RFK Jr. vs. 'corporate plunder'

In his Mario Savio Lecture, Kennedy argues that America's 'environmental destiny' hinges on an energetic democracy and a responsible press

| 11 December 2008

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to Berkeley last week to argue that it takes a vibrant democracy, unshackled by corporate pillagers and a vigorous press as focused on public policy as on Brangelina and Britney Spears to preserve natural resources, ensure clean air and water, combat global warming, and achieve energy security.

The longtime environmental crusader, asserting "a direct correlation between the level of environmental injury and the level of tyranny" in nations around the world, was the keynote speaker at the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, staged since 1997 to honor the fiery Free Speech Movement icon and promote the work of a new generation of activists. Savio, he said, understood the "subversion of American democracy" inherent in the efforts of corporate lobbyists aided and abetted today, he said, by a compliant White House to rewrite or undermine laws and regulations intended to safeguard public health and the environment.

That was a lesson Kennedy himself learned from his father, the former U.S. attorney general and senator from New York, who was assassinated while campaigning for president in 1968. Flying over West Virginia, he recalled, the elder Kennedy pointed to the massive mining operations below and explained that they were not simply destroying the landscape, but "permanently impoverishing" the state's citizenry as a union-busting tactic.

A supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Kennedy was briefly viewed as a possible replacement once she vacates the post to become secretary of state under President Barack Obama. (He's since taken himself out of contention, and has been pushing his cousin Caroline Kennedy for the spot.) Now an environmental attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Hudson Riverkeeper, he's also the co-host of a radio program on Air America and an author whose books include Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy.

During Thursday night's lecture titled "Our Environmental Destiny" Kennedy called the Bush White House "the worst environmental administration we've ever had in our history," castigating it for "putting polluters in charge" of federal agencies responsible for environmental stewardship.

Following the example of other high-profile Democrats, Kennedy showed support for UC service workers currently in a contract dispute with UC systemwide management by refusing to speak on campus, prompting a move several blocks west to the Berkeley Community Theater.

Mario SavioMario Savio (Courtesy of Bancroft Library)

In an energetic talk that ran more than 90 minutes, Kennedy spoke commandingly and without notes he gives 60 or so speeches a year, and is a practiced recycler of facts, statistics, and anecdotes and clutched a microphone as he preached the gospel of "free energy forever." Citing the examples of Sweden, Iceland, and Brazil, he called on the U.S. to enact a cap-and-trade system as a means of reducing carbon emissions, and to invest in a "smart" electrical grid that would enable home- and business owners who generate their own power with solar panels, wind turbines, and electric plug-in cars to sell back excess energy during peak-use hours.

Weaning ourselves off coal and foreign oil, Kennedy told his appreciative audience, is a path to increased national security, greater national wealth, and a cleaner environment. America could "de-carbonize" its energy supply, he insisted, for a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war.

Carbon is "the principal drag" on the U.S. economy, he said, due to the need to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to buy oil "from countries that don't like us very much."

Kennedy also attributed a "pediatric epidemic" of asthma to what he said were $156 million in campaign contributions from the coal industry to George W. Bush over the past eight years. The father of three asthmatic children, he said he sometimes has to watch his kids "gasping for air on bad-air days because somebody gave money to a politician."

That kind of politics, he added, deserves "front-page headlines." But due to "a negligent and indolent press" whose resources are constantly cut by corporate owners in thrall to shareholders, and which pursues celebrity gossip far more fervently than world affairs Americans, Kennedy said, are "the best-entertained and the least informed people on the face of the earth."

And he ridiculed the notion of the "liberal media," citing such marquee names in the "right-wing media" as Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity, who rose to prominence, he said, after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine abolished, he claimed, "as a favor to the Christian right" during the Reagan years.

An avid outdoorsman, Kennedy lamented the pollution of America's streams and the contamination of fish even in relatively pristine places like Montana. "Today we're living in a science-fiction nightmare in this country," he said, insisting that future generations deserve as healthy an environment as previous generations enjoyed.

"There's nothing radical," he said, "about the idea of clean air and water for our children."