By Matthew Bretz
Like many of the men in his family, Robert Kennedy Jr. has the look and demeanor of James Bond. He’s cool and deliberate with both movement and speech. He’s calculating and precise with what he wants and how to get it. To use words like “intimidating” and “impressive” would hardly hit the mark…not by a long shot. Like nearly every Kennedy of note, Robert went the ivy league route, attending both Harvard and then Pace university. After Law school he served as Assistant District Attorney in New York before moving on to basically save the world.
Named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Planet”, Kennedy helped the organization River Keeper lead the way to restoring the Hudson river. He is Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio. Impressed yet? There’s more.
Besides being a tireless and relentless watchdog of the GOP, Mr. Kennedy has victored countless environmental and human rights issues across the globe. He is credited with helping to protect New York‘s water supply, negotiating peace treaties for indigenous tribes against big business on at least three continents and leading the fight to stop anti-environmental legislation in congress. He’s published an impressive collection of books, including a 2004 New York Times bestseller and his award winning articles have been featured in Rolling stone, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, the Village Voice and the Washington Post among others. In short, Robert Kennedy Jr. is the legal and political Bono. His latest effort has to do with big coal and what it’s doing to the mountains of Appalachia.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to engage Mr. Kennedy and soak up a bit of his humanity. Robert has long been a hero of mine, so it was a real treat and one I won’t soon forget.
MB: So what exactly is going on in Appalachia?
RK: For at least three decades now coal mining companies have been basically blowing the tops off of mountains to mine their coal. The problems this causes are astronomically detrimental to the people and environment in the surrounding region. Coal dust is constantly in the air causing respiratory problems and even lung cancer, falling debris destroys founding streams and rivers- drastically destroying the natural geography. At the same time these companies are cutting down vast amounts of forest land and at the rate it’s going the forests of Appalachia will be gone in less than six years. It’s not too much to say this is the biggest environmental catastrophe in our country’s history.
MB: If this is such a huge travesty why has it been going so long? And what, if anything, is being done about it?
RK: Just like anything else big business is involved in- it’s very difficult to trump the lobbyists and get legislation passed. I had very high hopes for Obama and I still do, but he promised during his campaign to do something about this and so far he hasn’t. The pressure big business puts on politicians is amazing and shouldn’t be allowed. Big coal companies and, believe it or not, Bank of America have their hands in so many pockets it can be difficult to make things happen.
MB: What would you have Obama do if you had your way in the matter?
RK: Someone has to own up to the fact that fossil fuel is exactly that…a fossil, a relic. We cannot in good conscience continue to use it. Obama talks about finding a clean way to burn coal- there isn’t one. The reality is, carbon is treason and needs to be ended. People talk about air quality and fuel consumption in the same breath all the time, but the real killer is water quality. I’ve spent a good deal of my career tackling water quality issues and I know what I’m talking about. Did you know that it’s unsafe to eat fresh water fish in nineteen states right now? That’s unacceptable. What I want from Obama is for him to live up to the standards he promised us.
It’s important to note that since this interview president Obama has suspended the mining license of a major coal company in that region of the country.
MB: Okay, so that’s the president. What can WE do?
RK: In the coming months we are staging a slew of peaceful protests to help bring light to the situation. We will block streets, we will organize sit ins…we will get arrested.
MB: So to help out we can all go get arrested?
RK: Haha…Basically yeah! The idea is to get the word out to people to help put pressure on the politicians from the right side. You can also visit the website of a fantastic organization called Cape Farewell at http://www.capefarewell.com to find out what else can be done on this as well as other issues.
Last month a very large, very peaceful protest was organized in West Virginia to block trucks getting to the mines. The protestors chose a road and the adjacent field ext to an elementary school to deter any undue violence. It worked and there was no violence that day. There were, however, a lot of arrests and a lot of media to document it. Among those arrested was famed movie star Daryl Hannah.
MB: Earlier this year Chevron was forced to pay the people of Nigeria 4.5 million dollars in damage compensation and most recently a landmark settlement of 16 billion to the people of Ecuador. Your take?
RK: Chevron is an evil company and what they have been doing in Nigeria, in Ecuador, in Burma and many other third world nations is completely criminal. The settlements they have to pay out presently are just a drop in the bucket.
MB: Do you think these suits can be viewed as victories for human rights against big business?
RK: I think, particularly the Nigerian Settlement, is a slap on the wrist. Companies like Chevron…American companies, have been abusing and literally killing people in that country for decades in the name of profit. They aren’t restricted by the same environmental laws we have here and they pay the workers next to nothing. It’s disgraceful and criminal.
MB: I write for a music magazine so I do want to ask at least one question involving music.
RK: Yeah you better…I don’t want you editor calling me…ha!
MB: Musicians love to use their vehicle to inform us all of their political beliefs whenever they can. What is your opinion on mixing music and politics?
RK: Musicians…and really any kind of celebrity are an important currency in the political arena. People, especially young people, listen to what their favorite musician or actor says to them. And that’s the first step- getting people to listen. The media also covers anything and everything celebrities do or say…so again the word is getting out. It’s very important to have respected, well liked people in your corner when you’re dealing on a global level like this.
MB: Our time has been short, but I know there is a lot that you would like to say that needs to be heard. Any final thoughts for the readers of Brevard Live?
RK: The world is a lot bigger and a lot smaller than you think, so pay attention to what’s happening because it will affect your life. The media likes to play bait and switch a lot and when something really important is going on they might use misdirection to swing your focus somewhere else. You might not know about what American companies have been up to in Nigeria or what’s going on in West Virginia if your only news source is telling you the latest about Paris Hilton. Stay alert, and remember that it’s more important to change your politicians then it is your light bulbs.
After our conversation I shook my, and the planet’s, hero’s hand and thanked him for his time. Walking away I felt both empowered by Mr. Kennedy’s words and at the same time disappointed in myself for not have the selfless courage to help my fellow man even a quarter the amount that he has. I could tell myself…if only I had the time and money of a Kennedy, but that’s not completely fair. Every day of my life I can be making the decisions that will help you and me and everybody. Shouldn’t we all be doing that? One person can’t make much of a difference it’s true. But as one large collective called human kind…who knows. Until then I’m glad to have people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on our side.