Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on choosing to preserve our assets

The keynote speaker for the 2015 Appalachian Energy Summit, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., dropped by our studio to talk about ways to measure value in economic systems, how to effect lasting change in order to preserve the assets of communities across the world, and offered some advice to students for building their skills for success.


  • Megan Hayes: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has earned a strong reputation as a resolute defender of the environment and a champion for protecting the traditional homelands of indigenous people in Latin America and Canada. He has worked on environmental issues across the Americas and was named one of TIME Magazine’s Heroes for the Planet for work with Riverkeeper New York’s effort to restore the Hudson River. The group’s achievement helped spawn more than 160 Waterkeeper organizations across the globe. A professor of Environmental Law at Pace University School of Law, Kennedy serves as Co-Director of the School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, President of Waterkeeper Alliance, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper. He is a partner on the Cleantech Investment Team of Silicon Valley’s Vantage Point Capital Ventures, the Environmental Advisor to Napo Pharmaceuticals, and serves on numerous boards. The author of numerous books and articles, Kennedy’s award-winning writing has been included in anthologies of America’s best crime writing, best political writing and best science writing. Kennedy is also co-host of the radio show, Ring of Fire. A graduate of Harvard University, Kennedy studied at the London School of Economics, earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School and holds a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law from Pace University School of Law. Mr. Robert Kennedy Jr., welcome to Sound Effect; thank you for joining us today.

    Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Thanks for having me, Megan.

    MH: We so appreciate your time with us today, particularly because at Appalachian we’re implementing a new strategic plan, and it asks us to consider a three-pillared approach to sustainability. We are challenged to consider if our actions are sustainable not only from an environmental standpoint, but also whether they’re economically viable and equitably sustainable in relationship to our co-inhabitants on the planet. And that’s one of the reasons we’re really excited to be talking with you today. Since your talk on campus tonight is about why sound environmental policy equals good business policy, I wonder if it would be alright to talk about economic sustainability for just a few minutes.

    RFK: Sure.

    MH: So when businesses foster a culture of sound environmentally and socially ethical practices, what does that look like?

    RFK: You know, good environmental policy is always the same as good economic policy. If we want to measure our economy, then this is how we ought to be measuring it - based on how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the generations of the long term, and how it preserves the value of the assets of our community. If, on the other hand, we want to do what the big polluters, the Koch brothers and their indentured servants, and our political process would like us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it were business liquidation and to convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy, and we can make a few people billionaires or we can make a few billionaires even richer. But our children are going to pay for our joy ride, and they’re going to pay for it with nude landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that are going to amplify over time, and that they’ll never be able to pay. Environmental injuries deficit spending, it's a way of loading the costs of our generation’s prosperity on the backs of our children, and one of the things that I’ve done over 30 years as an environmental advocate, is to constantly go around and confront this argument that ‘an investment in our environment is a diminishment of our nation’s wealth.’ It doesn’t diminish our wealth, it’s an investment in infrastructure - the same as investing in telecommunications, or road construction. It’s an investment we have to make if we’re going to insure the economic vitality of our generation and future generations. The economy and the environment are wrapped together - there’s no way to separate them. they’re intertwined, the word eco in ecosystem means home and as economics, it means the way we handle money in the home. You know, ecology is about how we study, essentially, home economics, and how we preserve things that need to be preserved. How we preserve the capital and then live off the interest, and that’s all sustainability is. It means that we have a moral and financial obligation to preserve capital for the next generation, or trustees of that asset, and that we can live off the interest, but we can’t spend the capital. That would be immoral. You asked about the social justice issues, and this is something I’ve been working on since the beginning of my career. I began working for commercial fisherman on the Hudson, and I continue to do that as their attorney today, but the persistent theme throughout almost all pollution cases is the disproportionate burden that falls on the backs of the poor. When you’re looking at access to our commons and when you’re looking at where the big, obnoxious polluting facilities end up with their highways, landfills, sewage treatment plants, factories - they’ve virtually all end up in a poor neighborhood, not only that, but they end up in a minority neighborhood even when it’s not poor. So, four out every five toxic waste dumps is in a Black neighborhood. The largest concentration of toxic waste dumps in America is the South Side of Chicago, the largest toxic waste dump in America is Emelle, Alabama, which is 85 percent Black. The filthiest, most polluted ZIP Code in California is East L.A.. And you can go onto other minority groups - Navajo youth have 1,000 times the rates of sexual organ cancer as other Americans, because of the thousands of tons of toxic Uranium tailings that have been dumped on their reservation lands. Hispanic farm workers, 250,000 poisoned every year from pesticides, and God knows what’s happening to their children, because they bring that home on their clothing. You know, people don’t try to put toxic waste dumps in Beverly Hills or Greenwich, Connecticut. And they don’t try to put hog farms, corporate hog farms in Downtown Raleigh, or in the suburbs. They put them in the poorest counties and the Blackest neighborhoods, where the local populations lack the political clout to keep those things moving. All of us are engaged in one way or another in them being, ‘not in my backyard,’ and that’s a good thing, because if everybody was able to say, ‘not in my backyard,’ we’d figure out a different way of doing things. But there are some neighborhoods where the poverty, or the social disorganization, or simply the lack of political clout makes them targets for things that nobody else will accept elsewhere.

