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October 25, 2004 VOL. LVI, NO. 20

Environment 9/11

Crimes Against Nature:
How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals
Are Plundering the Country and
Hijacking Our Democracy,
by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
(HarperCollins, 256 pp., $21.95)


In December 2003, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote "Crimes Against Nature," an extensive, sharply worded assault in Rolling Stone magazine on the Bush administration's environmental record, which Kennedy called "a ferocious three-year attack" on environmental protection. Under President Bush's leadership, Kennedy charged, "corporate cronyism" was "strangling democracy and devouring our national treasures." The article was shocking — shocking, that is, in its inaccuracies and ad hominem attacks. It was astounding that a professional environmental lawyer and sometime environmental-law professor who, by his own account, had his work "rigorously fact-checked," could produce such a vitriolic and error-laden piece.

Eight months later, Kennedy's article has become a book — and his attack has not improved with age. More time and more pages have only produced more errors and exaggerations. Kennedy's thesis remains the same: "Our president is engaged in the radical destruction of 30 years of environmental law." Worse, America under the Bush administration is, in Kennedy's estimation, comparable to Europe at the time of rising fascism in the 1930s.

In building his case against the president, Kennedy repeatedly distorts the facts. He tries, for example, to link increased asthma rates to Bush's air-pollution policies — yet asthma increased while air-pollution levels declined. Some erroneous claims from Kennedy's Rolling Stone article have been modified, if not completely corrected. For example, in the article Kennedy charged that the administration "redefine[d] carbon dioxide" to no longer be considered a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act — but carbon dioxide has never been regulated as an air pollutant under federal law. Now Kennedy charges that carbon dioxide "was not listed as a pollutant in the original Clean Air Act" because of industry lobbying. This too is false, as global warming (the only reason adduced for the need to regulate carbon dioxide) was not even on the environmental radar when the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, let alone when the prior federal air-pollution laws were adopted in the 1960s. (Alas, some 60 pages later, Kennedy repeats the mistake from his original article.)

The author insists that readers can find documentation of over 300 Bush "rollbacks" of environmental protection in the work of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), yet several of his claims are contradicted on NRDC's own website. For instance, Kennedy claims that Bush has "rolled back" federal vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, while the NRDC website notes that the administration actually proposed a "minor increase." Similarly, Kennedy blames the mining industry for arsenic in drinking water, yet the NRDC website notes that much arsenic contamination comes from natural deposits. Other sourcing is sloppy, and some of the most inflammatory charges lack citations at all.

Although Kennedy claims to be a defender of "free-market capitalism," this book provides little evidence that he understands economics. Whatever the merits of minimum-wage laws and social-welfare programs, they're hardly "free market"; neither are federal pollution-control laws. While most economists celebrate improvements in worker productivity, Kennedy laments that coal companies can produce just as much coal with only 12 percent of the workers they required in 1960. Given his concern for worker safety, one would think Kennedy would at least cheer the fact that far fewer laborers are exposed to the risks of coal mining, not to mention the immense economic benefits of the change.

Kennedy repeats the nostrum that "conservation is indeed the fastest way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil" and suggests that an eight-mile-per-gallon increase in fuel efficiency "would eliminate the need for all Persian Gulf imports." This is nonsense: Even dramatic reductions in energy use will do little to reduce the percentage of oil that comes from overseas. America imports oil because overseas supplies are substantially less expensive than oil produced at home. Reduce domestic oil consumption on the margin, which is all Kennedy's proposed policy would do, and the result will be a decline in consumption of domestic oil. Imports will scarcely be affected. Nonetheless, Kennedy claims that the "savings" from such a policy "would help balance our trade deficit and provide a permanent economic stimulus package."

Kennedy spends very little time discussing the details of policy or considering genuine policy disputes. He frets about the potential risks of terrorist attacks on nuclear and chemical plants — exaggerating the risks posed by the former, and voicing no concern about the federal environmental policies that mandate public disclosure of security vulnerabilities at the latter. He condemns Gale Norton as the first Interior secretary since the passage of the Endangered Species Act not to place, "voluntarily," a single species on the endangered list. But he never says what good it would have done endangered species if she had: Since 1973, more species have gone extinct under the act's "protection" than have been recovered. Likewise, there is a reasonable debate to be had on the Bush administration's efforts to provide incentives for landowners to participate in conservation, but Kennedy does not engage it.

Major portions of Crimes Against Nature are dedicated to a string of personal attacks on Bush-administration officials who, the author claims, operate for the benefit of their "corporate paymasters." Anyone with ties to the private sector is suspect. Those who disagree with his diagnosis are "charlatans" and "shills" for "polluters." Kennedy doesn't challenge the credentials or conclusions of scientists with whom he disagrees; he merely labels them "crooked," and nothing more than "biostitutes" for hire. Unable to document the substance of his claims, Kennedy is content to impugn the motives of his opponents.

Despite his shrill pitch and sloppy execution, Kennedy occasionally hits his mark. Many of his criticisms of the energy bill now being considered in Congress are on target. The nation would be better off with no energy legislation at all than with this Christmas tree of corporate subsidies and giveaways masquerading as a national energy policy. Yet Kennedy glosses over the fact that many of the worst excesses are the fault of Congress, not the administration. Ethanol subsidies are to be condemned, but they were not invented by President Bush. The corn lobby has plowed fertile ground in Washington for decades with bipartisan assistance. And this fault, of blaming Bush for anything and everything without regard to the facts, is not limited to Kennedy's discussion of energy: He even tries to blame Bush for some of the Clinton administration's environmental missteps.

Kennedy's discussion of broader matters is equally deficient. He butchers the history of the Magna Carta, distorts the origins of American wildlife law, and suggests that the media fail to cover environmental issues owing to repeal of the "fairness doctrine" in the 1980s. (In fact, Kennedy's own NRDC had no trouble pitching the Alar scare to 60 Minutes after the fairness doctrine's demise, and environmental alarmism is alive and well in the major media.) Most troubling of all is Kennedy's comparison of the Bush administration to the fascist governments of 1930s Italy, Germany, and Spain; he further claims Bush and Cheney have "clearly grasped the lesson" of "Hitler's sidekick," Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering. Kennedy has reached the border between error and outright kookery, and heedlessly crossed it.

Earlier this year, the online environmentalist magazine Grist suggested that Kennedy could become the environmental Michael Moore, and Crimes Against Nature the green Fahrenheit 9/11. Now that Moore's filmmaking has been exposed as dishonest and irresponsible anti-Bush propaganda, it seems Grist was right on target. Robert Kennedy's Crimes Against Nature would be more accurately titled Crimes Against Fact.

Mr. Adler teaches environmental law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and is a contributing editor to National Review Online.

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