Bear Mountain Bridge on the Hudson River in New York. CREDT: <a href="">Shutterstock</a>
Bear Mountain Bridge on the Hudson River in New York. CREDT: Shutterstock

Riverkeeper fights to protect the Hudson and the drinking water for nine million New Yorkers. Paul Gallay relates three of its success stories, offering lessons for other communities. Whether working on a  local level or tackling climate change on a global one, his advice is the same: be realistic, honest, and, above all, creative and courageous.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you all for joining us for this final session of our symposium. I am delighted to welcome Paul Gallay from Riverkeeper to be our closing speaker. I think it will bring together many of the elements that we have been discussing over the last day and a half.

When we organized the conference, we were hoping to bring in a person with experience, somebody who has worked the problem of environmental protection, and done so at the community level, to be able to reflect on that experience and see how it might connect up with some of the themes we have been discussing about the global-scale problem of climate change.

When I called Paul—I believe it was several months ago, maybe in the summer—it was just a delightful conversation. When I asked him somewhat tentatively if he would agree to come and speak to us, it was one of the most enthusiastic "yeses" I had had in quite some time. As a consequence, I have been looking forward to this session ever since. So thanks.

Just a very brief introduction. This is actually—I apologize in advance—from the Riverkeeperweb site, but it is so good, I thought I would just read a couple of paragraphs by way of introducing the organization and Paul.

About the organization: Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries and protecting the drinking water supply of 9 million New York City and Hudson Valley residents. For nearly 50 years, Riverkeeper has been New York's clean water advocate.

Just a couple of words about Paul. Paul and the Riverkeeper team work to protect the Hudson River and the drinking water supplies for 9 million New Yorkers. An attorney and educator, Paul has dedicated himself to the environmental movement since 1987, when he left the private practice of law and went to work for the New York State attorney general. In 1990, Paul began a 10-year stint at New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, where he brought hundreds of corporate and government polluters to justice. Paul subsequently spent a decade in the land conservation movement before becoming Riverkeeper's president in 2010.

With that, I will turn it over to Paul. Then we can have a conversation. Paul, thanks again.


PAUL GALLAY: Joel, thank you.

This is a great honor for me and for my organization. I have read the abstracts and seen more about the agenda, and feel that the work that you are doing is hugely important. It is personally very interesting to me—the road not taken for me. When I went to law school, I had to choose between law school and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. International affairs is a deep fascination of mine. Issues associated with philosophy, pure and practical, were a focus for me in my undergraduate years. I try to bring the theoretical into my practice, in the same way that I know you are interested in bringing the practice into your theory. I am a big believer in synthesis, and I hope my talk will be worthwhile for you all.

A little more about Riverkeeper, to help set up for the remarks that I am going to give and the cases that I am going to describe. Riverkeeper is an organization that was founded in the so-called second phase of the environmental movement, well after the Wilderness and the American Mind phase and the Sierra Club phase. We were formed in the phase when the worst of industrial pollution had been acknowledged. It was before the first Earth Day, but it was during the run-up to the first Earth Day, where, of course, I believe as many as 20 million Americans said, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore."

For the next 49 years, since we were founded in 1966, our job was to make sure that we could advance a simple vision: the Hudson River and its tributaries teeming with life; clean, safe drinking water for 9 million New Yorkers; communities able to engage with and enjoy their rivers and their tributaries and the like; and most recently, relevant to the topic today, climate-safe communities, resilient communities, communities that sourced and used their energy responsibly and efficiently.

So the mission has grown. It has changed. A lot of the factories that cause the pollution that really sparked the second phase of environmentalism in this country are no longer in this country. There is a famous story on the Hudson River of a GM [General Motors] jeep-making plant in a community called North Tarrytown, which is now known as Sleepy Hollow, for those of you who watch the TV show. You could tell the color they were painting the jeeps by the color of the river in the area around the plant. That plant is now a slab. It is being redeveloped as housing. The remediation has been completed. General Electric is spending over $1 billion to remedy the damage caused by PCB pollution on the Upper Hudson. Our mission is shifting. It is no smaller than it ever was, but it is very different.

Our tactics in advancing this mission really are three. We defend the Hudson River, its wildlife, its tributaries, and the drinking water supply. We restore contaminated areas or areas where habitat values have been debauched or undermined. And we engage communities, whether it is to do shoreline cleanups, get them out on kayaks, get them to do activism and make sure their politicians know that the environmental movement is not to be taken lightly.

Which is the key question. At this stage we are talking about matters that are of the utmost importance and the utmost difficulty. There are people who know better. I fervently believe that the average climate denier knows better and that they are advancing their financial interests or their tribal interests at the known expense of the truth. So change is hard.

Environmentalism does not have the clout it used to have. There is simply no denying that. The Pew Charitable Trusts do research and have asked the same question for 30 years: Would you be willing to allow economic opportunity to predominate over environmental protection? In the mid-1980s, when they first started asking that question, the ratio was about 57 percent of people said, "No, we will not let the economy benefit at the expense of the environment," and 28 percent said, "Sure, that's good with me."

The numbers are now reversed. Now, they have been coming back a little closer together in the last couple of years, perhaps similarly to some of the changes in public perception on climate issues. And it is not just since the recession in 2007-2008. It is since 2000. Whether it was Fox News or George W. Bush or just exhaustion or "haven't we solved those problems yet," something fundamentally broke for the environmental movement in 2000.

