April 24, 2003

Activist Kennedy Speaks

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Leading environmental activist and lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gave a lecture to a packed Call Auditorium yesterday entitled “Our Environmental Destiny.”

As the inaugural speech in the Kaplan Family Distinguished Lecture in Public Service series and organized in part by the Cornell Public Service Center (CPSC), Kennedy sent a strong message concerning recent government actions and the meaning of being an environmentalist, which seemed to inspire some students such as Dana Hall ’06.

“I was quite impressed,” Hall said. “I’m going to join an environmental club now.”

President Hunter R. Rawlings III gave opening remarks to Kennedy’s lecture, calling him “one of the most effective environmentalist lawyers … who has earned high marks in a number of significant environmental cases.”

Kennedy started out his lecture by indicating that the environment is the most critical area of public service. Contrary to popular stereotypes of animal and tree activists, Kennedy said that the term environmentalist “doesn’t mean protecting the fishes and birds,” but rather protecting nature and the infrastructure of the global community.

“This is a struggle for a control of the commons,” he said.

Throughout several parts of the lecture, Kennedy criticized corporations, claiming that they have stolen the environment “with their political clout,” and said that their actions cheat communities and future generations.

Kennedy talked about Hudson Riverkeeper, a group that has worked to cleanse the Hudson River from water of PCBs dumped by General Electric since the mid-1940s. He described the community’s reliance on fishing and illustrated the government’s refusal to put action in place.

“The government was in cahoots with the pollutants,” he said.

Kennedy then talked about how he became involved and started to help win settlements from corporations. His determination to attack polluting companies has stretched even to his students at Pace University School of Law in New York, where he is a clinical professor.

Kennedy asks each student to pick four companies to sue and take to court. A group of his students recently won a settlement for $5.7 million from one corporation.

“Of course, if they don’t win the case, they don’t pass the course,” he said jokingly.

Labeling the resurgent Hudson River as a “Noah’s Ark” because of its regeneration, Kennedy said other countries and communities have followed the Riverkeeper’s actions and individuals across the nation have been attempting to start their own Riverkeeper groups near their homes as well.

Kennedy then switched gears and addressed the government’s current environmental policy. He said that unlike other issues which separate groups under partisan lines, Kennedy claims that he has supporters which “run the range of the political spectrum.”

He warns that if the Bush administration, which he claims is searching for short-term economic prosperity, succeeds in breaking 30 years of environmental law, there will be grave consequences.

“Even if a little legislation is passed, we will not have any more environmental laws,” Kennedy said.

Even with this criticism, Kennedy said that he is a major supporter of the free market. Yet, he claims, “In 100 percent of the situations, good economic policy is equal to good environmental policy,” something which the current government does not endorse.

“A true free market is when you make yourself rich by making other people rich. It is not when you make yourself rich by making other people poor,” he said.

Kennedy took the example of developing nations who have not addressed environmental issues and are currently struggling with development and said that if we followed their lead, future generations will struggle.

“Our children are going to pay for our joyride,” he said. “That’s what will happen if this fool-hardy Congress dismantles 30 years of law.”

Kennedy claims that corporations are funding political parties into permitting them to pollute.

He said that companies such as General Electric build factories and blackmail communities into letting them in. He added that people need to help “pull the nipple out of [the corporation’s] mouth,” especially with industries such as mining.

“[Corporations] get the gold, we get the shaft,” Kennedy said. “They need to clean up our mess … [it’s] a lesson we learned in kindergarten.”

Kennedy cited many former fascist regimes led by leaders with corporate attitudes and said that America is following this track.

“Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hilter, and Mussolini were great capitalists. That’s what will happen if we let [environmental law] go,” he said. “We are heading down the path to fascism.”

After he spoke for over an hour, he addressed questions from the audience. In reference to corporate control over the environment, he said that many Americans do not know what is going on because of the war.

Kennedy also claims that the media is too corporate, stating they are “focused on the dollar signs,” and reminded audience members that many stations are owned by big companies. He particularly focused his criticism on Fox News and analysts such as Fred Singer, who he said are spreading false facts about issues such as global warming.

Kennedy said that many in the environmental movement are “busting their butts,” but admitted that they need more money.

“We need to go into Washington and work on these crooks. This is a fist fight going on in Capital Hill and we have to win it,” he said.

Students were impressed by Kennedy’s direct presentation and message. According to Sara Mark ’03, she enjoyed how “he talked to us as people and not over us.”

“I think it was the most frank, straight out explanation of the ways things are that I’ve heard from a politician,” Ethan Rainwater ’06 said.

Kennedy has written several books and articles for various publications and has served on two presidential campaigns, including Al Gore’s 2000 run. He is more famously known as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and also is highly involved in protecting New York City’s water supply, among other ventures.

Even Rawlings seemed impressed with his lecture. When he went up to give his closing remarks, his only comment was that he had not heard a speech like that in 40 years, a reference to Kennedy’s late father and other older relatives.

“I thought he gave a speech with a great combination of intellect and passion,” Rawlings said after the lecture. “It’s a rare combination.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao