Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs, Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies
“You can go on your iPhone, and you can know temperature, humidity, and wind speed in Johannesburg, South Africa, in real time,” says John Cronin, senior fellow for Environmental Affairs at the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies in Pleasantville. “But there’s nobody who can tell you—in real time—what’s in your glass of drinking water.”
The fact is disconcerting, but Cronin, 62, aims to change it. He’s organized dropping sensors in the Hudson and its tributaries to monitor water quality and conditions. But Cronin wants to go further. In addition to changing how we keep our river clean—a project he’s been working on for 40 years—he wants to change the partnerships we enlist to help solve environmental problems.
In October 1973, Cronin was working painting houses when he met Pete Seeger at an event for Seeger’s environmental advocacy and educational vessel, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. The two men embarked on a volunteer project: As Seeger sang sea shanties and yodeled, the folk icon brought Cronin into the environmental world. Seeger would insist that, “‘if we all work together, we can clean up the Hudson River.’ I thought that idea was ludicrous,” says Cronin. “The River was huge, horribly polluted.” Nonetheless, inspired by Seeger, Cronin began a career in environmental issues, eventually taking stints advising Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr., and Democratic New York State Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey.
“I was hooked,” he says. “I went from thinking Pete was out of his mind to thinking that, if you were determined enough, you could make an enormous difference.” Becoming the inaugural Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983, Cronin acted as the clean-water advocate for the River and its tributaries, which provide 9 million New Yorkers with drinking water.
Thanks to Cronin’s media savvy and some real luck—while filming a segment for NBC news, he came upon an Exxon oil tanker discharging pollutants just 1,500 feet from drinking water—and the program took off. Soon, there was a Soundkeeper for Long Island, then a Baykeeper in San Francisco. Today, there are more than 200 similar programs all over the world. During his time as Riverkeeper, Cronin took on all kinds of polluters: New York City, for instance, was dumping 1.5 billion gallons of sewage into the River every day. But many of those on the opposite side of litigation were corporations.
In the past decade, however, Cronin began to formulate different ideas about problem-solving on the environment. He felt that we were “mostly operating under twentieth-century models when twenty-first-century problems need all the talent, all the skills we can muster—no mater where they come from.” Enforcement was still a primary goal, he thought, but the expertise, technology, and capital available in the private sector were nothing to eschew, either. In 2004, he founded the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, which is today part of Clarkson University, with just this collaborative goal in mind.
One alliance, with Armonk-based IBM, has proved crucial in Cronin’s water-monitoring efforts. John Kelly, a senior vice president and director of Yorktown’s IBM Research (who oversees some 3,000 scientists in laboratories around the world), agrees that Cronin’s ideas are the future. “I think he embodies a visionary who can identify what’s really important through all the clutter. Other people were dreaming, but he knew what to do. His ideas are contagious, and he has the wherewithal to get it done.”