When I teach, I still teach a paper that many of you have probably read and possibly even teach, yourselves, called "The Death of Environmentalism." I know a lot of people who think very little of that paper. I don't agree with at least a third to a half of what is in that paper, but I think it is a great conversation starter. The arguments are: We became marginalized. We became too full of ourselves. We became too insular, too inside-the-Beltway. When I think of how environmentalism ain't what it used to be—how you could not get 20 million people out on the street for Earth Day, how we were fortunate to get 400,000 people out on the street last September for the Climate March—how do we rebuild our movement? How do we rebuild our clout? I am a firm believer in the model of political change that begins with mass movement and mass influence.

I think climate change scares people senseless, literally in some cases and figuratively in others. People say things that they know cannot possibly be true because they have kind of jumped from a reality-based, objective, reasoning-based, empirical sense of things to wish fulfillment: "I don't believe in it, it doesn't exist," or, "If I believe in a solution that god will bring to us or that it is not manmade, then god will bring us a solution or it is not manmade, so it doesn't matter what we do." When I think about the ethical principles that can prevail and predominate in an era of people who are scared senseless, it derives from my own personal experience at Riverkeeper and in the land conservation movement and 13 years in government service.

I am going to talk about some ethical principles with regard to attempting to achieve climate success, but first some field notes, not from a catastrophe, but from what I consider to be a resurgent community-based activist movement for sustainability.

Three stories: The first is about an effort up in the city of Kingston, which is 80 miles north of here on the Hudson, on the other side of the river; the second, from Rockland County, much closer, just on the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which, for those of you who are not from the area, is about 40 miles from here; then a third from all over, which perhaps is the most important. But all three, I think, are fun and interesting, so I will try all three and then try to synthesize what these three have in common and what they might tell us about an ethics of climate action.

A year and a half ago, our organization got contacted by some community members in the city of Kingston. It is very near Woodstock. Everybody knows Woodstock. It is in Ulster County. Ulster County is 30 miles south of Albany, again 80-ish miles north of here. These folks were very upset. Interestingly, it was some people from the middle of the city of Kingston, a sort of post-industrial, mini-Rust Belt-looking city, with a nice coastal community that has been rebuilt for tourism and recreation and nightlife, but a real core city that really never came back from losing those industrial jobs that went overseas 30 years ago or however long ago. Some of them were land conservationists. Some of them were from the Woodstock area and others were from the middle of the city. They were all concerned about a plan to bottle water.

And bless you all for drinking out of carafes, because we have some of the best drinking water in New York City that can be found anywhere on the planet.

Niagara Bottling Company, I think the largest of the bottled water manufacturers—whatever you would call them—and distributors in the United States, wanted to take a fairly significant proportion of the city's excess water supply and bottle it and send it 300, 400, 500 miles away for people who don't understand how bottled water can be a real problem, unless you absolutely need to have bottled water because you don't have access to safe municipal drinking water.

They came to us and they said, "What can we do about it?" We said, "There is a beautiful law that we have in New York, which is even stronger than the famous National Environmental Policy Act"—in 1969, the United States created the environmental impact law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, which is a model for similar laws, requiring you to study the impacts of a project, see whether or not there are alternatives that might be less impactful, look for mitigation measures that would reduce the impacts, and ultimately determine whether you think the benefits are worth the impacts.

So we said, "You've got to get an environmental impact statement for this project," because this is 40 percent of the city's remaining uncommitted drinking water supply, and that is in a good year. In a drought year, it could be a lot higher. The company was also seeking grants from the state of New York. They were seeking tax abatements. We said, "Let's focus on the environmental impact. We are environmental impact lawyers. We believe in the law as an instrument of change. Let's get $3,000 or $4,000 together. Let's hire a consultant. Let's show why we need an environmental impact statement," which is what we did.

The community scraped the money together. We hired a consultant. The consultant did a five-page report, which is actually quite thoughtful. You know how quickly $3,000 goes these days. We gave it to the city of Kingston, which was dying to get this project done. They wanted to sell this water and they wanted to monetize—to use the Wall Street phrase—their assets. We, of course, saw those assets as possibly more valuable protected and husbanded and reserved than to turn into bottled water for communities that don't need bottled water.

Long story short: After a four- or five-month sort of cold war, the government entities told the company it needed to do an environmental impact statement. We were very happy about that. The company said, "Well, we'll think about it." I am sure they were conscious that they could fly someplace else, find somebody else's water where there wasn't activism, where there wasn't organization, maybe where they didn't have as strong an environmental impact law, and they could get through without following the law.

The community wasn't satisfied. They fought for withdrawal of the tax abatements. They fought for withdrawal of the state funding grants, which, frankly, we thought was a little outside our purview. We encouraged them. We gave them a little advice. But we stayed focused on the environmental law, and the community basically got the state to withdraw the tax abatements and the grants.

Anybody who knows how states work knows that that is a big thing. States don't generally do that once they decide to give away grants, whether it is because there were campaign contributors or whether because there were powerful politicians who were in favor of the project or whether the state just generally thought this was going to be a great project. The state just did a 180° turn on this. They withdrew the abatements and they withdrew the grants.

At that stage, the company said, "See ya. We're not going to do the environmental impact statement. The project is not interesting to us anymore."

