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Riverkeeper at Carnegie Council: ‘Global Warming: Environmental Ethics and Its Practice’

Riverkeeper was delighted to be part of the conference “Global Warming: Environmental Ethics and Its Practice,” hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs Oct. 29 in New York City. A video and transcript of our conversation with Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal are available here. Below is an excerpt in which we describe the true key to Riverkeeper’s success: You. The highly motivated members of the public who care passionately about clean water and are willing and eager to do their part.

Q. I think it is easy to talk to your friends and people who are already on your side, but how do you motivate the others?

A. I am going to give you an answer that is almost going to sound Pollyanna-ish. It is almost going to sound too positive to be real. But most people we work with, we don’t motivate them; they motivate us. They demand that we support them. This is their community. This is their water supply in Kingston. This is their water supply in Rockland County. These are the places that they swim, fish, and boat in the 312 places where we sample. This is their shoreline in the 100 locales where people do shoreline cleanups for us every May. They demand more of us than we can give.

I have a woman who is our lead advocate in Flushing Bay in the borough of Queens. She is a dragon boater. She and her fellow dragon boaters are fighting to get us to be more aggressive in our protection of Flushing Bay. She says, “We need more of you in New York City.” We have advocates in the Mohawk River, which goes from the area around Albany way out to Central New York and the area of Rome, about 100 miles. They say, “Why is there a Hudson River keeper, but no Mohawk River keeper? We need you here.”

These are very self-motivated people. To the extent we do anything, I think we remove roadblocks. I think we remove roadblocks for people who see the legal system as a closed box, a black box that they can’t possibly penetrate or understand, or the environmental impact review system is something they can’t possibly manipulate successfully – and I mean manipulate in a positive manner, not improperly – or that there is just no way we can succeed because government is against us. That is why I tell success stories more than I tell stories of failure.

By the way, as far as pessimism versus optimism, you could say that some of my optimism is based on my experience and some of it is based on a willing suspension of disbelief. In any great fight, you don’t know whether you are going to succeed. It is a great fight because it is necessary to fight and win, and because you don’t know whether you can win. I don’t handicap our chances. I just do everything I can. It’s like that old line, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Everybody wants to know that they will be able to say, “I did the best I could.” Hopefully it will move the needle.