    MH: In that social work that you’ve done, when underrepresented populations are active in policy making, have you seen the difference? Have you seen environmental and economic effects when that happens?

    RFK: Well I’ve definitely seen environmental effects. I’ve seen good environmental impacts when those communities become - when they organize to stop an obnoxious facility, and they discover it’s not only protects their children and protects their neighborhoods, but it also begins the process of empowering them and demonstrating that they do have political clout if they organize properly.

    MH: When business create, you know, economically sustainable products or when they’re branding economically, I mean environmentally sustainable brands, to me that almost it feels like it has this niche appeal, right? So there’s a certain base of us are willing to, or able to make sacrifices to pay more, in some cases, for brands that are more socially aware and socially responsible, environmentally aware and environmentally responsible. Do you see a shift, do you see an ability for us as as system, as an economic system, to that being more of a broad-based appeal instead of just a niche appeal?

    RFK: Well its probably not going to come so much from consumer demand as it will from legislation, and that’s why I always say to people when they ask what they can do for the environment, ‘if there’s one thing, it’s to focus on politics.’ It’s much more important to choose the right politician, than it is to choose the right automobile or light bulb, because the political system really dictates our values. You can’t really change human nature; people are going to pursue ultimately what they think is the best choice for themselves and their families, given various circumstances. There’s an economic rule called ‘tragedy’ that says, ‘if it’s up to you, you’re going to catch the last fish in the sea, because that’s in your interest even though it will exterminate that fish for everybody else. It’s still in your best interest to do that.’ So we all work subject to that law, and so the way that we incentivize good behavior, is by changing the laws so that we function the way that a market is supposed to function, which is to reward good behavior which is efficiency, and to punish bad behavior which is inefficiency and waste. And there’s a lot of different ways that you can do that. You can mandate higher corporate average field efficiency standards for automobiles, you can require LED lighting, or you can just require lighting that has certain efficiencies in terms of the quality of light it produces and also the energy efficiency of the bulb. You can mandate energy efficiencies, not only in the lights, but appliances, and those are things that we ought to be doing, so you can’t make a car and you can’t market a car in this country unless it gets 40 plus per gallon. You can’t build a light bulb that is an Edison light bulb - they’ve banned Edison lightbulbs in Europe. We should only have LED light bulbs. LED light bulbs are better for us individually, as well, but it’s an initial investment for the consumer, that a lot of times people won’t take, because they get sticker shy. But in the long-run, if that LED bulb is going to pay you back in a year, it’s better for you. so an LED bulb typically costs, if you have the local subsidies, about 7 dollars for a new LED 60-watt bulb. An Edison bulb, of the same wattage, will cost about 79 cents, but the Edison bulb will use 14 dollars of energy, in a year, if you left it on the whole year, wheras the LED bulb will only use a dollar of energy. So theoretically, if you were going to leave that bulb on all year, you would make your money back in half a year, and then the 79 cent bulb will break after a year, and the led bulb will last for 25 or 30 years. So it’s a better choice for you, but you won’t always make that choice because of sticker fear.