So they talk about competition and capitalism. They could not compete on a playing field where they had to describe and own their environmental impacts and make the project succeed. How many bottles of water will you see in the two blocks between here and wherever you walk, and they can't make it work without tax abatements? Clearly they are just going for a return on investment from a community that will help them get beyond a fair return on investment to a really great return on investment. And people, of course, say that political contributions are the best investment a corporation can make.

Not satisfied with just stopping a bad project, we have worked with the community to foster better laws and better mechanisms for what happens the next time somebody comes along. And lo and behold, next Tuesday when the election comes in Kingston, there is a ballot initiative that says, "We want our city council to have control, not just the water board, because they are elected by us and they are responsible to us, the city council. Next time somebody wants to sell water out of our city, the city council needs to weigh in on that."

That referendum, I think—knock wood—is going to succeed. It has the support of all the politicians. The mayor of Kingston felt constrained to support the referendum. It did not protect him from being ousted in the primary by a young member of the city administration who just happens to be an environmental educator. So change. Change happens. It's hard, but it happens.

In Rockland County, there is already a private utility, known as United Water New York. It is a subsidiary of Suez, the large multinational French corporation, which controls a lot of water around the planet. All things being equal, Riverkeeper, not surprisingly, believes in public ownership of water. We find ourselves in a situation where United Water controls the water. There is no stopping that. I suppose at one point in the future there may be a revolution if United Water continues to mishandle its relationships with communities, and United Water could find itself out. But for the time being, you have to do business with them because they control the water.

We got involved again when a community member called us up and said, "United Water wants to build a desalination plant," to take Hudson River water and use it to feed growth—or some would say sprawl—in Rockland County, which is a very heavily populated community, and becoming very much more populated by the day. Desalination may be something that communities in the Middle East need to be considering, communities in San Diego. I guess Australia has a lot of desalination plants that have proved to be unsustainable from a business standpoint and have gone out of operation.

We get 55 inches of rain a year in New York, and why, in god's name, are we talking about desalination, when we have a high level of leaks from our systems because they haven't been properly maintained? We don't have a maximum of conservation or efficiency of use. We don't have a policy for pricing water in such a way that would incentivize conservation.

All these things became focal points for, again, local activism. Riverkeeper was aiding and abetting, along with our partner organization, Scenic Hudson, which is a land group that was working on water. It was really quite beautiful that we were in this nice partnership. But it was all locally driven.

Lo and behold, the New York State Public Service Commission, when we all pointed out the lack of a strong conservation plan, the amount of energy that you would need to run this desal plant—3,000 homes' worth of energy to run this plant—and the failure to consider adequate leak detection actions by the company, the Public Service Commission withdrew previously granted authority to build the plant.

This is going to sound like a broken record. Anybody who knows anything about the way governments and public service commissions work knows that it is about as rare as a hen's tooth to see the government withdraw approval of a previously approved corporate-sponsored project. It was because the community, non-profit organizations, local government officials all said we can do better.

This is an interesting one. This is a situation in which the Public Service Commission now sort of owns the adequacy of the water supply for 400,000 people in New York State. So they are convening the company, the politicians, the non-profit groups in an effort to foster a sensible conservation plan and a more aggressive leak-detection effort, so that desalination will be once and for all be proved to be unnecessary and it will never be reproposed.

Third story. We have this vision for a river teeming with fish—and the fish care about dissolved oxygen and other chemical and biological parameters—and enjoyed by people in kayaks or swimming or whatever. They care about different things. They tend to care about pathogens. They care about how the water is: Is it safe? Back in the day, if you fell into the Hudson, you would come out smelling and you wouldn't stop smelling for two or three showers or two or three days or both. Now people are going into the Hudson. People are going out on the Hudson. I was last out on the Hudson a week ago Friday. It was magical. It was like, "Why don't more people do this?" It is just transformative, the power of nature. This is in the Hudson Highlands.

Does anyone here know the story of the Storm King Mountain fight, which was the first big fight of the second wave of the environmental movement in this country, where a proposed power generation facility on one of the iconic mountains in the Hudson Highlands, by Bear Mountain, by West Point, the military academy, was proposed to just really deface the mountain? A combination of folks who were interested in views and folks who cared about fish got together and stopped the project.

So I am out on these waters and I am saying to myself, "We have to keep these waters safe." They are much safer. But 25 percent of the time, our samples show that the bacteria and other pathogens are too high in their concentration to allow for safe swimming or boating. People don't swim 75 percent of the time. They swim on particular days. They will swim on a Saturday, without thinking whether there was a rainstorm on Thursday or even a rainstorm on Friday—or even, necessarily, the connection between a rainstorm, which can overwhelm sewage treatment plants and lead to combined overflows that bring very high pathogen levels into the water—but if they have access to data—and I tend to be very data-driven. We get this access to data. We put it on our website. We share it with municipal officials.

We were told, "Don't publicize this data. Transparency is overrated. You are going to scare people away. They are not going to want to be facing the river. They are going to face away from the river. They will sit on these nice decks that cantilever out over the river, but they won't actually go in."

Happily, quite the contrary. We have about 300 different sites that we sample now. That is up from 75 as little as five years ago. Communities have come in and they have become samplers. We used to just do it ourselves, and now we have 23 different partner groups we do it with. We used to do it just on our one little lab on the boat that we maintain. Now there are 11 labs. We went from 75 locations to 315. The biggest year of growth was this past year. It is driving change in a meaningful way. Not only are people more aware, when they swim, fish, or boat, of how safe it is and people are asking us where the safest spots are. Municipal leaders who have the less safe spots are calling us up and saying, "I don't like that there is so much less pollution in the town next to me. How do I get to where they are?"

Countless cities have found sources of illegal discharge. Other cities have invested. The city of Albany, the capital of New York, originally proposed $35 million to remediate their storm-related pollution. Because this data showed that their pollution was so bad, so much worse than any other area, including New York City, which spends a lot of money on clean water, Albany quadrupled their commitment of cash. Now the first $10 million has been spent and the bacteria levels have dropped markedly. We see that in at least five or six different locations where people swim, fish, and boat, including some of those mini-Rust Belt communities, like Kingston or like Newburgh or like Beacon.

This is driving change, and it is driving change because people cared enough about their water to go out and sample with us. The data is quality-assured and quality-controlled. I was at a meeting with the governor's staff yesterday, along with about 45 of my fellow environmentalists. One of the questions was directed to me from the deputy director of state operations: "Tell us more about your water quality sampling work and how it is driving change." This was like an example he was using. If you go to our website,, you will see how many times we actually are criticizing the state over whether they are protecting the sturgeon from the redevelopment of the Tappan Zee Bridge crossing, whether they are adequately handling the impacts of Indian Point [nuclear power plant] or the hydrofracking issue.

They are looking to us as a partner, because I think they see that we represent a sensible approach and that we represent a lot of people, and "a lot of people" is what politics is all about. People who manufacture coffee cups measure their progress on whether they have a lot of coffee cups sold. Do they have brand loyalty? Do people buy their coffee cups twice or three times or more? Politicians measure their success on how many people vote for them, not on the number of bills they pass. You could pass zero bills and get elected by 80 percent. You are a successful politician. We want to make it harder for them to be successful politicians and make sure that they do well by the environment.

In the last five or ten minutes that I have, I am going to try to synthesize what I find really comes from all three of these cases and then again talk about what I consider to be a reasonable ethics of climate action.

Responsibility, I think, is a common frame for all of these stories, not just responsibility to the greater good, but responsibility to oneself and one's family and to the future.

Honesty, honesty about whether a project is a good one or a bad one. In an era when so many people are trying to demonize us in the environmental movement and in an era where we have so much less political clout—when I worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the 1990s, there were 4,100 employees. Now the population of the state is significantly larger. Yet the Department of Environmental Conservation has shrunk by over 1,000 to 2,950. What does that tell you about the clout of the environmental issue? What does that tell you about the commitment of our leaders?

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Richard Nixon was famous for saying, "I'm going to sign these environmental bills because I'm not going to let the Democrats own the damn environmental issue." There were people out in the street shouting at him about pollution. Now I am not sure most of the Democrats want to own the environmental issue.

Honesty about your endeavors so that you maintain the high ground, so that you don't give your enemies a lot to shoot at. Honesty about targets. Honesty about what success looks like. Such an important issue in the climate space. Honesty about the difficulty of change.

Attunement to the interests of others. A little full disclosure. We have a colleague, a very famous colleague, at Riverkeeper who believes that bottled water can be an appropriate product to sell. Bobby Kennedy, Jr. was once involved in a responsibly crafted bottled water campaign called Keeper Springs. All the profits went to Riverkeeper and our 250 partner organizations around the world. Bobby was at the discussion we have every Tuesday at Pace Law School about what cases to bring. He said, "Just don't demonize bottled water, but do require an environmental impact statement." So be attuned to broader interests and don't be as dogmatic as you might otherwise want to be.

Courage of one's convictions. Is there anything more important than the old line about "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"? In the Hudson Valley, we have Hyde Park, which is the Roosevelt museum and the old Roosevelt homestead. If I only remember one thing, it is that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I am a big believer, as I mentioned earlier, in the measurement of results and in the journey from small victories to large ones and in the ability of initial success to empower people to believe in change, to believe that it is worth turning towards the river when they see pollution rather than turning away from it.

Finally, creativity. Creativity is a value that, in an era where all kids get tested 10, 15 times a year and creativity is not on the grading scale—it is something that is harder and harder, just like having a rational view of the world is harder and harder, the more Fox News is ubiquitous and the more, even on the left, similar tactics are used.

Those, I think, are the things that these successes have in common and what Riverkeeper tries to prize as its tools in its toolkit, so to speak. I think when you synthesize this down into the principles of our climate action—and climate is, not surprisingly, since we are a 50-year-old organization, one of our newest commitments. Energy has always been tied to our work. But resiliency and sustainability are much more heavily weighted than they were when we were founded.

But some of the principles that I believe are essential to us are very old-school. I think the first and most important is community-based advocacy. I live in Cold Spring in Putnam County, about 50, 60 miles north of here. I am one vote there. I have friends. I can help influence them. Riverkeeper has a small office in Ossining in Westchester County. Some of you may know it because that is where Sing Sing Prison is. We can vote with our pocketbook. We can go to local businesses, and the mayor of Ossining will want to be on our good side, so to speak.

But if we want to create change in Albany, in Washington, in Kingston, in New York City, it is going to be because people in those communities are making this a priority and making it clear through their behaviors and their advocacy that this is something that their leaders have to take into account. We see it every day. It is, as Margaret Mead once said, the only thing that changes the world. So it is our first principle for our own climate ethics.

