Conversation with Robert Kennedy Jr.

And the Decline of Western Civilization

Robert Kennedy Jr. in front of a tapestry memorializing Charles V's Spanish conquest of Tunisia. May 2017

It is no secret that we are currently in an unprecedented environmental tailspin. Carbon levels are rising dangerously, the polar ice caps are melting, and species are rapidly disappearing etc. While the rest of the world has taken steps to mitigate the damage humans cause the planet, The United States has taken a cynical and irresponsible path towards climate change.

Throughout February and March of this year, President Donald Trump exercised a careless abuse of power and rolled back environmental safeguards that have been protecting our air and water. Trump and many of his Republican colleagues consistently lie to voters by telling them that this deregulation will make fossil fuel jobs magically re-appear.

Recently I had the good fortune of sitting down with environmentalist, attorney, and activist Robert F Kennedy Jr. to talk about what Trump’s America could look like in the coming years. 

Robert Kennedy Jr.

MN: I’d like to start off with the conclusion that we’ve both come to, which is that there is this bullshit idea that harming the environment creates jobs. I wanted to ask you why you think people keep falling for this one. Do you think it’s education?

RFK: Propaganda. It’s the same reason that people in this country question global warming but we know it’s caused by human activity. If you go to Europe nobody questions it. It’s very rare in Canada, Australia, Latin America, and New Zealand, and the reason for that is that propaganda and advertising work. It’s Exxon, the Koch brothers, and Chevron. Peabody (Energy) put half a billion dollars into a propaganda campaign over the past twenty years that has given cover to politicians that they have on their payroll. They’ve given political cover to those politicians that are able to stand for or take positions that are antithetical to all of our values, our national interest, national security, the prosperity of jobs, etc. that have persuaded a large part of the American public to ignore the science. So that’s the reason. Of course, there are many more jobs in renewables. There are about 60,000 coal mining jobs in this country and there are 260,000 or 280,000 in solar - I think. You can look this up at the bureau of labor statistics or Amory Lovins’ website. 200,000 up in the wind industry, solar jobs increased 25% in the last year so there are already more jobs in solar than there are in oil, coal and gas extraction together. As opposed to being a capital intensive industry which mining is, it’s a labor intensive industry. There are lots of jobs, they are secure, high paying, dignified, healthy and much better jobs. In the coal mining industry when I was a kid there were over 151,000 unionized coal miners in West Virginia. Today I think there’s fewer than 11,000. Those jobs were lost, not because of any environmental regulation, but because of a brutal, merciless campaign by the industry to mechanize its processes and eliminate human labor. You can do that in the mining space, but you can’t do that in the solar space. Plus solar is a democratic energy source. Every American can turn their home into a power plant and turn themselves into an energy entrepreneur.

MN: I read that you did this with geothermal in your own home. Is that correct?

RFK: I did, in my home in California, in a fifteen-minute phone call with NRG (which is one of the players in the home solar market). They told me to turn on the computer and send them a photo of my last electric bill. Which was $600 dollars and they said, we’ll put a new system in your home. We’ll own it and you will never pay more than $240 for energy again. We ended up actually owning the system. That was their initial deal. Our electric bill is about $10 a month. So you know, who wouldn’t take that deal?

MN: Of course, and probably the way forward is going to be to convince people to go greener based on their personal interest rather than an altruistic interest in the greater good.

RFK: It’s the market. It’s not going to be philanthropy or good deeds that change the energy system in the country. It’s gonna be the markets and you know Amory Lovins'. He’s probably the guru of clean energy. He’s been around for about 40 years and he’s a genius. He showed me two photos recently that were both taken in New York City from the same vantage point. Easter Sunday ten years apart. One in 1903 and the other in 1913, both looking up Fifth Avenue. The one in 1903 shows a hundred horse and buggies and a single automobile. In 1913 there’s a hundred automobiles and one horse and buggy. The horse and buggy drivers never saw it coming. The reason it happened is because Henry Ford, over a 13 year period, dropped the price of Model T Fords by 67%. The price of solar in this country over the past five years has dropped by 80%. Today, in order to build a utility scale solar plant, costs about one billion dollars per gigawatt. To build a coal plant is three to five billion per gigawatt. To build an oil plant is three to five billion per gigawatt. A gas turbine is three to five billion dollars per gigawatt. To build a nuclear plant is nine billion (per gigawatt).

