WE MUST TAKE AMERICA BACK
BY ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.
Written by: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. From Truth Out. Speech delivered at the Sierra Summit 2005 San Francisco, California
I want to tell you how proud I am to accept the William O. Douglas Award.
Two of my most poignant memories as a child involved Justice Douglas. One of them was when I was 11 years old I did a 20 mile hike with my little brother David and with Justice Douglas and my father, which was a bird watching hike on the C & O Canal which he played a critical role in protecting. We started at four oíclock in the morning and walked all day. Then I did a 10 day pack trip with him. He took my whole family up to Olympic Range and the San Juan Peninsula and went camping for almost two weeks when I was eight years old.
Justice Douglas had a very strong relationship with my family. My grandfather brought Justice Douglas into public life and gave him his first job at the SEC as his deputy and then got Franklin Roosevelt to appoint him to run the SEC and played a critical role in getting him appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court. He said that his relationship to my grandfather was a father son relationship. When my father was 18 years old Justice Douglas took him for a walking tour of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, all the Asian Soviet Republics. They were the first Westerners to enter Soviet Asia after the 1917 revolution and they had an extraordinary trip and Justice Douglas wrote a book about it.
He had a very, very close relationship with my family and as an attorney the case that was the most important case, he was our greatest environmental jurist and the most important case was Sierra Club vs. Morton where he actually said that he believed the trees should have standing to sue [applause]. And there is nobody in American history than I more admire than him. What he understood which is what I think more and more people are understanding is that protecting the environment is not about protecting the fishes and the birds for their own sake but itís about recognizing that nature is the infrastructure of our communities and that if we want to meet our obligation as a generation, as a civilization, as a nation which is to create communities for our children that provide them with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment and good health.
As the communities that our parents gave us, weíve got to start by protecting our environmental infrastructure, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the public lands, the fisheries, the wildlife, the public areas that connect us to our past, that connect us to our history, that provide context to our communities that are the source ultimately of our values and virtues and character as a people. Over the past 22 years as an environmental advocate, Iíve been disciplined about being non-partisan and bipartisan in my approach to these issues. I donít think there is any such thing as Republican children or Democratic children.
I think the worst thing that could happen to the environment is it becomes the province of a single political party. It was mentioned that I have a book out there that is very critical of this president and thatís true but itís not a partisan book. I didnít write that book because Iím a Democrat and heís a Republican. If he were a Democrat, I would have written the same book. Iím not objecting to him because of his political party and Iíve worked for Republicans if theyíre good on the environment and democrats on the same level but you canít talk honestly about the environment in any context today without speaking critically of this president. This is the worst [applause].
This is the worst environmental president weíve had in American history.
If you look at NRDCís website youíll see over 400 major environmental roll backs that are listed there that have been implemented or proposed by this administration over the past four years as part of a deliberate concerted effort to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law.
Itís a stealth attack.
The White House has used all kinds of ingenious machinations to try to conceal its radical agenda from the American people including Orwellian rhetoric. When they want to destroy the forests, they call it the Healthy Forest Act. When they wanted to destroy the air, they called it the Clear Skies Bill.
But most insidiously, they have put polluters in charge of virtually all the agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution.
President Bush appointed as head of the Forest Service a timber industry lobbyist, Mark Rey, probably the most rapacious in history. He put in charge of public lands a mining industry lobbyist, Steven Griles, who believes that public lands are unconstitutional. He put in charge of the air division of the EPA, Jeffrey Holmstead, a utility lobbyist who has represented nothing but the worst air polluters in America. As head of Superfund, a woman whose last job was teaching corporate polluters how to evade Superfund. The second in command of EPA is a Monsanto lobbyist.
The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago we all read that as second in command of CEQ which is in the White House directly advising the president of environmental policy, he put a lobbyist of the American Petroleum Institute whose only job was to read all of the science from all the different federal agencies to make sure they didnít say anything critical, to excise any critical statements about the oil industry.
