to their rivers of origin to spawn, the very estuaries in which their parents performed the same ritual of reproduction.

While the behavior of this largest member of the herring family is remarkable, our knowledge of its life history is not. It is but a set of observations accumulated over centuries, passed down by fishermen, recorded by scientists, wondered at by all. We understand that a complex biochemical mechanism guides the shad along those thousands of Atlantic coast miles and signals them when they are near their home waters. But as with most wonders of nature, we can no more re-create this phenomenon than we can form life out of the clay of the ground.

Bob Gabrielson takes it on faith that late in March American shad will again begin their journey up the Hudson River. And, barring some human-induced disaster, they will.

For all our past arrogance,
our position on Earth is a humble one.
We are less equipped to weather a drought,
hurricane, or flood than the average duck.

In a lecture to a novitiate class, the late Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk and author, said, "Some people think creation happened back in the beginning only. Creation is taking place now. At every minute. At every second. Creation never stops. It is going on all the time."

Kabbalah scholar Rabbi David A. Cooper wrote in God is a Verb, "We should never refer to creation as a thing of the past because it is ongoing and constant, an unceasing phenomenon. All humanity, all nature, all of creation is constantly being sustained each and every moment."

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, ascetic, and teacher, wrote in his recent book Going Home, "Isn't it true that the air we breathe is our home, that the blue sky, the rivers, the mountains, the people around us, the trees, and the animals are our home?"

Reflecting on our place in the world, Father Merton said: "In nature, every single moment, every single thing around you is doing the will of God perfectly. Everything is in perfect obedience to the will of God. This makes things very simple for you. Because it leaves one little spot for you to fit into and if you fit into it you are keeping the will of God too."

Where do we fit? Are we witnesses to the continuing miracle of creation? Beneficiaries? Participants? Saboteurs?

From the Hudson River to San Francisco Bay, waterways are posted with signs warning that the fish contain toxic chemicals. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, restaurants are required to post advisories concerning contamination of seafood. Connecticut law closes Long Island Sound shellfish beds after just one-half inch of rain because of the threat of sewage overflows.

We have treated not only other species as expendable commodities but humans as well. Today, because of PCB contamination, there are only a few die-hard commercial fishermen like Bob Gabrielson still practicing their trade. But for the most part, their children cannot afford to continue the family business.

Yet, for all our past arrogance, our position on Earth is a humble one. We are less equipped to weather a drought, hurricane, or flood than the average duck. We have made such a mess of the air, land, and water that we are unable to meet our obligations to the next generation. We have eliminated entire species from the planet, never to be seen again, but we have no memory of why the quality of life was supposed to be the better for it.

Maybe we can be forgiven for believing that we are the crown of creation. Given enough sen-tience, what species would not conclude the same? Any self-respecting beaver would think that his long front teeth, webbed feet, and scaly flat tail, the trees he gnaws down, the water world in which he finds himself, were all evidence that the universe had been designed for uniquely beaverly pursuits. When the beaver builds his dam he floods lands that were once dry, profoundly altering his local environment. He drives out some animals and creates new habitat for others. He might even conclude that he is as a god.

We are right to think that the world was created for us, just not for us alone.

By relying on the laws of legislatures for its environmental values, society has trapped the environment on the losing side of a permanent negotiation. Consider: After 35 years we are still debating the annual killing of tens of millions of Hudson River fish by power plants. After 25 years we are still debating the cleanup of the PCB contamination that has prevented a generation from fully enjoying the river. Though the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts are almost three decades old, intentional pollution of our water and air are still considered legal and acceptable. All you need is a permit.

It is often said that as a social issue environmentalism took hold of American life in ways that surpassed even the civil rights, labor, and women's movements. It gave birth to a vast body of law, hundreds of government agencies, and an industry that employs tens of thousands of lawyers, scientists, engineers, consultants, and professional advocates.

But unlike those other movements, contemporary environmentalism has been molded by reaction to crises rather than the evolution of a higher moral code. Environmental policies are not based on core values that govern our daily lives but on a measuring stick: what is the cost-benefit ratio of building a power plant versus protecting a fish species? How large a load of pollution can a stream endure?

Through our religions and our social ethos, we have developed an ever evolving moral code about how we humans must treat each other. We have developed no such code regarding our relationship to the natural world.

New York law may say that the fishing season for American shad opens on March 15 but it is not the legislature that brings Hudson fish back to their home rivers to spawn. For Bob Gabrielson the annual return of the shad is a matter of faith, not a matter of state.

In 1987, the New York State Legislature boasted in the Hudson River Estuary Management Act that the Hudson had become""the only major estuary on the East Coast to still retain strong populations of its historical spawning stocks." It went on to say that the river is "a distinct and valuable ecosystem to the people of the state of New York and that its management as a distinct ecosystem is essential to the well-being of the people of the state."

