Robert F. Kennedy Jr. urges students to migrate toward environmental activism

Photo of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. chatting with law students after an intimate talk at Wake Forest law school on Friday, Nov. 4.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. chats with law students after an intimate talk at Wake Forest law school on Friday, Nov. 4.

A true free market, says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., fosters efficiency and encourages us to properly value our natural resources. In a true free market, he says, people can’t become rich without also enriching their neighbors and enriching their communities.

“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 everybody else.”

Kennedy, son of the former attorney general and iconic civil rights activist and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, spoke Friday, Nov. 4, at the Wake Forest School of Law. A recording of his talk is available here.

The previous evening Kennedy presented “Green Gold Rush: A Vision for Energy Independence, Jobs and National Wealth” in Wait Chapel.

A stalwart supporter of the environment and new energy initiatives, Kennedy was named one of TIME magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” for his success in helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River, a former “national joke” that, he says, has undergone a miraculous resurrection and has become an international model for eco-system protection. The Riverkeeper group’s achievement helped spawn more than 160 Waterkeeper organizations across the globe. In 2009, Kennedy was named one of Rolling Stone’s “100 Agents of Change.”

Kennedy says America has real potential to transition into an economy that prospers on the strength of new energies such as wind and solar power, and he promotes this idea not only through his work as an environmental activist but through capital projects as well. One of his companies, he says, is building America’s largest power plant in the Mojave Desert. The plant, which will produce solar power, can be built in three years and will cost about $3 billion, about the same for a coal plant and a quarter of the cost of building a nuclear power facility, he says.

“Once you build our plant, it’s free energy forever. The photons are hitting the earth every day for free, and all you’ve got to do is build the infrastructure to pick them up and harvest them.”

To produce energy from coal, building the plant marks only the start of a process that is expensive and imposes irreparable harm on the environment. Kennedy describes the excruciating process, which involves the mechanized destruction of the Appalachian Mountains and shipping the coal across the country by pulverizing the roadways and warping the nation’s worn railways.

Burning coal, he says, has poisoned every freshwater in America, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Every fish, he says, carries dangerous levels of mercury in their flesh because of coal-burning plants, and 60,000 Americans die each year because of ozone particulates, according to government studies.

In contrast to promoting prosperity, Kennedy says, coal producers perpetuate poverty.

“Over the past 10 years they not only have flattened an area of the Appalachians the size of Delaware, they’ve blown up 500 of the biggest mountains of West Virginia, they’ve buried 2,200 miles of rivers and streams.

“It’s all illegal,” he says, and efforts to sue the industry have been largely unsuccessful. The success of creating energy through long-established methods is virtually dependent on large government subsidies, or crony capitalism, he says, which is further propped up by political donations and lobbying efforts by the utilities and railroads.

“We don’t have a level playing field. If they had to compete against us in a true free-market economy, they wouldn’t last a day.”

Still, Kennedy encouraged law students in attendance to migrate toward the idea of working to promote environmental activism and new sources of energy.

“We’re going to win this battle, and we’re going to win it very quickly. You’re going to see a huge transfer of wealth,” which is now lining the pockets of big oil and big coal, Kennedy says.

Make it a goal, he told the crowd in the Worrell Professional Center, to work to restore America to its former exemplary status and to help fortify our national security, an aim not realized by building bigger armies and growing budgets for the military.

“When I was a boy we owned half the wealth on the face of the earth, and now we’re a beggar to the Chinese, who in the next 10 years will take over as the wealthiest country on earth. And they’re not spending a lot on their military; they’re doing this by building their economy locally,” which, Kennedy says, is the true source of power.

“The marketplace is the most powerful economic industry in the history of mankind, but it has to be harnessed for a social purpose.”

Miles Silman is director of the Center for Environment, Energy and Sustainability at Wake Forest and an associate professor of biology.

He said Kennedy’s message is one that everybody needs to hear and to think about.

“What resonates most with me is we think of ourselves as consumers, but we’re also citizens, and the free market works for both of those things. You can be prosperous and also have a good environment, a good public trust.”

Kennedy is a graduate of Harvard University. He studied at the London School of Economics and received his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School. Following graduation, he attended Pace University School of Law, where he was awarded a master’s degree in environmental law. The New York City watershed agreement, which he negotiated on behalf of environmentalists and New York City watershed consumers, is regarded as an international model in stakeholder consensus negotiations and sustainable development.