I would say that the next thing that we try to be is realistic. I don't know how much of a principle that is, to be objectively focused. Maybe you could say that our philosophy is operationalism. We believe in operationalizing the theory so that people see that success is possible, to fight off despair, to fight off fear. We have to be realistic, and probably more incremental than we need to be, in order to achieve results and build.

And we all have to hope we are working fast enough. It has been 20 years since James Hansen started to say we have 10 years to solve the climate problem. What does that mean? Some people say at this point we are fighting to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. I think that is not only wrong, but also wrong-headed. At the very worst, I think we are fighting to stave off the worst and to—there is a line from an old Woody Allen movie that "life is divided into the horrible and the miserable, and I just want to be miserable."

So hopefully it is not that bad. But we have to be realistic and, above all, creative and courageous. I think, given the magnitude of the task and the seriousness of the challenge, courage and creativity have got to be what we bring every day, whether we are teaching, whether we are lecturing, whether we are advocating, whether we are litigating, whether we are drafting law. I do believe it is infectious. I am hoping that in some small way the remarks that I have given today would foster more optimism about the future. I hope they justify the notion that creativity is rewarded and that courage in the face of quite justifiable fear is required and will pay dividends.

With that, I am going to end my remarks and hope that we can begin more of a conversation. Thank you very much.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Paul. Creativity, got it.

I just want to start with a simple question. We have been talking about climate change as a global-scale problem. How do you think about that; in other words, connecting your community-based work, your community-based approach and experience and so on to this global-scale problem?

PAUL GALLAY: First of all, we spend a lot more time with adaptation than we do with mitigation, obviously. We are concerned about shorelines. We are concerned about infrastructure. We are concerned about local solutions to localized problems for what is baked in.

As far as the bigger-scale question, we would like—there is that book by Gus Speth, Red Sky at Morning. [See Speth's Carnegie Council talk on this book.]] He talks about playing jazz and improvising. We are improvising. We don't necessarily have the best approach for community-sponsored solar. We don't necessarily have the best approach for water quality sampling. We are hoping that there is uptake in the modern era where information that I provide can be uploaded and translated into 40 different languages in a very short time. We are hoping we catch on.

We also are conscious that the United Nations is 40 miles from our headquarters. New York is looked to with—has anyone heard this expression?—REV New York has what they call Reforming the Energy Vision. They have Richard Kauffmann as their energy czar. Andrew Cuomo and Al Gore were together two weeks ago so that Andrew Cuomo, our governor, could sign Al Gore's Under 2 MOU [memorandum of understanding], which is, let's see what we all can do improvising to stay under 2 degrees Celsius warming. This fellow Kauffman came out of Goldman Sachs. Audrey Zibelman, the Public Service Commission chairwoman, came out of a very lucrative job in the energy industry. They are in it because they mean it.

So New York is a good place to be doing this sort of creativity, laboratory kind of work, because there is an easier uptake. I remember seeing some things coming out of Kansas a couple years ago. I can't place exactly what they were. The woman who was governor of Kansas was doing some very exciting work.

Everybody has to be all-in on this. We hope that there is as much uptake as possible. We, of course, also hope that what we do to protect climate is bearing dividends in the short run in terms of reduced burning of natural gas or coal. I have the Solar City-supplied solar panels on my roof in Cold Spring. They promised me that we would get at least two-thirds savings from what we would normally take from our power supplier, and it has been 98 percent; it has not been 66 percent. So dividends in the present.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your talk. I also work with a community in Japan and try to do river restoration, estuary restoration, and so on. The problem I have is that it is really hard to reach people sometimes. I work in one of the small islands in Japan. People do not use the Internet. How to advertise it, how to reach people is really important, but a difficult issue for me. I wonder, when you do promote community-based advocacy, what do you do to include more people?

PAUL GALLAY: I am thinking of the different things that we do. I will try to answer your question with the one that is the most spread personally, as opposed to virtually on the Internet, since the Internet is not a great tool for you. We have a shoreline cleanup program that another of our partner organizations decided it didn't want to do any longer. They asked us if we wanted to do it. Because it was something that I saw would not only lead to a cleaner shoreline and a better aesthetic in our river communities, but also would help me activate members of the community, I immediately agreed to do it.

The first year we did it, we had 300 people, and by the fourth year, we had 2,000. They talk to one another. They meet one another, whether they meet at the scouting troop where their kids are all scouts together and they have to do community projects as scouts, or at schools or at churches or synagogues or mosques. That is very personally passed on. We found it gives somebody something to do and create some pictures and find a way to share those pictures.

I am very, very much impressed by the way people look when they are doing that work and how they feel the same way that I felt when I was out kayaking. You can see that energy coming off them.

We do most of our advocacy online, because it is so hard to reach people. To the extent people have access and they can be our ambassadors and there can be nodes of communication through those ambassadors, our advocacy program is generally driven by ambassadors. They may be leaders of individual cleanup events. We have 100 every May. Or they may be folks who go into communities and organize visits from Riverkeeper staff.

So find 10 or 15 ambassadors, and then those ambassadors will bring others in. The ambassadors will be the catalysts, and the catalysts will activate the others. Then some of those others will become ambassadors. It will become a virtuous circle, and you will get more and more.