    MH: Right, so is there room for sustainability in a Capitalist economic system?

    RFK: I would say that’s the best system. If we had true Free-market Capitalism, then that, to me would be the solution for virtually all of our environmental problems. If you had true, free markets where actors in the marketplace were forced to pay the true cost of bringing their products to market, and they weren’t allowed to externalize those costs, where they at least had to pay for the externalities. So a true Free-market promotes efficiency. Efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste. A true Free-market would force us to properly value our natural resources, and it’s the undervaluation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. In a true free market, you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich, and enriching your community. But what polluters do, is they make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves, by lowering quality of life for the rest of us, and they do that by escaping the discipline of the Free-market. You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy, I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production costs. If you look at oil, for example - if the oil companies had to pay the true price that they’re imposing on the society including the price of all the wars that we have to fight to defend their product, which should be reflected in the price of that product in the marketplace - if we had a true free market, if they had to pay for the Gulf oil spill and the Valdez oil spill, the true cost for the pollution that they made, the crop damage and the 350 billion dollars of Healthcare damage every year, from Benzene, Toluene, Xylene, and Ozone particulates, if they had to pay for the acid rain, if they had to pay for the road construction, all the things that are unique to oil, we would probably be paying upwards of 20 dollars a gallon for oil, and we are paying that, but it comes out of a different pocket. It comes out of our taxpayer pocket. So we have the illusion that oil is cheap, but it’s actually horrendously expensive. And the same as with coal - coal is probably the most catastrophically expensive way to boil a pot of water that’s ever been devised. If they had to internalize the true cost, the destruction of the Appalachians, the pulverizing of our roads from the coal trucks, the warping of our rails, the poisoning of every freshwater fish in America with Mercury, and all of those costs, if they had to really internalize them, they couldn't compete in a true Free-market. It wouldn’t last a single day in that landscape, in a truly competitive landscape where everybody had to pay their costs. But they’re able to engineer subsidies for themselves, which give us the illusion that it’s a cheap form of fuel. It’s not, it’s horrendously expensive, but that’s because the incumbents, the carbon cronies and the nukes, have been able to use their huge profits to subvert the political system to buy politicians to continue these subsidies, to continue their domination of a marketplace for a product that no longer makes any economic sense.

    MH: So, have you seen examples either on a macro or micro level, of a true sustainable economic system, what that looks like?

    RFK: I mean there are small examples of that, but there’s also nations that have made themselves more sustainable. There’s a number of nations that have made efforts to decarbonize their economies, and in every case, they've experienced extraordinary and almost instantaneous prosperity. Iceland, in 1970, was the poorest country in Europe. It was 100 percent dependent on imported coal and oil, and made a deliberate decision to decarbonize and there was a lot of local resistance, but it nevertheless went forward and did that. Today, Iceland, 95 percent, of its energy grid comes from geothermal, and Iceland, during the 15 year period that they made that transition, went from the poorest country in Europe to the fourth wealthiest country by GDP on Earth, solely because of what happened with their decision to decarbonize. Unfortunately for Iceland, they spent virtually all of that newfound wealth on bundled derivatives, and they’re once again the poorest country in Europe. But their rebound is happening much quicker than the rest of Europe. Scandinavia for example, Sweden decided in 1996 to decarbonize - its society had slapped a 150 dollar ton tax on Carbon. It closed, incidentally, its nuclear power plants at the same time, and what happened in Sweden was, that vacuum, thousands of entrepreneurs rushed into that vacuum to fill it with new forms of energy generation - wind, solar, thermal, geothermal, tidal energy, putrid garbage, sawmill waste, and Sweden's economy has gone up by 50 percent during the intervening years while its energy usage dropped by about 10 percent. Brazil decarbonized its transportation grid and that’s part of the reason Brazil's economy is now enjoying the longest, most robust expansion in the history of Latin America. Brazil, this year, replaced France as the seventh wealthiest country in the world. Costa Rica, the same thing, the same time, decarbonized its energy grid and Costa Rica’s economy - Costa Rica made a lot of good choices, and probably most significantly, not having an army. But also, it decarbonized its electric grid and as a result of those decisions, Costa Rica which is the smallest country in Central America, has, by far, the largest economy. It has a bigger economy than almost all its neighbors combined. So good environmental sustainability, even small investments in it, are a really good economic investment for the nation.

