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The Kennedy remedy

Environmental activist, lawyer and famous son, Robert Kennedy Jr says the best argument for environmental protection is neither moral nor scientific—it’s economic.
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Environmental activist, lawyer and famous son, Robert Kennedy Jr says the best argument for environmental protection is neither moral nor scientific—it’s economic. On a recent visit to New Zealand he spoke to about the connection between soil, air and successful business

“Environmentalism makes for good economics.” That sounds like a contradiction. What do you mean?

We’re not protecting the environment just for the sake of fish and birds but for our own sake, because it’s the infrastructure of our community like water, air, wildlife, fisheries, public lands, aquifers, wetlands and shorelines.

The first act of tyranny always includes efforts to privatise the public trust. During the dark ages, when Roman law broke down in Europe, feudal lords and local kings began to privatise public assets. In England, King John said the fish, deer and other big animals no longer belonged to the poor, they belonged only to the nobility, in particular himself. He erected navigation tolls on towns and rivers and sold monopolies to fisheries. And that sparked a public revolt and lead to the Magna Carta, the first act of constitutional democracy.

What’s the connection to our times?

In New York State I have a fishing licence for $30 every year, but I can no longer eat the fish because they’re contaminated with mercury. The constitution of New York says that the people of the state own the fish, they’re not owned by the government, the legislature or any private company. But effectively all the fish in the state are owned by a handful of companies that have contaminated them with mercury.

Or take coal. I have three sons with asthma. The principal cause of asthma attacks in our country is particular the coal-burning power plants. So my kids, on bad air days, can no longer breathe properly; the air has been privatised—stolen from them and turned into a subsidy for these large corporations that have political clout.

Now it’s illegal to do that under laws that go from the Code of Justinian to the Magna Carta and beyond. In the 16th century there was a Clean Air Act making it illegal to burn coal in London. In the 17th century it was a capital offence and people were executed for it.

But everyone’s against pollution and it ought to be punished. You’re saying the free market supports better environmental outcomes and vice versa.

Absolutely. Take BrightSource, a company that I’m involved with that is building a solar thermal plant generating 2.6 gigawatts of power and has supply contracts with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas. We constructed this much faster than you could construct a coal or nuclear plant. But we did it for the same price, which is about $3 billion per gigawatt for a coal plant, and about a fifth of the price of building a nuke plant.

And your point is …

That then you've got free energy forever, whereas with coal your big costs are just beginning, because now you've got to cut down the Appalachian Mountains and bring it across the country in coal cars. And once you burn the coal, it poisons every fish in America with mercury, sterilises our lakes with acid rain and destroys the forest cover.

All of those costs, should, in a truly free market, be reflected in the price when it gets to the marketplace. But polluters use political clout to escape the discipline of the free market, and force the public to pay their production costs. My objective, through 25 years of litigation and activism, has been to try to force polluters to internalise their costs and therefore have the kind of free market capitalism that actually leads to true efficiency, prosperity and democracy.

The abolition of the slave trade exposed all the hidden efficiencies associated with human bondage. Today we don’t need to abolish carbon to understand it’s the principal drag on American capitalism

You make an analogy between the end of the fossil fuel economy and the abolition of slavery.

Last November, Lord David Putnam gave a speech before the British parliament when the Brits were debating a cap-and-trade system. To its credit parliament passed the law. But Lord Putnam was addressing the concerns of people who said we have to move incrementally, because it’s going to cause grave dislocations in our marketplace. Putman reminded parliament that exactly 200 years before, the same body had debated the abolition of slavery. Slavery was considered an abomination by most people in England but there were people who said they had to move slowly, because slavery, or free labour, represented 25 percent of the British economy.

After a year of debate parliament made the moral choice and abolished slavery outright. But instead of collapsing, the British economy exploded as thousands of entrepreneurs rushed to create new forms of energy, mainly mechanical ones, in what we now know as the industrial revolution.

The abolition of the slave trade exposed all these hidden inefficiencies that were associated with human bondage. Now today we don't need to abolish carbon to understand that our deadly addiction is the principal drag on American capitalism. We’re borrowing a billion dollars a day from countries that don't like us, in order to import a billion dollars of oil from countries that don't like us. And that is ruining a nation that, when I was a little boy, owned half the wealth on the face of the Earth.

So what will the ‘abolition of carbon’ do?

I'm on the board of the biggest green-tech venture capital firm in the United States, and our profit margins are over 50 percent over the past five years, even as the economy in our country has largely collapsed. We’re able to produce energy through disruptive technologies that are going to win in the marketplace. This is one of the biggest economic revolutions in history.

Do you see the same kind of cleantech excitement in other industries?

Yes but energy is the big kahuna, because energy is a multitrillion-dollar industry. And so there’s going to be a huge shift in wealth from the carbon cronies and nuke to much more efficient technologies like wind, tidal, solar and geothermal. The whole thing, that whole transfer, is largely dependant on us developing marketplaces that are rational. A market that rewards good behaviour, which is efficiency, and punishes bad behaviour, which is inefficiency. The literature shows that the disruptive technology of a market is not immediately rational. There’s always a fight, because incumbents hold on, using every tool that democracy allows—and some that it doesn’t allow—in order to maintain their domination of the marketplace and their income streams.

What role could New Zealand play in this ongoing story?

New Zealand is an avatar, it’s an exemplar on many levels. It’s got a history of innovation, it’s got a model democracy and is a model for a really egalitarian society.

The most powerful thing we can do is to point to places like California and say, ‘Look, they've got automobile omission standards that are much tougher than the rest of the country, and they haven’t bankrupted the state.’ Or look at California’s energy system, where it de-coupled utility industry profits from the sales of energy. Utilities in California, since 1982, no longer make money by selling energy. They make money by getting people to conserve it. California’s economy, since then, has grown by 95 percent but its energy use has stayed flat.

So for us to point to an example like that is very persuasive with all the other states and at the federal level. And when we point to the experience of Sweden, Iceland or New Zealand and say, ‘Here is a successful country that’s a sustainable economy,’ then that’s the most powerful thing we can do.