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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: It's the economy, stupid

“Good environmental policy is always 100% of the time identical to good economic policy…”: for our site, it’s our reason for being, but it was great to hear it from one of America’s most famous environmentalists.

As famous as his father was for promoting human rights, Robert F Kennedy, Jr. has created his own legacy as a protector of environmental rights.

Of course, he would argue the latter belong within the former, given the title of his 1999 book- written with Al Gore- The Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right. RFK, Jr., like his father, doesn’t stop fighting with his tireless activism:

  • He’s senior attorney for the most prominent American environmental lobbying and legal group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
  • He has a weekly show on Air America Radio where he and his co-host “take on corporate crooks, polluters, hypocritical preachers and ugly politicians.”
  • He gives over 40 speeches a year trying to educate the American public on his causes, and that’s just in “the red states” (as he likes to state in those speeches).

We caught up with him after one of those speeches (not in one of the red states, but in California) for a quick chat about why focusing on the environment doesn’t mean forgetting about the economy.

RFK, Jr.: “Good environmental policy is always 100% of the time identical to good economic policy if we want to measure our economy based on how it produces jobs over the long-term over the generations and how it preserves the value of the assets of our community. If on the other hand, we want to do what the White House and what the big polluters have been urging us to do which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, 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 with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that are going to amplify over time and that they will never be able to pay. Environmental injury is just deficit spending.”

faircompanies: What do you suggest to the individual consumer? What can someone do to make a difference?

Robert Kennedy: The most important thing people can do is to take part in changing our govenment. That doesn’t mean running for congress, but it means running for school board, for the library board for the zoning board and participating.

And there’s lots of things that people, individuals, can do to kind of integrate the environmental ethic into their own lives: buy a fuel efficient car, use compact florescent light-bulbs and all those things, but the real change is going to come when we change our government and everybody’s got to start getting involved in that.

In your speech, you talked a lot about the economy and that capitalism can be good. Are there companies that you look at that are doing good things? 

Yeah, there’s a lot of great companies out there. In each of the industries. Even the oil industry. You know, there’s good actors and bad actors. There’s Exxons which are bad virtually all the time and then there’s companies like BP that try to do good stuff and Shell and Hess and some of the others that are much better in those areas.

So you know so with each industry you have really good actors and you have CEOs who try to inculcate strong corporate ethics into their corporate culture and then there’s other ones who just think you know, we’re here to make a big pile for ourselves and whoever dies with the most stuff wins.

How do consumers educate themselves. In the same way that our media is not informing us in the right way are there other ways to educate ourselves?

Yeah, people should go to NRDC’s website, the Natural Resource Defense Council, and sign up and we’ll not only educate you, but we’ll put you to work doing good things.

And we’ll end with a little something from his speech: “The polluting industry are indentured servants to the political process, they’ve been very adept in recent decades of marginalizing environmentalist as radicals or treehuggers or, as I heard the other day pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people, but there’s nothing radical about the idea of clean air and clean water for our children…

If you talk to the people who are engineering these rollbacks [in his speech he talks about the Bush administration’s environmental rollbacks]…

What they invariably say is, ‘well, the time has come in our nation’s history where we have to choose now between economic prosperity on the one hand and environment protection on the other.’ And that is a false choice. In 100% of the situations good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy.”