QUESTION: Paul, thank you. For me, this was not just inspirational, it was also nostalgic. Quite a few years ago, I worked for a group called the W. Alton Jones Foundation, based in Virginia, but the family had property up in Lake Placid. I think we were one of the first foundations to make grants to the Riverkeeper. I wasn't directly involved; I just remember it very well.

You are quite right in saying that—you mentioned people like Gus Speth and Jim Hansen. The Alton Jones Foundation is really ahead of the curve in funding climate change work, which was very gratifying for me at the time and even more so now. But I agree with Joel completely that you have been equally inspirational and cautionary, talking about both the progress and the challenges.

In that regard, I just want to ask you about one thing that interests me. That is, you spoke about, quite naturally, that you are in favor of public control of the water supply and so on. In this time when in the United States and beyond—in the UK, I know for sure—there is this plundering of the public realm—prisons, schools, everything privatized—what is the extent beyond the Hudson that you know of where the water supply is in danger of being privatized, and therefore the kind of stewardship that you are able to maintain is potentially under threat because it becomes a profit motive rather than a public good?

PAUL GALLAY: I think that is an excellent question. I think, to the extent there is an encouraging answer to that question, it is that privatization of water supply is very different from some of the examples you gave, like prisons, in which people go off to the job, they almost always come home safely. The prison does lead to contributions to the local economy. Nobody is thinking about the community 130 miles away, where they are basically raw materials for the prison system. In water supply, everybody turns on the tap. Everybody takes a shower. Everybody pays a water bill every three months.

There have been a lot of cases where there has been consumer revolt because of the quality of service, because the privately owned utility is squeezing the system to maximize return on investment. I have seen United Water lose customers. I think perhaps they lost an account in Indianapolis, Indiana, or perhaps in New Orleans, Louisiana, possibly both, because consumers insisted on better service.

Perhaps it is a nice intersection between the environmental movement and the consumer rights movement. I think even the folks at Fox News, folks that I visited with from there, strangely enough, folks who have had me on their show—there is this guy John Stossel who is one of the Fox News guys. He is almost a caricature, because I think he knows better than almost anybody else on Fox that what he is putting out is nonsense. I was on with James Taylor, not the musician, but the Heartland Institute James Taylor. James Taylor, on Earth Day, was saying—he said three things at one time in a 10-minute debate. He said climate change isn't happening; you are all going to know the litany—climate change is happening, but it is not manmade; climate change is happening, but there is nothing we can do about it.

I said, "Get your damn story straight. Which is it? It can't be all three."

Long story short, John Stossel says he has solar panels on his roof on his house. I said, "Did you take the subsidies?" He said, "You're damn right I took the subsidies." I am sure that people turned off the show after that. It was great fun.

What I believe is essential, whether you are trying to defeat privatization or trying to defeat the defeatism and the fear that is put out on Fox News, is a certain sense of humor. There is this film that you all should see if you haven't already—many of you may have read the bookMerchants of Doubt. Has anybody seen the film? It is a good film, because it shows just how much better the bad guys and gals are than we are at getting their message across. That is why it is called Merchants of Doubt. They are the same people who were doing asbestos, the same people who were doing cigarettes, the same people who were doing any number of different things, because they are just libertarians at heart and they don't believe in government regulation and they believe in vulture capitalism, in completely unregulated capitalism.

But there is one guy in that movie who really represents somebody who can fight that kind of nihilistic attitude. He is sitting there having a debate—and this is like on The Mike Douglas Show, so it must have been 30 years ago—and somebody says, "There's absolutely no proof that cigarette smoking"—and he doesn't get to finish the sentence, because our guy has all these studies. He starts throwing them in the guy's lap. He says, "No proof? There's proof. You don't like that proof? How about that proof?" And the entire audience is applauding and breaking into peals of laughter, because unlike the normal person who is advocating for reason and sensible action, this guy has a sense of performance art.

And the best guy in this movie for the bad guys and gals is the one who is like Abbie Hoffman from the movement in the 1960s, when it was Merry Pranksters and all. They captured the public consciousness. This guy—I don't remember his name, but those of you who have seen the movie will know who I mean—he is gleefully immoral. It is not amoral; he is immoral. He is gleeful about how he is keeping people from understanding their true interests and how he is keeping people from understanding scientific truth.

So we just have to get a little bit better in our communications. We have to get a little bit more engaging.

QUESTION: I was wondering a little bit about the methods you use for protecting the river. You mentioned you had problems with a private company trying to exploit the resources. I guess those are big problems. How do you deal with them? Is it litigation and things like that?

Also is the political system more cooperative or do you also have to deal with them? You did mention this local support, the municipality that wanted to subsidize this bottled water. But otherwise, in New York City is it very cooperative or do you also have to force them to do the right thing?

PAUL GALLAY: On balance, more cooperative than combative, with some important exceptions. But our tools are going to court and, equally importantly, going to what some people call the court of public opinion. If you get the public involved, perhaps they are the ones who stop the problem before you have to go to court. Sometimes the public will be your co-plaintiffs and go to court with you.

We have had several nice laws come out and be passed from our water quality sampling, one law that required public disclosure of events, of bypass of the water treatment plants—and that transparency has driven advocacy—and most recently, in 2015, a law enacted to provide small grants to municipalities to upgrade their water treatment infrastructure. When I was at the governor's office yesterday, the deputy director of state operations made a point of saying that that was a great law because it was collaboratively arrived at and provided aid to municipalities.