He was there to lie to the American public, to protect one of the big corporate contributors to this White House. This is true throughout all of the agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce which regulates fisheries, the Department of the Interior, EPA of course, and the relevant divisions of the Justice Department. The same thing, all these agencies and sub secretariats, it is the polluters who are now running these agencies.
There is nothing wrong with having business people in government. Itís a good thing if youíre objective is to recruit competence and expertise but in all of these cases these individuals as I show in my book, have entered government service not to benefit the public interest but rather to subvert the very laws theyíre now charged with enforcing in order to enrich the presidentís corporate pay masters.
They have imposed enormous diminution in quality of life in this country.
The problem is most Americans donít know about it, they donít see the connection and the reason for that is because we have a negligent and indolent media and press in this country which has absolutely let down American democracy [applause]. All this right wing propaganda which is planned and organized and dominated this country, the political debate for so many years talking about a liberal media. Well, you know and I know there is no such thing as a liberal media in the United States of America.
There is a right wing media and if you look where most Americans are now getting their news, thatís where theyíre getting it. According to Pew 30 percent of Americans now sway that their primary news source is talk radio which is 90 percent dominated by the right.
22 percent sat their primary news source is Fox News, MSNBC or CNBC, all dominated by the right and another 10 percent, Sinclair Network which is the most right wing of all. Thatís the largest television network in our country. Itís run by a former pornographer who requires all 75 of his affiliate television stations and this is where Mid-Westerners get their news, red state people get their news, all of them have to take a pledge to not report critically about this president or about the war in Iraq.
Then the rest of us are - the majority of Americans are still getting their news from electronic media and itís the corporate owned media and they have no ideology except for filling their pocket books and many of them are run by big polluters. All of them are run by giant corporations that have all kinds of deals with the government and are not going to offend public officials.
This all started in 1988 when Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine said that the airwaves belong to the public. They were public trust assets just like our air and water and that the broadcasters could be licensed to use them but only with the proviso that they use them to promote the public interest and to advance American democracy. They had to inform the public of issues of public import. They had to have the news hours. None of those networks wanted to show the news because itís expensive, they loose money on it. They had to avoid corporate consolidation. They had to have local control and diversity of control. That was the requirement of the law since 1928.
Today as a result of the abolishment of that doctrine, six giant multi-national corporations now control all 14,000 radio stations in our country, almost all 6,000 TV stations and 80 percent of our newspapers, all of our billboards and now most of the Internet information services, so you have six guys who are dictating what Americans have as information and what we see as news.
The news departments have become corporate profit centers, they no longer have any obligation to benefit the public interests, their only obligation is to their shareholders and they fulfill that obligation by increasing viewer ship. How do you do that? not by reporting the news that we need to hear in to make rational decisions in our democracy but rather by entertaining us, by appealing to the prurient interests that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brain for sex and celebrity gossip [applause]. So they give us Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant and weíre today the best entertained and the least informed people on the face of the earth and this is a real threat to American democracy.
If you look at the Pippa Report and Iíve known this for many, many years because I do 40 speeches a year in red states Republican audiences and there is no difference. When people hear this message and what this White House is doing and the Gingrich Congress, there is no difference between the way Republicans react and the democrats react except the republicans come up afterwards and say, "Why havenít we ever heard of this before? I say to them, "Itís because youíre watching Fox News and listening to Rush."
And 80 percent of Republicans are just Democrats who donít know whatís going on [applause].
I donít know if any of you saw the Pippa Report which came out after the last election but it confirmed everything and this is kind of a digression but this whole talk has turned into a digression. The Pippa Report was done by the University of Maryland and it showed that there is no - you know all these Saturday morning gas bags, the political pundits you see on TV talking about the moral difference and the ideological difference between red states and blue states.
There is no difference.
The only difference is there is a huge informational deficit in the red states and Iíve known this for a long time reaction I get people and the Pippa Report confirmed that by going and asking people who voted for Bush and who voted for Kerry about their knowledge of current events. What they found that of the people that voted for Bush had the same ideology, the same basic values, they were just misinformed. 70 percent said that they believed that Saddam Hussein bombed the World Trade Center, 70 percent believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, 64 percent believed that President Bush strongly supported the Kyoto Protocol and strong labor and environmental standards in our foreign treaties and on and on.
When Pippa went back and asked them what they believed, there was almost no difference between what the Republicans and Democrats believed where America should be headed. The problem was a huge information deficit because the news media in this country is letting down American democracy and democracy cannot survive long without a vigorous news media.
Iíll give you an example. As I said a gigantic diminution in quality of life that has taken place in this country as a direct result of this presidentís environmental policy that Americans mainly donít know about. Iím just going to focus on one industry which is coal burning power plants.
I have three sons who have asthma. One out of every four black children in Americaís cities now has asthma. We know that asthma attacks are triggered primary by bad air, by ozone and particulates and we know that the principle source of those materials in our atmosphere are 1,100 coal burning power plants that are burning coal illegally. Itís been illegal for 17 years. President Clintonís administration was prosecuting the worst
75 of those plants but thatís an industry that donated $48 million to this president during the 2000 cycle and have given $58 million since.
One of the first things that Bush did when he came into office was to order the Justice Department and EPA to drop all those lawsuits. The top three enforcers at EPA, Sylvia Lowrance, Bruce Buckheit, Eric Schaeffer, all resigned their jobs in protest. These werenít Democrats, these were people who had served through the Reagan and Bush administrations, the earlier Bush administration.
A top Justice Department official said that this had never happened in American history before where a presidential candidate accepts money, contributions from criminals under indictment or targeted for indictment and then orders those indictments and investigations dropped when he achieves office.
Immediately after dropping those lawsuits, the White House went and abolished the New Source Rule which was the heart and soul, the central provision of the Clean Air Act. That rule is the rule that required those plants to clean up 17 years ago and itís the fundamental compromise that allowed the passage of the Clean Air Act.
If you go to EPAís website today, you will see that that decision alone, that single decision, this is EPAís website, kills 18,000 Americans every single year. Six times the number of people that were killed by the World Trade Center attack. This should be on the front page of every newspaper in this country every single day and yet youíre not reading about it in the American press.
A couple of months ago EPA announced that in 19 states it is now unsafe to eat any freshwater fish in the state for mercury contamination. We know where the mercury is coming from, those same coal burning power plants. In 48 states at least some of the fish are unsafe to eat. In fact, the only two states where all of the fish are still safe to eat are Alaska and Wyoming where republican controlled legislatures have refused to appropriate the money to test the fish. In all of the other states at least some, most or all of the fish are unsafe to eat.
We know a lot about mercury we didnít know a few years ago. We know for example, that one out of every six, now one out of every three American women have so much mercury in her womb that her children are at risk for a grim inventory of diseases, autism, blindness, mental retardation, heart, liver, kidney disease.
I have so much mercury in my body, I had my levels tested recently and Waterkeeper will test your levels, you can send them a hair sample. Mine are about double what the EPA considers safe. I was told by Dr. David Carpenter who is the national authority on mercury contamination that a woman with my levels of mercury in her blood would have children with impairment. I said to him, "You mean she might have" and he said, "No, the science is very certain today. Her children would have some kind of permanent brain damage." He estimated an IQ loss in those kids of about five to seven points.
Well, we have 630,000 children who are born in America every year who have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in their motherís wombs. President Clinton recognizing the gravity of this national health epidemic reclassified mercury as a hazardous pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That triggered the requirement that all of those companies remove 90 percent of the mercury within three and a half years. It would have cost less than one percent of plant revenue, a great deal for the American people. We have the technology, it exists, we already require it in states like Massachusetts.
But it still meant billions of dollars for that industry and thatís the industry that gave $100 million to this president and about 12 weeks ago the White House announced that it was abolishing the Clinton era rules and substituting instead rules that were written by utility industry lobbyists that will allow those companies to never have to clean up the mercury. The rules say in their face that they have to clean up 70 percent within 15 years which by itself is outrageous but in fact, the utility lawyers who wrote those rules wrote so many loopholes into them that the utilities will be able to challenge them probably successfully and certainly forever and they will never have to clean up any additional mercury.