    MH: When we talk with our students about environmental protection, they see it as something that really has to be included in policy and practice, rather than this isolated topic, that’s, ‘let’s talk about environmental sustainability over here’. When we look at these current political discussions today, we’re seeing older americans primarily concerned with talking about economic growth, job creation, enhancing public health, bolstering educational achievement, national security, diplomacy. I think that young people see the environment as integral to all of that, but in these major public discussions it’s almost like environmentalism and environmental discussions, they’re still sidelined, I guess, to some extent. Do you see a generation of millennials changing this paradigm? Do you see that shift happening, and if so, what do you think that means for the future?

    RFK: Well, I don’t see it as a generational issue, as much as I do, a political issue. That, as long as the Citizens United case, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which threw out a hundred years of precedent and law to allow corporations to give essentially unlimited amounts of money to the political process, that nothing’s going to change, until we get rid of that. You know, you can’t protect your environment unless you have a strong democracy, because otherwise the people who are running this show are the big, wealthy polluters who are making a killing by killing us. And that’s not going to change as long as you have the Koch brothers giving as much money as the entire democratic party - the two brothers, to the political process. You’re not going to change things. Here’s what the data shows over the past two decades - in over 95 percent of the elections, the candidate with the most money won the election. So, you can buy democracy and if you have two guys whose only concern is their oil company profits; who are putting in the same amount of money as the major political parties are putting in. You’re not going to get a government that is working for our children.

    MH: One of the things I wanted to ask you, and this is my final question - one of the things that I think is kind of related to this discussion, is we’re seeing a shift in the way our students are talking about problem-solving, in general. And this may be a generational trend in the U.S., I think, but I think it’s also because here at Appalachian, we really emphasize service learning, and our students are expected to work in local communities, here in Boone, but also in communities around the world. So they really are expected to see and understand, and we see this transformation in their lives, when they start to make that local to global connection. And I think that mindset applies to social justice issues as well, and you know, it has economic applications and environmental applications, as well as social justice applications, and so I guess my final question for you is, what advice or what message do you have for students about taking that local to global approach to sustainability?

    RFK: Well, I mean my own experience is that I started on the Hudson River, and you know, expanded, but it’s been a lot of years trying to figure out local politics and how to make things work, and I think that is what eEmerson said, is that, ‘you should know yourself, you should conquer yourself, and then you can conquer the world,’ and it meant, you should study, and Thoreau said this too - ‘if you study Walden Pond, you’ll know everything you need to know.’ If you study your backyard, you can take that knowledge and that wisdom, and you can travel with it then. And now we have almost 260 Riverkeepers around the world, that are based on what we did on the Hudson, so I think it’s good to look up occasionally and see what’s happening in the rest of the globe, but also, you know one of the things that students do, you need to spend, they say 10,000 hours making yourself an expert in something during your twenties. And if you make yourself really good at one thing, it automatically makes you good at a lot of other things. And so, from an environmental standpoint, that’s why, ‘think globally, act locally,’ I think is so important, and effective, and true. Our actions have to be in our backyard - at least at the outset, and then we can go global.

    MH: Well, Robert Kennedy, Jr., it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. You know, we’ve got experts from across our state and some from across the nation, coming to our campus to talk about issues just like this right now, and I know that your words here today, and also tonight are going to be inspirational as we move forward with this work. So thank you so much.

    RFK: Thanks, Megan.

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