It was an unprecedented official statement about the value of the Hudson and the first time the river had been recognized in law as an estuary. After decades of struggle, the Hudson River had become a Noah's Ark, a species warehouse, to steal two of Robert H. Boyle's phrases. For the last 12 years we have reveled in the river's remarkable recovery, widely considered one of the great success stories of the modem environmental movement.

That may all be coming to an end. The Hudson faces more trouble today than it has in 30 years. Some examples:

Four major fish species are in serious decline: Atlantic sturgeon, American shad, herring, and smelt. Commercial fishing for Atlantic sturgeon was halted for the first time three years ago due to a population crash. The shortnose sturgeon will remain on the endangered species list for at least another 24 years.

15 new power plants are proposed for the Hudson River region. Six of those plan to take their cooling water directly from the river.

A spate of polluting industries has been eyeing the Hudson's shores for new homes, including a garbage plant, a paper plant, a cement plant, and a perchloroethylene recycling plant

The Millennium gas pipeline is proposed to come down the west side of the Hudson and cross the river to Westchester through a trench in Haverstraw Bay in Rockland County, tearing up the river bottom and public parklands in the process. Power plant and industrial proposals will pop up all along its route.

Though public knowledge of the PCB problem is almost 25 years old, GE still evades responsibility for it and for driving most of the commercial fishing industry off the river. Last season the number of commercial fishermen hit an all-time low, with perhaps 15 still practicing their trade, as compared to more than 150 in 1975.

Re-industrialization of the Hudson River is a phrase you will hear a lot in the next year. In six short months it has become the chief rallying point for the river's environmentalists. By spring, re-industrialization could mark a sharp divide between former political friends as once again big money is pitted against the public interest, while the future of the river hangs in the balance. It may be the single issue that determines the course of the Hudson for the next century.

Are we prepared to meet the challenge? Based on past history the answer is yes. Will the river need more advocacy and public support? Yes. Will it need new laws? Undoubtedly. It is increasingly unlikely, however, that traditional laws and regulations will provide us with an adequate measure of protection into the future.

Is the dream of the Clean Water Act lost forever? No. At worst it is a dream deferred. We of the Hudson Valley have proven time and again that our values run to higher things than draining every last monetary benefit out of the region we treasure and love. We have been pioneers at setting standards that have become policies for protecting the Hudson Valley and the national environment. It is time we turn our attention to a new set of standards.

The environmental debate, on the Hudson River and elsewhere, must be informed by a higher moral authority. But that will only happen when we honor that authority ourselves, when within our homes, congregations, communities, and workplaces we challenge ourselves and our institutions to understand the sacred place that we and all living things occupy in the continually unfolding miracle of creation.

John Cronin, who lives with his wife and son in Garrison, Putnam County, has been the Hudson Riverkeeper since 1983. He is the Resident in Environmental Studies in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Pace University.

HUDSON VALLEY JANUARY 2000

A Letter to the Children of America 2100
(Buried in a time capsule by the City of Seattle,
October 1999)

There was a very popular saying during the last 30 years of the century ,from which I am writing you. Here's how it went: If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we ...?'

Then we would fill in the blank space with something else that society should have already accomplished. For example: If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we stop pollution of our rivers?" Or "If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we find a cure for cancer?" Or"If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we land a woman on the moon?"

Perhaps these things seem quaint to you. Perhaps pollution has ceased, diseases have been eradicated, and society has eliminated all forms of prejudice and bigotry. Perhaps you are exploring new worlds with technology that we would not even comprehend. We hope so. These were some of the things we dreamed for you.

That has been a popular preoccupation of the century in which I live: our dreams for the future. We are not unanimous about them. Many times our behavior makes it seem that we care only about the present But the dreams of some have changed history. You stand on their shoulders. Do me a favor. Please read, or better yet please watch, the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963. It is the most famous speech of the 20th century. Reverend King's words and example gave courage to a generation of activism, including myself, who believed, as he did, that the individual destinies of people on earth were also a shared destiny. The struggle in which we are engaged for a clean and healthy environment is proof of this cherished principle.

As I write this, it occurs to me that instead of saying, "If we can land a man on the moon," we should be saying, "If we can dream a man on the moon." Whether it be crossing the divide of space or crossing the divide of prejudice, often the most difficult part of the journey is daring to imagine its first step.

So dream. I won't pretend to know or predict what your dreams should be. I am certain there are things you would like to change. Have the courage to dream how they can be different. Dare to turn your dreams into action.

Please do me one more favor. Find my great, great, great, grandchildren and tell them that their long gone ancestors -- my wife Connie, our son John Donald, our daughter Sasha, and I -- send our love, hopes, and dreams across the vast breach of these four generations. I wish you a life that does honor to your children's children four generations hence. If the bridge you build to their lives is constructed of dreams for a better world for them as well as yourself, they will be a very happy generation indeed.

John Cronin

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