Weíre living in a science fiction nightmare today in the United States of America where my children and the children of millions of Americans who have asthmatic kids are bringing children into a world where the air is too poisonous for them to breathe. Where my children and the children of most Americans can now no longer safely engage in the seminal primal activity of American youth which is to go fishing with their father and mother and to come home and eat the fish because somebody gave money to a politician.
I live three hours south of the Adirondack Mountains, the oldest protected wilderness on the face of the earth. Itís been protected since 1888. We had a right, the American people, to believe that we would be able to enjoy those pristine landscapes, the forests, the beautiful lakes for generations unspoiled.
But today, one fifth of the lakes in the Adirondacks is now sterilized from acid rain which has also destroyed the forest cover on the high peaks of the Appalachian from Georgia all the way up into Northern Quebec and this president has put the brakes on the statutory requirements that those companies, those coal burning power plants clean up the acid rain. As a direct result of that decision, this year for the first time since the passage of the Clean Air Act sulfur dioxide levels went up in our country an astronomical four percent in a single year.
The person who gave me this t-shirt talked about mountain top mining a few minutes ago. A year ago in May, I flew over the coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia and I saw where the coal is coming from. If the American people could see what I saw, there would be a revolution in this country because we are cutting down the Appalachian Mountains. These historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed are the source of our values and our culture and weíre cutting them down with these giant machines called drag lines. Theyíre 22 stories high, they cost half a billion dollars and they practically dispense with the need for human labor and that of course, is the point.
I remember when my father was fighting strip mining back in the Ď60ís, a conversation I had with him at the dinner table where he said they are not only destroying the environment but they are permanently impoverishing these communities because there is no way that you can generate an economy from the moonscapes that they leave behind and theyíre doing it so that they can break the unions and he was right. In 1968 when he told me that there were 114,000 unionized mine workers taking mines out of tunnels in West Virginia.
Today there are only 11,000 miners left in the state and almost none of them are unionized because the strip industry isnít. Using these giant machines and 25 tons of dynamite that they explode in West Virginia every day, a Hiroshima bomb every week. They are blowing the tops off the mountains and then they take these giant machines and they scrape the rubble and debris into the adjacent river valley.
Well, itís all illegal.
You cannot dump rock and debris and rubble into a waterway in the United States of America without a Clean Water Act permit. So Joe Lovitz sued them and he won in front of a great crusty old West Virginia judge, Judge Charles Hayden who recently died. Charles Hayden said the same thing I said, he said, "Itís all illegal, all of it" and he enjoined all mountain top mining.
Two days from when we got that decision, Peabody Coal and Massey Coal who had given millions of dollars to this White House met in the White House and the White House rewrote one word of the Clean Water Act. The definition of the word fill that changed 30 years of statutory interpretation to make it legal today as it is in every state in the United States to dump rock, debris, rubble, construction debris, garbage, any kind of solid waste into any water way in this country without a Clean Water Act permit. All you need is a rubber stamp permit from the Corps of Engineers that in many cases you can get through the mail. It has none of the safeguards that the Clean Water Act provides.
And this is what weíre fighting today, this is not just a battle to save the environment. This is the subversion of our democracy.
The industry and the great big polluters and their indentured servants and our political process have done a great job and their PR firms and their faulty [biastitutes] and all these think tanks on Capitol Hill, have done a great job over the past couple of decades of marginalizing the environmental movement, of marginalizing us as radicals, as tree huggers, as I heard the other day, pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people.
But there is nothing radical about the idea of clean air and clean water for our children. As I said before, weíre not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes and the birds and the trees. Weíre protecting it for our own sake because itís the infrastructure of our communities and because it enriches us.
If you talk to these people on Capitol Hill who are promoting these kind of changes and ask them, "Why are you doing this?" What they invariably say is, "Well, the time has come in our nationís history where we have to choose now between economic prosperity on the one hand and environmental protection on the other."
And that is a false choice. In 100 percent of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy [applause]. If we want to measure our economy and this is how we ought to be measuring it, based upon it loses jobs and the dignity of jobs over the generations, over the long term and how it preserves the value of the assets of our communities.
