Big Think Interview With Alex Matthiessen
Alex Matthiessen is the President of Riverkeeper, a New York State-based clean water advocacy organization widely considered to be among the most successful non-profits of its kind. Prior to his tenure at Riverkeeper, Mr. Matthiessen was a Special Assistant at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he developed the Green Energy Parks initiative. He has also served as a macroeconomic policy analyst in Indonesia for the Harvard Institute for International Development and worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Hudson River Improvement Fund, Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.
Question: Where does New York City's drinking water come from?
Alex Matthiessen: Okay, very good question, and surprisingly I would guess that if you surveyed New Yorkers on the street, only a small fraction of them would actually know where their water comes from. They might have some vague idea that it comes from somewhere upstate, but in fact New York City and Westchester County, so 8 million from the five boroughs of New York City plus a million for Westchester County, 9 million total, get their daily drinking water supply from a 2000 square mile area that mostly is in the Catskills, 1500 square miles of that is in the Catskill Mountains, and then the other 500 square miles is throughout Putnam and Westchester County. The system is basically based on capturing rainwater from rainfall that is moved down the mountainside and obviously gets collected through a system of streams and reservoirs, some natural reservoirs, natural lakes, and other man-made lakes, 19 of them in total that capture that water and then through a series of aqueducts that were built starting in the mid-19th century, all the way to the early part of the 20th century make their way through gravitation, there’s no pumps involved at, this is in other words basically from the source up in the Catskills down to New York City there is an elevation drop, it is very, very small, you know, per foot per mile but it is enough to keep the water moving through gravitation down to the city’s buildings and internal pipes.
So that’s essentially where the water comes from, about 90% of the supply, the 1.5 billion gallons that come to New York City every day comes from the Catskill Delaware system essentially which is basically the Catskill watershed which is the water that falls east off of the Catskill Mountains and the Delaware watershed which falls west of the Catskill Mountains and eventually would have made its way down to the Delaware River were it not captured in these upstate reservoirs. So 90% comes from that source, it’s a very, very clean source because of the relatively minor amount of development up in that region. The 10% roughly that comes from the east of Hudson System or the Westchester and Putnam system actually is not quite as clean. I mean it’s safe enough to drink but it has much more pressure on it and is much more exposed to potential contaminants because of the heavy development that’s happen in Putnam and Westchester over the last, you know, 50 to 100 years.
Just to back up a second but New Yorkers may not know that the source of their drinking water is unfiltered, it’s treated with a little bit of chlorine to hit basic pathogens, it’s treated with a little bit of fluoride to avoid tooth decay and beyond that it’s not filtered, it’s one of the last remaining unfiltered systems. So that’s why it tastes so delicious and it’s so clean. The problem is you’ve got to then protect the water at its source up in the Catskills and in east of Hudson. Unfortunately because of all the development of the east of Hudson part of the system the EPA decided at New York you gotta build a filtration plant that’s the only way you can absolutely safeguard that part of the water supply. The problem is of course is once you build that filtration plant, it takes pressure off of New York City, off of those upstate communities who live in the watershed to actually protect the water at its source and a filtration plant is not bullet proof. Now you can still have pathogens get through a filtration plant and cause outbreaks of disease.
Question: What are your main challenges in keeping NYC drinking water safe?
Alex Matthiessen: Well, Riverkeeper was part of an historic agreement in 1997 called the Watershed Agreement, and it was an agreement between New York City and the state of New York and the upstate communities who live again in these watershed areas. There’s been a longstanding tension between the upstate communities who feel like New York is robbing their water and not only that but because of the need to protect the area, it’s also restricting their opportunity for economic growth and economic development, and then New York has had to balance that frustration and also make sure that it repays those upstate communities in some way.