So you can make energy by burning prime rib if you wanted, but what will happen is we will take the cheapest way out and the cheapest way is solar. The energy markets have already recognized this. The meteor has hit. The dinosaurs are doomed but there’s still some walking around. The markets understand this, and that’s why the fifty top coal companies in this country are either in Chapter Eleven or on the verge of it. The top three coal companies: Arch Coal, Consol, and Peabody lost 80% of their value in two years. There’s no way coal jobs are coming back to West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky.

MN: Let me ask you…

RFK: Let me finish this point. The same thing is happening in liquid fuels. To drive an electric car costs about 2 cents per mile. The operation costs two to three cents over the life of the car. An internal combustion engine costs 16 cents a mile. It’s about five times. So you know we are gonna make that transition and it will be driven by market forces. The industry knows this and sees it coming and they are terrified. They know that the only way they can compete against renewables and electric cars is not on a level playing field. The only way they can do it is through massive subsidies and massive political interventions to stop wind and solar from taking their place. So they have to hijack the political process. It’s the only way for them to survive and they have to anchor us in infrastructure. That’s why they built 16,000 miles of pipeline over the past twelve years, and it’s very simple to build a pipeline in this country between the Koch brothers and the oil industry. It’s almost impossible to build a trans-mission line. So I think over the past ten years we’ve built 16,000 miles of pipeline in this country and only 600 miles of transmission. Transmission, of course, being the vehicle for wind and solar and when they build a pipeline it’s like a shackle on our country. Like an iron shackle because it locks us into a fuel source for the next forty of fifty years, long after any kind of economic rationale for oil has evaporated.

MN: The pipelines lock us into an infrastructure that’s soon to become useless, thus prolonging our oil addiction? That’s pretty nasty.

RFK: Who pays for that pipeline?

MN: Us?

RFK: Not exactly. The pipeline is being financed by Citibank, Wells Fargo, Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and the pension funds and all these big players. The only way they are going to get their money back is if there’s oil going through that pipeline for the next thirty years. Now you’ve not just got the oil industry that is vested in the continuous use of an inefficient fuel, but you’ve got major financial players also anchored in it. That’s why you see this rush to build all these. The market has collapsed in the United States, so the only way they can continue to survive is to sell to Asia, which is not good for America because it lowers the price of energy in Asia and that’s our one economic advantage right now is we’ve got the lowest cost of energy in the industrialized world. That’s why you’re seeing this renaissance in manufacturing in our country. Sending cheap energy to Asia is not good for America, it’s good for the energy barons and of course, they burn the coal and they contaminate us. It all will come right back here. When Trump makes an announcement that he’s gonna bring coal jobs back it’s just a lie. He’s got a coal miner on either side of him but there are no new jobs coming back here.

MN: Yeah, that’s obvious.

RFK: What they’ve done is there’s been a coup d'etat in the oil industry on the American government. They’ve put these terrible people in charge of your government. Rex Tillerson former head of Exxon in charge of foreign policy, Mike Pompeo who is a Koch brothers puppet, for domestic policy there’s Ryan Zinke who’s an oil company puppet, and Scott Pruitt who is also a creature of the oil industry. Their job is to make sure we don’t make that transition to clean energy.

MN: This is exactly what I wanted to talk about and this leads me right into it. When Trump says he wants to cut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31%, what are those cuts and what do they affect? The second part of my question is does the EPA have any real prosecutorial power or do they just make suggestions to the justice department?

RFK: The EPA has prosecutorial power if they are going to do a criminal case, or in some large cases they have their own administrative courts. If a company violates their permit the EPA can penalize them and then go through the administrative process and appeal to the federal courts. If it is a criminal case then they need to bring in the Justice Department, and for a major civil action they bring in the Solicitor General of the Justice Department.

The EPA was already cut to the bone under Bush and there’s nothing left. There’s no gristle, there’s no meat left, so any cut into the EPA will cut into the bone. The law requires the EPA to do certain things. These cuts literally mean the EPA won’t be able to comply with the law to protect the environment, to establish rules for factory farms, fishkills and power plants, etc. For most of these, the EPA is 10 or 20 or 30 years behind. It’s breaking the law today and to then take all those people who are trying to write those new regulations and fire them means that they are going to be in legal noncompliance for decades. It typically takes seven years to promulgate a regulation.

MN: And that can be seven years the polluters can keep violating right?

RFK: The industry continues to violate those laws throughout the seven years, and then at the end of the seven years you cancel all the regulations which is what they did. The Obama era regulations are essentially maturing right now for promulgation and that typically happens in the last year of a presidential administration. All of the new regulations that they initiated suddenly came to fruition and Pruitt came in and froze them all. He’s throwing them all out and he’s firing the guys that wrote them. You would have to start from scratch again when Trump leaves. You lose at least a decade.

MN: What does this country look like without an EPA then? If we are cutting into the bone and there’s nothing left…

Cuyahoga River on fire 1952. One of many fires.

RFK: It looks the same way it did before Earth Day 1970 when the Cuyahoga River was burning and the states were all racing to lower their environmental standards to recruit filthy industries in a competition against each other. The Cuyahoga River was burning with fires they couldn’t put out. Lake Erie was declared dead. The beaches in Southern California were closed for the entire summer because of the Santa Monica oil spill. The Eastern Adams Peregrine Falcon, our most spectacular predatory bird, went extinct from DDT poisoning. I grew up in that era when there were tens of thousands of Americans dying every year from smog. Even in Washington, which was an industrial city where I was raised, you couldn’t wear a white shirt because it would be covered in soot by the end of the day.

MN: The executive order on March 28th where Trump walks back Obama-era regulations on carbon emissions. I have been thinking about how this affects poor people first. Do you see that there’s a class issue here? They may not have access to health care, etcetera.

RFK: It’s not only health care. If you look at where noxious facilities are sited it’s always in a poor neighborhood. It’s not in Greenwich or Bel Air. Four out of five toxic waste dumps are in black neighborhoods. The largest toxic waste dump in America is in Emelle, Alabama which is like 90% black. The highest concentration of uncontrolled toxic waste is on the South Side of Chicago. The most contaminated zip code in California is Los Angeles. If you look at Indian reservation farm workers, there are 170,000 farm workers that are poisoned by pesticides, and their families, of course, are poisoned. Probably the number one health epidemic that we’ve had in this country is lead poisoning among urban African American children. Arguably.

MN: Speaking of which, I recently read that Zinke’s first move is to allow lead bullets to be sold to hunters again. I guess so the predatory birds can eat the animal and get lead poisoning as a result. I just see that as petty and cynical. Do you happen to know what’s going on with the Clean Water Act right now? Is Trump scrapping it?

RFK: You can’t scrap the whole Clean Water Act. You can do it piece-by-piece. But he’s doing that. He got rid of the buffer zone rule which protects streams from Appalachia and elsewhere by stopping them from dumping overburden and coal waste directly into streams into their buffer zones. And he’s done a lot of other things like that. They already rolled back the Waters of the United States to weaken or eliminate protection in the small wetlands.

MN: What would you say to Trump on behalf of the environment right now?

RFK: Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy. The jobs are in wind and solar. You won't get to a prosperous future by staring into the rearview mirror.

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Conversation with Robert Kennedy Jr.