If on the other hand, we want to do what theyíve been urging us to do on Capitol Hill which is to treat the planet as if were a business in liquidation, convert our natural resource to cash as quickly as possible, have a few years of pollution based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy but our children are going to pay for our joy ride.
Theyíre going to pay for it with the muted landscapes, poor health, huge clean up costs that are going to amplify over time and that they will never, ever be able to pay.
Environmental injury is deficit spending. Itís a way of loading the cost of our generationís prosperity on to the backs of our children [applause].
One of the things Iíve done over the past seven, eight years, since 1994, since this whole movement, the anti-environmental movement got a foothold, a beach head in Congress, is to constantly go around and confront this argument that an investment in our environment is a diminishment of our nationís wealth. It doesnít diminish our wealth, itís an investment in infrastructure, the same as investing in telecommunications and road construction. Itís an investment we have to make if weíre going to insure the economic vitality of our generation and the next generation. I want to say this, there is no stronger advocate for free market capitalism than myself.
I believe that the free market is the most efficient and democratic way to distribute the goods of the land and that the best thing that could happen to the environment is if we had true free market capitalism in this country because the free market promotes efficiency and efficiency means the elimination of waste and pollution of course is waste. The free market also would encourage us to properly value our natural resources and itís the under valuation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. But in a true free market economy you canít make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without 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 everybody else and they do that by evading the discipline of the free market.
You show me a polluter; Iíll show you a subsidiary. Iíll 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. Thatís what all pollution is, itís always a subsidy, itís always a guy trying to cheat the free market.
Corporations are externalizing machines. Theyíre constantly figuring out ways to get somebody else to pay their costs of production, thatís their nature. One of the best ways to do that and the most common way for a polluter is through pollution. When those coal burning power plants put mercury into the atmosphere that comes down from the Ohio Valley and it comes down on my state New York, I buy a fishing license for $30 every year but I canít go fishing and eat the fish anymore because they stole the fish from me.
They liquidated a pubic asset, my asset. The rule is the commons are owned by all of us. Theyíre not owned by the governor or the legislator or the coal companies and the utility. Everybody has a right to use them.
Nobody has a right to use them. Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others. But theyíve stolen that entire resource from the people of New York State.
When they put the acid rain in the air, it destroys our forest and it destroys the lakes that we use for recreation or outfitting or tourism or wealth generation. When they put the mercy - the mercury poisons our childrenís brains and that imposes a clause on us. The ozone in particular has caused a million asthma attacks a year, kills 18,000 people, hundreds of thousands lost work day.
All of those impacts, impose costs on the rest of us. that should in a true free market economy be reflected in the price of that companyís product when it makes it to the market place.
What those companies and all polluters do is they use political clout to escape the discipline in the free market and force the public to pay their costs. All of the federal environmental laws, everyone of the 28 major environmental laws, all of them were designed to restore free market capitalism in America by forcing actors in the market place to play the true cost of bringing their product to market. What we do with the Riverkeepers - we have 147 licensed Riverkeepers now and each one has a patrol boat, each one is a full time paid river keeper and each one agrees to sue polluters.
What we do and we donít even consider ourselves environmentalists any more. Weíre free marketers.
We go out into the market place, we catch the cheaters, the polluters, and we say to them, "Weíre going to force you to internalize your costs the same way that you internalize your profits because as long as somebody is cheating the free market, none of us get the advantages of the efficiency and the democracy and the prosperity that the free market otherwise promises our country.
What we have to understand as a nation is that there is a huge difference between free market capitalism which democratizes a country, which makes us more prosperous and efficient and the kind of corporate cloning capitalism which has been embraced by this White House which is as antithetical to democracy, to prosperity and efficiency in America as it is in Nigeria [applause].
There is nothing wrong with corporations. Corporations are a good thing. They encourage us to take risks, they maximize wealth, they create jobs. I own a corporation.
Theyíre a great thing but they should not be running our government.
The reason for that is they donít have the same aspirations for America that you and I do.
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