So in order to protect the source of our drinking water and to make sure that we remain an unfiltered supply or we continue to enjoy an unfiltered supply, we reached this agreement between environmental groups like Riverkeeper, the state of New York, upstate communities, New York City and basically it’s set out a series of requirements that New York had to follow in order to protect that upstate source, but also to help promote some sustainable economic growth up in that region to provide jobs and economic stimulus. So among those things are acquiring land, you need buffer lands especially around the streams and the reservoirs itself so that pollution, erosion, sediment etc. salt from nearby roads, doesn’t run into the reservoirs and of course end up in our drinking water supply. You also need to especially in the east-of-Hudson system, you need to upgrade sewerage treatment plants that are in some cases are 40, 50 years old, they’re starting to fail, they’re starting to discharge untreated or partially treated sewerage into water system. Now again, by the time that makes its way down to New York City through natural systems and microbes and so that its treated. But nonetheless you don’t wanna have that too much of that, so you’ve gotta upgrade the sewerage treatment plants, you’ve gotta help home owners to upgrade their septic systems where you don’t have sewerage treatment, etc.
So Riverkeeper plays the role of being the watchdog, making sure that New York City and its environmental agency the DEP, Department of Environmental Protection is doing all the things that they agreed to do in that 1997 agreement. Unfortunately their track record has been very mixed and that very much depends on who the Mayor of New York is at the time. When you had Mayor Giuliani, this is something he did not think was a priority, he did not put a Commissioner of the DEP who thought it was a priority either and there was a lot of kind of shenanigans going on and a lot of cutting of budgets and not putting enforcement officers up in the watershed to make sure that the source of our water is protected. Mayor Bloomberg has been much better but still it’s an old agency and they’ve got a certain bureaucratic ways of doing things. They’ve got certain kind of agency resistance that makes it difficult sometimes to get them to do everything they need to do. But Riverkeeper plays the role of being watchdog to make sure that they do what they’re supposed to do. Now the other threat especially to the 90% that comes from the Catskill system is that development pressures in the Catskills have quadrupled over the last, you know, 7 years, particularly since 9/11. There was a migration of some New Yorkers who left New York City after 9/11 because of, you know, the fear of terrorism and so on and a lot of them ended up going up to the Catskill regions which only a couple of hours away to settle and with those additional people, suddenly developers started to see dollar signs and saw the Catskills as a potential economic boom area and it is, it’s a gorgeous area, you’ve got the advantage of obviously having a little bit higher unemployment up there.
So there is a real hunger for jobs, which means that the local municipalities are gonna be generally supportive of whatever kind of development comes up there. So there’s really an increasing amount of pressure to develop that area and if we do that and we don’t do it right and suddenly that 90% starts to get contaminated in a way that it really hasn’t been to date. Then suddenly New York City is looking at having to build potentially a filtration plant for that west-of-Hudson part of the system that 90% which would cost, current estimates are 10 to 12 billion dollars and you’re talking about an annual operation of maintenance cost of about half a billion dollars per year. So you can imagine New Yorkers water rates will go through the roof. So it’s not a scenario that we want.
Question: How likely is a terrorist attack on the city's water supply?
Alex Matthiessen: You know there’s something that we looked into very rigorously around, you know, not long after the 9/11 attacks and became an obvious question. If you’re looking at New York City in particular but the New York regions infrastructure, one of the potential vulnerable points well obviously the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant is one of those. The chemical plants over in New Jersey are another but certainly our water supply is vital. I mean Manhattan and the surrounding five boroughs would not survive very long without a source of water because most of the water, I mean almost all of it actually does come from upstate. So clearly that was a concern. We did some investigation, there’s a couple of conclusions we came to which put us at ease. First of all the DEP did step up their enforcement presence up in the watershed to make sure there’s security up there near the aqueducts, near the Canseco Reservoir where a lot of the water comes through to make sure that those areas are protected from some kind of, you know, attempt to blow up, you know, the dam or blow up the Canseco Reservoir and so that was somewhat assuring.