So we have a lot of different tools. We try to make the tool fit. We try to avoid litigation, because it takes so long and it is very expensive. We also try to innovate where possible.

The Public Service Commission effort to provide for a safe water supply for Rockland County without the desalination plant—the Public Service Commission chairwoman said, "We want to devise an approach to pricing water that will incentivize conservation while at the same time reducing demand," because obviously in the traditional model the more you sell, the more you make, assuming your costs are relatively low for every incremental gallon you sell. So innovation is important, litigation, community activism, legislation.

The government has, as I say, lost its real strong commitment to environmental issues, as measured by the decline in the staff in the New York State version of the EPA [United States Environmental Protection Agency]. Not only has the staff declined by 30 percent; the reported factors that the state has with its report to the federal EPA suggest that their Clean Water Act enforcement efforts are down by two-thirds in the last five years alone. We are very upset about this. We publicize this. We pound the table and we fight for more staff and more commitment to enforcement, and we do more enforcement.

But there is this strange cross-pollination. I don't know if this anecdote is reflective of a larger factor. When I was in Albany yesterday, at the capitol, in this enormous room, the new commissioner of environmental conservation, a gentleman named Basil Seggos, used to be the chief investigator for Riverkeeper, for my organization—when he was doing that, I was working for the agency that now he runs. I think this cross-pollination could, if handled intelligently, lead to collaboration on issues where there might otherwise be distrust.

As I said in another meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, we are going to disagree on four or five things, but we should find the other three or four things that we could come to common ground on, because we will both benefit if we do, and we can focus on finding solutions to the things we disagree on.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: One of the things we discussed a little bit over the last day or so that you have touched upon, but not in any detail—maybe you could elaborate—is the issue of education. You think about social change. One of the most powerful things I can think of is, primarily in traditional education, what we teach our children, but also lifelong education, continuing education, public education. I would imagine that is part of what your organization does. Do you have some thoughts to share about the experience in working on that element?

PAUL GALLAY: Joel, thank you. I do. Lifelong education is Riverkeeper's niche. We don't educate in any large-scale manner at even the college level, but we do have outreach and education for communities on particular issues. It is challenging for us, with a limited staff, to be everywhere we need to be to really systematically educate. So it is a little bit more impressionistic.

When I came to Riverkeeper in 2010, it had been a bad stretch for our finances because of the recession, and we had no outreach and education team to speak of. We had a woman who would go to street fairs and table and try to get members. Now we have three people who are doing outreach and education and community engagement. We also have a fourth woman who does our social networking. We probably reach about 70,000, 80,000 people a month through our social networking and our outreach. We probably reach a lot more than that through our communications. In some months we get as many as 30 distinct stories in the papers.

That is really how we do most of our education with the limited staff we have, try to find platforms that people will engage in. Hopefully we are, to borrow that old Malcolm Gladwell expression, very "sticky" in that people see something that we do and they find it interesting enough to perhaps go from one platform to the other, from our Twitter feed to our website or from our website to an event we are sponsoring.

The other night we had a gathering in Ossining and we got 200 people to come watch a series of films that were made by a local filmmaker. But you can't really make mass change with 200 people at a time. You are lucky if you can make it with 70,000 people at a time.

I have invested very heavily within my broader team in communications and outreach. We have a strategic planning process. We are going into a new strategic plan next June. Again, the investment needs to be redoubled.

QUESTION: By way of context, I should confess, I suppose, that I used to be a freshwater ecologist and was involved in the cleanup of the River Thames and the salmon reintroduction. Now I teach in the outdoors. Quite a lot of what I do is about helping people to understand environmental systems, including canoeing down rivers and talking about the rivers, so that we share a number of things.

I suppose the context and the question is really that I worry when organizations like yours find themselves by default doing the job of the state, in at least two contexts. For one of them, let me think about the Thames. The River Thames was cleaned up because of something Gillian was talking about earlier on, which was shame—the Great Stink. The Thames was a disgusting sewer. Then, of course, that became remediated.

What we found with your approach to checking and monitoring the water quality is, of course, that you have taken over a job of the state. It is very easy for the state to then just say, "Riverkeeper, on you go. You're doing a great job."

The same would be true of Joel's point about education, the degree to which you educate.

My question, then, is, how far do you think it is appropriate for you to go in doing the job of the state rather than trying to change the state?

PAUL GALLAY: It is never either/or. But I do know that no matter how much I pound the table about the drop in environmental enforcement by New York State, no matter how much I cry over the lack of staffing at these agencies—ironically, I worked in the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York when the current governor's father was governor. That helps me contextualize how far we have fallen in terms of our movement's clout.

I am railing against the decline in commitment, in a situation where no matter how well I do, I can never re-create what has been lost in an agency of 4,000 when I have a staff of 29.

I will give you the simplest possible answer I can, which is more satisfying operationally perhaps than it is intellectually. I will do everything I possibly can to deal with the fact that these damn people in the state have all of these patrol boats that they can't buy gas for and never leave the dock. They are abdicating the position. I will rush in as far and as fast as I can. I don't think that that leads to a decline in funding. I think perhaps there is a certain degree of shaming in that action.

It has also, ironically, led to an increase in government funding for our work. They have almost outsourced some of their work to us. I think you could almost say, quite consciously, they now look to us. I was literally asked by this deputy director of state operations to tell him more about our water quality sampling effort and the change that it is driving. Another member of the state management team said it is the biggest driver of better water quality on the Hudson.