Secondly, in terms of if a terrorist was to dump some kind of chemical agent or mercury or something that was highly toxic that could pollute the entire system and poison New Yorkers. By the time that was done, word would get out, the DEP would know about it and New Yorkers would of course be warned not to drink any of the water. So in terms of actually being successful in killing New Yorkers by contaminating the water supply, you know, it takes 60 to 90 days if you drop a drop of water in some of the upstate reservoirs for it to make its way through the system down into your taps here in New York City. But nonetheless they could contaminate the upstate supply and heavily disrupt New York City because if we were obviously without water for some time until we could treat or deal with the poisoning of our system then certainly that would disrupt the city.
Question: How did Riverkeeper clean up the Hudson?
Alex Matthiessen: Well the Hudson is actually a terrific success story, it’s hailed internationally as a model of waterway restoration because of Riverkeepers work on the Hudson River and helping to restore the river which we’ve been largely successful at over the last 40 years along and in coalition with many other environmental groups and concerned citizens and so on. This has become as I said a model for waterway restoration and Riverkeeper has become a model for water, clean water advocacy. Riverkeeper is the first water keeper if you will, we were started in 1966, there are now 175 other Water Keepers working locally to protect their sounds and their bays and their coastal areas and their lakes and streams, all over the world. I think we’re on 6 continents now, 15 to 20 countries.
So we’re the fastest-growing grassroots environmental organization in the world and it’s all based on a very simple model which is local people taking into their own hands the need and the responsibility and the privilege of working on and restoring a local waterway that’s been abused through, you know, decades or centuries if you will of industrial activity. So it’s a terrific success story, I would guess that if the Hudson River was a ten, if you rated it a ten, you know, when the Lanape Indians were living along its shores and before Columbus showed up, it was probably a two by the mid ‘60s when we got our start and I’d say we’re probably roughly a 7 today and that’s real progress and, you know, you can swim the length of the Hudson on most days in most areas of the Hudson, absolutely safely, and people do that by the thousands every spring and summer and fall. There are some problems with swimming, which I’ll get to in a second, but people are back out on the river fishing, people are picnicking, kayaking in record numbers. The bald eagles have returned to the Hudson in droves, you know, ecologically speaking the Hudson has really come back to, you know, not to a fully restored river, but much, much better than it was in the past.
Question: What work still needs to be done on the Hudson?
Alex Matthiessen: So, you know, we’re in good shape relatively speaking, however that’s not to say that there aren’t some remaining obstacles and they’re serious ones. One is General Electric as everybody knows dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, which are highly toxic to humans and to animals, into the river up around Hudson Falls over a 40 year period, a 30 year period from the mid ‘40s to the mid ‘70s. Those PCBs were banned in the ‘70s, but the damage had been done, the PCBs had made their way throughout the upper Hudson and the lower part of the river, the estuary and spread throughout the entire eco system. The Hudson River as a result is the largest Superfund site in the country; we have been working for 30 years, again, in coalition with some of our other environmental partners and concerned citizens, to try and force General Electric to clean up that mess, and at this point they can’t meaningfully remove PCBs from the lower part of the Hudson because they’re so dispersed, it’d be impossible to try and collect them.
But that 40 mile stretch between their facilities up in Hudson Falls and the federal dam at Troy is a hot spot, there’s PCBs shore to shore, bank to bank and there’s a great opportunity to clean those up because that 40 mile stretch serves as an ongoing source of 500 pounds of PCBs that come over the dam every year, down to the lower estuary and that means that the PCB levels in fish are being maintained at levels that are too high, that exceed the FDA and the EPA regulations. So that’s why we had to close a number of the commercial fisheries on the Hudson like the striped bass and eel and others because of the PCB contamination. So until we remove, you know, the couple hundred thousand pounds of PCBs that are in that hotspot area, we’re not going to remove or eliminate the source of PCBs down in the lower part of the river and until we do that we won’t be able to reopen those fisheries.
So that’s one issue, another issue is sewerage, you know, the Clean Water Act helped us to force municipalities to build these sewerage treatment plants up and down the river. But now these plants are 30, 40 years old some of them and they’re starting to fail. So we need serious help from the federal government in particular and from the state government as well to get these municipalities the money they need to upgrade or to replace these plants because we’re now starting to have ongoing regular discharges, unintended discharges of raw or partially treated sewerage into the Hudson and if we continue at this pace, swimming in the Hudson at one point will no longer be safe and even now, you don’t wanna swim after it’s been raining, near one of these sewerage treatment plants, especially ones that combine their sewerage and their storm water because you almost certainly will have a discharge.
So it’s a major problem in New York City; it’s a major problem in Albany; it’s a problem in Yonkers and some of the other larger towns along the river. So, you know, there’s definitely still a number of issues that are of concern. One more that I just really wanna mention because it reflects a new report that we’re just about to issue, which is despite what we had thought, while there were improvements over the last 40 years, a lot of the signature fish of the Hudson are actually in various states of decline; 10 of the 13 fish that our researchers looked at are in various states of decline. We’re talking about the American Shad, the Atlantic Sturgeon, the Tom Cod, the American Eel, these fish are in trouble and there’s all kinds of possible explanations. One is actually global warming, potentially, we’ve already started to see the Hudson River average temperature’s going up by a couple of degrees even now and that can radically affect a lot of these species ability to come up into the river and spawn, reproduce successfully.
Secondly, you’ve got a lot of invasive species like the Zebra Mussel which have radically changed the food chain in the Hudson and basically removed a lot of the phytoplankton and other food sources of some of these fish. You’ve got these old, 5 old antiquated power plants on the Hudson which withdraw huge volumes of water from the Hudson every single day. Indian Point, which is the nuclear facility, alone, withdraws 2.4 billion gallons per day from the Hudson. That is almost twice as all of New York City combined uses on a daily basis in terms of water consumption. So this one plant is causing enormous impacts.
Question: How dangerous is the Indian Point nuclear plant?
Alex Matthiessen: Well the issues with Indian Point quite simply are that it’s a nuclear power plant that’s got a long history of safety and security problems at the plant. It’s historically one of the worst-rated and worst-run plants in the nation. There’s two reactors there, two working reactors and then there’s a third that was decommissioned back in the ‘70s, but you essentially have a plant that shuts down accidentally at a rate 5 to 6 times the national average in terms of all of the different plants around the country. You’ve got an emergency plan that is a joke on its face. James Lee Witt, who is the country’s leading expert on emergency planning, he was the former Director of FEMA for 10 years under President Clinton and he came in, he was hired by Governor Pataki to look at the evacuation plan of the plant and determined that it was essentially unworkable, and the reasons are obvious. First of all, you’ve got high population density in the Westchester, Lower Hudson Valley, New York metropolitan area. 20 million people live within a 50 mile radius of the Indian Point plant; that includes out onto Long Island, all 5 boroughs of New York City, Western Connecticut, Northeastern New Jersey and, you know, the mid to lower Hudson Valley.
So it’s a lotta people who were in what the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself calls the peak injury zone that 50 mile radius. You’ve got a very congested road network throughout Westchester and throughout the Hudson Valley and New York metropolitan area, so if you were to have even a minor accident, but especially a major accident, you would have a massive exodus. And it’s not just the people within the 10-mile evacuation zone that the NRC pretends are the only ones of concern here—you know, come on, if you live anywhere in Westchester or New York City and so on, and you hear there’s been a major accident at Indian Point, you’re gonna do whatever you can to get out of the area. I mean if you look at Chernobyl and the area that covered, well that would go, you know, if you were to superimpose a map of Chernobyl and all the contaminate areas that were affected by the Chernobyl accident, all on a map of the United States with Chernobyl being right where Indian Point is, you’d be reaching up into Canada, down into the Carolinas, it’s a massive area.
Now I wanna be clear, the way that an accident can happen at Indian Point will be different than Chernobyl; the designs are very different. But the point is, if you had an accident at Indian Point and you had a major release of radiation, it would spell absolute disaster for not only New York where the world’s financial system is centered but also for the world economy. I mean you can’t imagine an accident that would be more disastrous for New York, for the US and for the world.
Question: What are alternatives to the Indian Point plant?
Alex Matthiessen: There’s plenty of alternative sources and this is one of the, you know, the issues that the company that owns Indian Point has worked very hard to scare the public about, which is the idea that there’s no way you can replace Indian Point’s power and if you do the subways will shut down and so on. First of all this is not the way electricity works, you’ve gotta, you know, all kinds of providers, power generators who are contributing to the system and when one plant goes down, others kick in and provide power. So there’s no one plant that provides power for the subway or for JFK Airport or any specific facility, it’s all intermixed. There are plenty of alternatives, first of all you’ve got a very substantial wind potential in New York State and we already have 800 megawatts on contract or in contract for the state of New York to be built. You’ve also got excess supplies in both the New England grid and the New Jersey/Maryland/Delaware grid, as much as 30 to 35% ,which we can import some of that into the city if we were to close Indian Point, for instance, right away. You’ve also got the potential to repower a lot of existing old, dirty plants throughout the Hudson Valley and New York metropolitan area that are coal, oil plants for instance that are highly inefficient, that pollute the air as it is and if you repower them, you could probably double the amount of power, it depends on the case but you could as much as double the power being generated from those plants right now and you would reduce your air pollution by 97, 98%.
So there’s lots of different opportunities, obviously energy efficiency is another way where you can actually shave substantial amounts of power. For instance Indian Point produces about 2000 megawatts of power and we’ve done studies, independent studies that show that if you just applied a relatively rigorous energy efficiency program in New York State you could save that much power as well.
Question: Do you endorse nuclear power in general?
Alex Matthiessen: Well Riverkeeper’s really focused on protecting, you know, the Hudson River and our New York City drinking water supply so we don’t tend to get into the larger issues but I’ll say this about nuclear power, it’s a frustrating source of power because on the one hand there’s no energy source that with such a small, relatively small amount of material produces so much power so that the potential of this technology is incredible. The problem is of course is that not only have we not figured out how we’re gonna store it safely, have we not figured out how to gain full control over avoiding nuclear proliferation, some of the plutonium and other substances getting into the hands of the wrong people. Not only have we not fully dealt with the issue of accidents and what would happen in the case of an accident but this is not an economic source of power. If you were to remove all the subsidies that the US government and thus taxpayers provide to make the nuclear industry viable, the industry never would have gotten off the ground, we wouldn’t have a single plant in this country. It’s the most heavily subsidized of all the energy sources. So I would welcome the day and I think that we should continue to research nuclear fusion and fission to see if there are ways to improve on the current model. Because of again the potential to produce so much power from so little material but we’ve got to solve those problems of storage and waste and proliferation if we’re gonna make nuclear a viable future source.
Question: What would a responsible national energy policy look like?
Alex Matthiessen: Well I tell you, I think the simple answer to or let me rephrase that, it’s actually not so simple but I think that a key to environmental problems in general and energy issues in particular is that we need a tax or a cap in auction program, trading program is a different way to do it but I think you need to make it expensive to emit carbon and frankly emit other pollutants into the atmosphere and expensive to pollute our waterways and so on and until you do that I think that the risk we run is that all the green work that we’re doing and it has become so popular over the last year or two is just a passing fad. You really have to make polluting cost money for these companies and in terms of an energy policy again there’s no quicker way to start to develop all these promising technologies in terms of the biofuels and solar and wind and geothermal and cell fuel technology and so on until gasoline and oil becomes prohibitively expensive and, you know, I’m not saying they should be unfairly taxed, the problem is that those, again those fuel sources have been subsidized for so long that we are not capturing the true cost of using those sources, you know, in terms of all the money that goes into building national highway system, all of the health impacts that burning fossil fuels have on our health, the climate change impacts that are coming down the road that we’re already seeing, which are gonna have huge economic impacts on our economy and so on. So the key in my view is to make carbon emissions cost real money and the only real way and the most efficient way to do that is through a carbon tax.
Question: What, if anything, can sustain the green movement?
Alex Matthiessen: Well, you know, the truth is that the environmental movement in my view has been enormously successful in its, you know, modern incarnation, you know, meaning from the late ‘60s early ‘70s when we passed our modern environmental laws til now, we’ve had huge gains there. We eliminated ozone polluting chemicals and we’ve done a lot but the problem is, is that we’re such a specialized country that it’s really been left up mostly to environmental groups and environmentalists to do this work and we’ve been up against enormous odds, you know, you’ve been up against these corporations that, you know, the way the system works, don’t have a real clear financial interest in protecting the environment all the time and frankly the government doesn’t do a very good job of enforcing the laws which is another regulatory way to stop companies from polluting. And you have certainly the concern of a lot of Americans who support us but they’ve got a million concerns and the environment often is kind of ranked low.
So it’s really the environmentalist and the environmental groups kind of working on their own with a vast gap in resources, you know, to take on some of these colossally large, expensive programs. So I think one of the results of that has been that our progress has been relatively incremental and because of that we are now starting to realize that some of the gains that we’ve made haven’t been nearly enough and you’re starting to see real kind of ecological crisis and collapse and potential for collapse, you know, when you’re talking about our fisheries, our air quality, you know, record level asthma rates, a change in climate and so on. So suddenly Mother Nature is speaking back to us and telling us that whatever progress we’ve made isn’t nearly enough and we gotta do a lot more.
So I think in order for us to get to the next level as an environmental movement if you will, it has to be about every American, every citizen in the world, we have to recognize that we’re all in this together. We can no longer say “Okay, they’re the environmentalists, they’re gonna take care of the problem or technology’s gonna take care of the problem” everybody has to take a very hard look at the way that they’re living and that we’re living together and figure out how to minimize their impact on the planet and it can no longer be just write your check and send it off to Riverkeeper, NRGC or one of these other groups, we’ve got to have everybody doing their part and really making those personal lifestyle changes and choices in order to minimize that impact and, you know, the myth is I think that it’s gonna mean a radically—it’s gonna mean this radical sacrifice and that we are gonna have to, you know, go back to cavemen days and living very frugally and uncomfortably and so on. I don’t think that has to be the case at all, I think that we can live very, very comfortable lives without having such a big impact on our environment.
Question: Is living luxuriously incompatible with living green?
Alex Matthiessen: Yeah, I think there is a contradiction there and what I worry about and I think a lot of us environmentalists worry about is in this, you know, it feels very much like being green and living green has become this incredible fad and all the, you know, the good news is, is that, you know, consumers do have an enormous amount of power and there’s various ways to get corporations to move in a different direction and one certainly, you know, one, there’s certainly regulations and enforcement of the laws and a carbon tax and so on but another way is by consumers making a radical expression of we wanna do things differently, we want different kinda products, we want products that aren’t gonna pollute the environment and of course that gets corporations to move too.
So in a certain way you’re seeing, you know, real movement on behalf of some of these corporations but I think that the danger is, is that if we decide that we can consume just as much as we always have, we just have to consume products that have a slightly less damaging impact on the environment, we’re not gonna get there. We really have to change kind of how we live our lives in a more significant way than that and I think that part of that is asking ourselves is my level of consumerism really healthy for the planet, even if it doesn’t emit quite as much carbon and so on. There’s a certain point at which we have to maybe not consume so much. Now this can, you know, the danger of what I’m about to say is it can sound paternalistic but I would argue that actually consuming less is a recipe for happiness in this country in a certain way because I think we, first of all as Americans we run around with our heads cut off, we’re all so stressed, we work too hard, we’re running thin if you will and we don’t take as much time as we should to spend time with our friends and with our family and to get out in nature and do things that are spiritually fulfilling and sustaining and I think that part of it is that we’re all so kinda consumer addicted, we’re all kinda looking for the new X—iPod or the, you know, the new car or whatever it is and I think that detracts from our connection to nature which I think is a really, really important one that really gives-- that grounds people. I know that when I go out and do a back packing trip with my friends, I get way off in the desert, in the mountains or what have you, I’m never happier, I never feel more at peace with myself, I never feel kinda more connected to the world around me than I do in nature and I, you know, hesitate to sound paternalistic but I think that Americans frankly would find a more fruitful path to happiness if we could kinda back off on the kind of heavy-duty consumerism, I think it kinda gets in our way spiritually.
Question: What are the major challenges of running a nonprofit?
Alex Matthiessen: Well, I think my governing philosophy is as the head of Riverkeeper is very much modeled on John Adams, who founded and ran the Natural Resources Defense Council for many years, and that is the idea that you hire the best possible people you can and then you let them go, you let them kind of do their thing and use their talents to advance your mission, advance your cause. So that’s very much what I’ve tried to do, you know, I inherited an organization that was still very much of a mom-and-pop shop and we’ve really turned it into a professional organization. We’re very efficient, we’re very lean, we have more than doubled our staff, we have quadrupled our budget. So through my leadership I’ve helped to kind of build our capacity and to allow us to confront more polluters in a larger geographic area, cover more of the Hudson to start to get involved in New York City in a way that we hadn’t been before which is, you know, critical, you know, the more places we are, the more we can do our work. I’ve also very much emphasized the importance of getting citizens involved in the work that we do, you know, when we were 10 people, now that we’re 25 people, even if we’re 40 people, 50 people, you know, in terms of the size of our organization, we’re never gonna have the bodies to cover all of the New York City watershed and the Hudson River watershed and to address all the problems that are out. We really need average citizens to be a part of our effort and then it means not just sending us checks but actually attending, you know, public hearings and going to community meetings and writing letters and running for office locally and helping us fight misguided, ill advised development projects in the watershed etc. They’re a critical part of the work that we do.
In terms of challenges, you know, the challenge with a group of our size and especially one that’s been growing as quickly as we have is that you can get very much mired down as the head of the organization in the day to day running of the organization and that can be very distracting, very time consuming, very energy intensive and frankly, not necessarily a good use of the president’s time, you know, the person who’s supposed to have the vision of where you’re going and has the contacts and the ability to kind of sell the organization and to build our capacity and raise our profile and strengthen our stature among elected officials and other decision makers, you know, you’ve gotta be out and about and you’ve gotta be doing that work externally and it’s easy in a small organization to get kind of caught up in the kind of day-to-day decisions that need to take place.
Question: Is green activism too limited to certain races and classes?
Alex Matthiessen: There’s no question about it, I think that the environmental movement in general has suffered from seeming to represent a pretty narrow segment of society and that’s not the case obviously, you know we’re out there fighting for clean water and for clean air and so on, we’re doing it for everybody, of all economic or income levels, of all races, of all religions and all political parties and so on, you know, there’s no discrimination in terms of the work that we’re doing but largely speaking the environmental movement over the last 30, 40 years has been dominated by middle to upper class, you know, white folks who have been, you know, leading the charge on this stuff and I think that’s unfortunate.
I mean I think there’s some kind of reasonable explanations for that but it’s unsustainable because it’s had a couple of effects. First of all, we’re failing to reach large segments of the population that are actually being even more hammered by environmental pollution than a lot of the kind of, you know, upper middle class folks who are part of these organizations. So they have even more at stake if you live in an urban area or a low income area whether it’s, you know, or a rural area and so on, a lot of times you’re more subjected to air, water pollution than other communities. I also think that we have not done a good job of appealing to folks as well and I think that that’s why we’ve tended to be vulnerable to the tree-hugger or the kind of elitist type of tag and I think that we’ve failed to do that, you know, luckily I think that that’s really changing.
First of all, a lot of environmental justice organizations are starting and are actually, you know, are thriving around the country, and you’ve got people like Majora who are doing terrific work and who are really becoming serious voices and influential players in this movement, but not just in this movement, but in political circles as well, and that’s vitally important and it’s long overdue, but I can’t say how thrilled I am that it’s happening now. Because the bottom line is this, if it’s just the environmentalists trying to do this work on their own, we’re not gonna do it, we’ve got to enlarge the tent to have it represent all sectors of society and we’ve got to include everybody, everybody has to see themselves as an environmentalist. We have to get away from the idea that’s a dirty word which is, you know, what unfortunately a lot of our opponents have successfully achieved is making environmentalism some kind of fringe activity. I think it’s becoming pretty apparent with climate change especially, but all the different environmental problems we have that this is no longer a fringe issue, this is front and central to how we’re going to do going forward, and not just in terms of our health but also economically and otherwise. So luckily I think the word is starting to catch on, and whether we want it to or not, this is becoming a world movement and it needs to.
Question: Does nature hold spiritual value for you?
Alex Matthiessen: It does, you know, I was not raised in a religious household, so I’m not part of any, you know, organized or formal religion and so for me for a long time since I was a kid being in nature has been, you know, my source of inspiration and my connectedness to the world and I find being in nature, you know, an intensely spiritual experience and I just wish I could spend more time at it. I mean the irony, of course, for a lot of us environmentalists is that this work is so all consuming and so challenging that you end up working very, very long hours and don’t get as much of a chance to get out in nature as you like but it’s critically important and one of the things I would say to kinda average Americans in addition to supporting groups like ours, in addition to getting much more politically and civically engaged than we’ve traditionally been in the past is to get your kids out in nature and to give them the chance to make that connection with nature and with wildlife and to develop a real deep appreciation for nature and for the species that we share this planet with, and also for all the benefits that the natural world gives us in terms of our ability to live life on this planet and, you know, then the other thing I’d say too is that part of what motivates this work is that, you know, to be honest, is an emotional one.
I have an enormous amount of anger and then frustration that we humans, you know, as talented and beautiful as we are as a species and the things that we’ve created in terms of the arts and music and even political systems and figure out a way to kind of live among one another for the most part successfully that we are also capable of such destruction and such greedy behavior and that we don’t have more of a moral imperative to not just protect ourselves but protect the other species and natural systems that we share this planet with. I find it disgraceful in a certain way and this is what worries me about America in particular because we have been seen as a model democracy to a certain extent, although I think that’s less true now, I don’t think our democracy is quite as—doesn’t meet quite the high standards that I think that our founders had in mind these days. But we really have been seen as generally a role model for the rest of world in the way we conduct our lives, in the way we run our economy and in particular the way we consume things and I think that’s very frightening and even though our role has been diminished and our standing has been diminished in the last 7 or 8 years worldwide, I think we still have a big influence and thus a great opportunity to do things differently here and just say “Okay, yeah, we did it, we did it this way for a long time, we were very rapacious and consumptive for a long time and we’ve realized that that’s not the way to go and we’re gonna go off in a new direction and we wanna encourage you guys to do the same thing” meaning all the other countries and of course we have an obligation to help them do that because part of the reason that we’re in the mess we’re in is because of all the pollution and the problems we’ve created over a long, long time. I think we do have a moral and an economic and financial obligation to help assist some of these other countries that are trying to grow economically and to improve their quality of life and so on to help them make that transition.
A discussion with Alex Matthiessen, Riverkeeper of New York's Hudson River and President of the organization Riverkeeper.
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