I think it has driven more investment in municipal infrastructure. I think that has been a positive correlation. And I think it has helped keep government commitment to enforcement from falling further. But it is very imperfect and very problematic.

QUESTION: Thank you for that fantastic talk. Just two questions.

My main question is, you are sort of on the street level and you are having to motivate people and get them interested. I am wondering what you have learned about getting ordinary people interested and moving, and how you think there is the possibility for this sort of community action. 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?

My other one is just an interest question in the bottled water debate. What was the 40 percent excess water going to be used for rather than bottled water? Was your objection around the principle of bottling or that there was a better use for the water? I didn't quite get what the ethical dilemma was in the bottled water debate.

PAUL GALLAY: What the consultant found—and again, it was nice that, having paid this fellow $3,000 or $4,000, he came up with actual, demonstrable needs for this other water—if you had lowered the level of the local reservoir, you would have interfered with stream corridors feeding that reservoir. You would have warmed these corridors and you would have reduced their biological diversity and sustainability, especially in drought periods. And in drought periods, as I said, it wasn't 40 percent excess; it would probably be no more than half that. You don't want to end up in a situation where you are giving away something that looks plentiful and the next thing you know, you are like California.

Then the third—I guess I would call it ordered growth, smart growth, as we used to call it in the 2000s in the United States, when it was thought that you could have growth, but you would have it transit-oriented, you would have it more sensibly designed.

So don't give it all away to be exported for a use that really isn't necessary 90 percent of the time. Save it for the fish. Save it for the people who need it during droughts. Save it for people who can come to make a community more vibrant again through better growth.

The first question, I think, is literally the most important question of all: How do you motivate people? I am going to give you an answer that is almost going to sound Pollyannaish. 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. That is why I go on Fox News when they will let me.

Interestingly, the last time I was on Fox News was the local affiliate of Fox News, which has very different politics than national Fox, and they were doing a story on the pope's visit. The story was entitled "Francis: The Green Pope." They quoted me in how I felt about the pope's climate advocacy. They didn't use harsh lighting or say in a little crawl at the bottom "Guy from an idiot environmental group." It was quite the opposite. It was actually a very favorable, inspiring, complimentary story.

That is why we really just have got to get people to have a sense of the possible, even if there is more that is currently impossible than there is possible, because we can change that dynamic; we can change that ratio.

QUESTIONER: I can see, if you have this momentum, it can work. But let me give you a specific example that I had in mind. I am quite pessimistic and negative. I am constantly defeated by the world and people around. So I am interested in somebody who is more positive and how you can make progress. I will give you a specific example.

I have a small house in a little community with a population of 2,000, and maybe in the surrounding community there is another 2,000. It has its own dam and independent water supply. That is where it has all of its water. The big city, which is actually just about 200,000 people, is run by Barwon Water. They are in charge of the water supply. It is not the council. It is an independent company. They gave control of the water supply to this big company. They said, "We are not going to invest in your local water supply any longer. It's too expensive to refurbish the treatment plant. We're going to run a long pipeline from the main supply and no longer use the local dam."

It didn't seem to me to be in the community's interests. I talked to a couple of other people. I also thought this was just Barwon Water maximizing their profits. We talked about it and we said probably it is not in the community's interests, but I didn't really know that there was much that I could do or that we were going to succeed.

If you had been there and we had come to you and said, "Right, we want to save the community's dam," how do we get people to actually be interested in, spend time in something that initially they may not be that interested in? It is easy if you have a bunch of people who are already really motivated and zealots about the dam. Usually we rely on them to do something. But when you have a bunch of people who are mildly concerned, but not so much that they are going to go out and start activism, how do you generate momentum in that group? What would you have done to save the local dam?

PAUL GALLAY: In our situation in Rockland, there were two main factors and some subsidiary factors. If you have 2,000 or 4,000 people, you have to look at the issues that the majority of them will care about the most. The two issues that were the biggest concern for the community were the cost of water, which would have probably gone up by 50 percent had they built the desalination plant, and the likelihood of sprawl, development, very disparate, not very community-oriented—new housing—that would have been enabled by this water supply.

We got into subsidiary issues of need, subsidiary issues of available conservation, subsidiary issues of the impact on the Hudson River of drawing the water from the Hudson River. But people cared about sprawl and they cared about cost.

Again, we were literally pulled in, not unwillingly—they didn't have to drag us—but we were pulled into this initiative by local members of the community who cared about sprawl, cost of water, likelihood of resources being wasted, because that was a value of theirs. Fortunately in our case, we have these environmental impact laws. That is what I tell them. If an environmental impact statement is required and it hasn't been done, you can say that there needs to be this statement and the government will look at the law. They will have their town attorney look at it, and the town attorney will say, "Oh, my god, there are seven cases that say that they are right."

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 is like that 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.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: On that, maybe this might be a good place to adjourn. A great blend of idealism and realism, which is what we aim for here. Paul, thank you very much for coming and for sharing your experience. Thank you all for giving us so much of your time over the last day and a half.

Thank you, Paul.

PAUL GALLAY: Thank you, all.

You may also like

<a href="">Malé - Capital of Maldives</a> via Shutterstock

JUL 8, 2013 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Island President"

As "The Island President" makes clear, it is impossible to overstate the catastrophic effect global warming will have on the Maldives. During the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation