At this year’s Waterkeeper Alliance conference in Boulder, Colorado, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. delivered a provocative unscripted keynote that lambasted the carbon lobby for undermining democracy and subverting the common right to a healthy environment.
Speaking to a group of activists, including more than 200 Waterkeepers from 30 nations, Kennedy declared, “We are engaged, as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘in a great Civil War.’” This time, he said, “the conflict involves all the Earth’s peoples. It’s not just a battle to protect our waterways, our livelihoods, our property and our backyards. It’s a struggle for our sovereignty, our values, our health and our lives. It’s a battle for dignified humane and wholesome communities. It’s a defensive war against toxic and economic aggression by Big Oil and King Coal. It’s a struggle to break free of the ‘soft colonialism’ of carbon’s corporate tyranny and create an economic and energy system that is fair, rooted in justice, economic independence and freedom.”
He started by talking about the disproportionate impact of pollution on the poor and minorities. “Polluters,” he explained, “assault soft targets first—and that means the poor.” He recounted how the majority of toxic industrial sites and noxious facilities are in lower income communities where residents lack political power or connections to protect themselves. He gave examples of these environmental injustices including, Emelle, Alabama, which is home to the largest toxic waste dump in America—one of the country’s most impoverished regions where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and more than 65 percent of the residents are black—Chicago’s south side, which has more toxic waste sites than any other American community and East Los Angeles, a primarily black and Hispanic community, which is the most contaminated zip code in America.
“In these communities,” he said, “Not just the land and water, but the people have been commoditized—and everything becomes expendable in the drive for corporate profits.”
But he added, “It’s not just the poor who are under assault. The corporate hunger for profit is threatening all people with loss of their natural world and the other assets of their patrimony.”
Kennedy said that corporate efforts to privatize the commons are occurring in all parts of the world and that “environmental injury correlates almost perfectly with political tyranny.”
“In China, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, environmental destruction went hand in hand with political despotism and corruption,” he continued. “Thanks to the Pinochet regime, the forests and waters of Chile are no longer owned by the Chilean people. Every single river in Chile is now owned by a Spanish company, Endessa which plans to dam all of them for private profit. So the people of that nation no longer own their rivers, they don’t own their forests. Even the highways, railroads, utilities, airports, stadiums and prisons—all the public spaces that once formed our civic lives are being occupied by private and corporate wealth.”
Kennedy recalled that during the 1994 campaign to save the iconic BioBio river from Endesa’s dam builders, the Chilean human rights lawyer, Juan Pablo Ortega had lamented, “Supposedly we have a democracy after Pinochet left, but it’s folly to call a system a ‘democracy’ when the people have no control over their resources. We Chileans are no longer the sovereigns of our lands.”
Kennedy assured the crowd that “This is what the battle is about. It’s about losing control of the commons. The air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries and public lands, the shared resources of our society: The commonwealth assets that provide the gravities around which communities coalesce.”
To give context to the history, Kennedy talked about the many environmental insults in the 1960’s that spurred the modern-day environmental movement, including the 1963 extinction of the Eastern Peregrine Falcon from DDT poisoning, the burning of the Cuyahoga River, the Santa Barbara oil spill and the declaration that Lake Erie was dead, which all occurred in 1969. The Santa Barbara spill held the record for the largest oil spill until Exxon Valdez and the BP Deepwater Horizon. In those three examples, polluters had effectively privatized a major American river, one of the Great Lakes and all the beaches in Southern California.
In response to such insults, in 1970, 20 million Americans, 10 percent of our population, came out on the streets for the first Earth Day in “a democratic reassertion of popular sovereignty over the common’s, those crowds demanded that our political leaders return to the American people the ancient environmental rights that had been stolen from our citizens since the Industrial Revolution,” Kennedy said.
In response to this massive public outpouring, Republicans and Democrats working together passed, over the next 10 years, 28 major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, RCRA, TSCA, FIFRA, The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act and Superfund. All of these statutes were intended to restore our rights to the public commons. What happened next? “These new prohibitions against corporate pollution hurt the industry’s bottom line. So the polluters fought back,” he declared.
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Throughout the next three decades, polluters funded politicians including Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan, their appointed judges and various Republican Congresses chipped away at the new environmental laws. But then, according to Kennedy, the industry achieved its most brazen and stunning victory. Kennedy said, “In the year of the millennium, the most corporate friendly Supreme Court since 1933 stopped the 2000 election vote count in Florida and stole the presidency from Senator Al Gore, the greenest presidential candidate in our history. That decision turned the White House over to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, two Texas oilmen.”
Seventeen of the top 21 people in the new administration were from the oil or allied industries. Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, was the CEO of oil service company Halliburton and the owner of millions of dollars of Halliburton stock, which would appreciate enormously during Cheney’s administration. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was on the board of Chevron, which named an oil tanker after her. Cheney immediately convened 90 days of secret meetings with carbon and nuclear industry CEO’s.
“For the first three months of the Bush administration, Cheney presided over clandestine convocations during which he invited the nation’s worst polluters to rewrite environmental laws to make it easy to drill, to burn, to extract, to ship, to distribute carbon fuel,” said Kennedy. “It was an all-out victory for the carbon industry and an unconditional defeat for humanity.”
The 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Bill was the product of those secret meetings, including the “Halliburton Loophole” to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which exempted natural gas companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. This change in the law allowed a new industry known as shale gas fracking to grow without regard to its widespread environmental costs, including drinking water contamination, a cascade of global warming fugitive methane emissions, earthquakes, road destruction and human health impacts.
Even as they dismantled America’s environmental laws by statute, Bush and Cheney stocked the regulatory agencies with industry lackeys and profiteering cronies who weakened and auctioned off America’s public lands and forests to the campaign contributors at fire sale prices, according to Kennedy.
But George W. Bush wasn’t done. He next appointed two ultra-corporatist U.S. Supreme Court Justices—John G. Roberts in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006. Kennedy said that it is wrong to think of these judges as traditional conservatives. “They are not. They are corporatists. If you analyze their decisions, there is no coherent conservative political philosophy. They have taken the ‘conserve’ out of conservatism. The only predictable outcome of their rulings is that ‘the corporation always wins.’”
The apogee of their unctuous worship of unsheathed corporate power was the Supreme Court’s 2010 5 to 4 decision in favor of Citizens United, which, as Kennedy proclaimed, “turned American democracy over to large corporations.”
The so called “Citizens United” decision is the “most sweeping expansion of corporate power this century. In an acrimonious split decision, the five ‘conservative’ justices declared that, in the eyes of the Constitution, corporations were people and money is speech,” continued Kennedy.
Corporate campaign donations, in other words, are protected by the First Amendment making most restrictions on corporate donations to political candidates unconstitutional. That case effectively overruled a century of corporate campaign finance restrictions that limited a corporation’s ability to purchase political candidates.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission unleashed a tsunami of corporate cash in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. It helped create super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from corporate and union treasuries, as well as from individuals, and it triggered a boom in political activity by tax-exempt “dark money” organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors.
“And today it’s hard to argue that we still have a democracy in this country when you have the Koch brothers, the two richest people in America, who have pledged already to put nearly $900 million into this presidential election, which is comparable to the amount spent by either political party,” said Kennedy. “This year’s presidential election is going to cost $10 billion with half of that coming from 100 wealthy families. Nearly $1 billion is coming from two brothers.”
And, said Kennedy, “You will hear no criticism from the press, the supposed guardians of our democracy. And that’s because most of that money will go to media advertising—the 4th estate has been bought off.”
And the data shows that 91 percent of the time, the candidate with the most money wins the election. “So democracy is for sale and the Congress that we have today is the best one that money can buy, which by definition, is oligarchy not democracy,” said Kennedy. “Predictably, the rich are now buying themselves politicians and then deploying to reduce taxes on their class and to rid themselves of pesky regulations that protect public health. Our politicians are no longer public servants. They are indentured servants of the Koch brothers and their ilk. They are no longer engaged in public service, but in the mercenary enterprise of ransacking on behalf of Big Oil.”
So Kennedy asks, “What happens to a country when moneyed interests run its political system?” First, he says, “The political character of a nation tends to reflect its economic organization. As the economy slides towards monopoly in leading sectors like energy, agriculture and media, the political system will lean toward oligarchy.” In addition, he says, “Oil and coal by nature are autocratic and authoritarian. Nations controlled by those industries customarily list toward autocracy and away from democracy. It’s a phenomenon known as the ‘resource curse.’ So with democracy for sale and the carbon cronies winning the auction, we have the perfect storm for corporate tyranny.”
Then Kennedy asks, “What do you think accounts for the Koch Brothers’ generosity to our political system?” He answers his question with a battery of new questions. “Do you think that Charles and David Koch are putting nearly $900 million into the election because of some patriotic impulse? Do you think they are putting nearly $900 million into this election because they love America? Do you think that they are putting nearly $900 million into the election because they love humanity? Our environment? Or our purple mountain’s majesty? Our democracy? Or free market capitalism?”
To each question, the crowd enthusiastically said, “No.”
“Do you think they have a moral compass?” Kennedy replied, and when the crowd answered “No” he corrected them. “Well they do have a moral compass. It’s pointed straight at Hell.”
The crowd roared. But Kennedy wasn’t finished yet.
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“These are the apocalyptical forces of ignorance and greed. These are the four horsemen from the book of Revelations herding humanity toward a dystopian nightmare of their creation. Koch Industries is not a benign corporation. It’s a suicide pact for creation. It’s the archetype of ‘disaster capitalism.’ It’s the command center of an organized scheme to undermine democracy and impose a corporate kleptocracy that will allow these greedy men to cash in on mass extinction and the end of civilization.”
Kennedy went on to explain, “These men claim in their rhetoric to embrace a theology of free market capitalism. But if you look at their feet instead of listening to the seductive noises that issue from their mouths and their phony think tanks, the truth is clear. These men hate free markets. They want a system of cushy socialism for the rich and a savage, merciless capitalism for the poor. The real purpose of their ‘think tanks’ they created and fund—like the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute—is not to promote free market capitalism, but to gin up the philosophical underpinnings for a scheme of uncontrolled corporate profit taking. And the press, consolidated as it is into private monopolies, and relieved of social obligation are on the carbon and pharma pay role and in full cahoots with the scheme. They don’t love markets—they despise them. The Koch Brothers’ purpose in purchasing our political system is to engineer monumental subsidies and market failure, which are their formulae for profit. And the winds, the storms, the floods, the heatwaves, the fires and the melting continents that they cause, the cities that they drown, the refugees they drive from their lands all provide new opportunities for profit and authoritarian control.”
Kennedy shared a story about the commercial fisheries on the Hudson River, among the oldest commercial fisheries in North America. He began his career as an environmental lawyer representing these fishing families. He explained how the fisheries regulated themselves as a sustainable industry for more than three centuries.
“The fishermen had a business model that worked,” he said. But then General Electric “used its political clout to cheat the free market and to arrange vast subsidies for itself by externalizing its costs and dumping its toxins into the river. In this way, GE privatized the fish in the Hudson River. New York’s constitution says that we, the people of New York State, own the waterways of the state and we own the fish in the Hudson. But we don’t own them anymore. The General Electric Company owns every fish in the river because they privatized them. They put their toxins in our fish and our cash in their pockets.
“While we own to fish legally, we can’t use them. GE has liquidated a public asset for cash and profit. All those men and women who made their living on the river and lived decent lives—they are all out of work and out of luck and General Electric has liquidated their assets and their livelihoods for corporate profit.”
He went on to explain; “Now the coal industry has done the exact same thing to every freshwater fish in America.” The National Academy of Science found dangerous levels of mercury in every American freshwater fish. The mercury is mainly coming from coal fired power plants. Since there is no known safe level for mercury consumption, the fish are no longer suitable for public consumption and are effectively privatized. “King Coal has privatized every fish in America by putting toxic mercury in every filet,” he said.
“Whether we recognize it or not, we are all locked in a life and death struggle with these corporations over control of our landscapes and political sovereignty,” Kennedy said. “If a foreign nation did to our country what the coal and oil barons do every day, we would consider it an act of war! They poison our rivers and aquifers, steal our fish, flood our cities and trample our democracy. They are pilfering our values, robbing our culture, impoverishing our lives, sickening our children and stupefying our minds with pollution. They subvert our heritage by privatizing our patrimony. They are turning America into a colonial economy.
“Under the colonial model multinational corporations exploit weak political systems to commoditize and privatize a nation’s resources. A robust democracy would never allow a foreign company to plunder the nation’s natural resources, poison her landscapes and subjugate her people. So colonialism requires the multinationals to weaken and capture the indigenous political system of the target nation. They do so by making alliances with local oligarchs with military and intelligence apparatus and conservative religious organizations and buying off the media. All these indigenous elites get a share of the profits in exchange for allowing the theft of their country’s resources. Pollution is not just theft—it is treason. The Koch brothers are not just America’s biggest polluters—they are thieves and they are traitors to our country and their crimes against America and humanity have made them the richest men on Earth.
“The colonial model results in the evolution of an upper class with massive wealth and political power, the elimination of the middle class and the exponential increase of an impoverished class who eke a declining meagre living from the barren polluted moonscapes left behind by greed and pollution. And, when you have a wealthy class and a poor class and no middle class, you get extreme political division. The role of one political party devolves into a single minded mission of protecting the perks and power of the wealthy class and the rights of corporations to rape the land and enslave the people.”
This is why, as Kennedy explained, we have another precedented divide between Democratic and Republican parties in this country. Since tax breaks for billionaires and unregulated pollution are not potent vessels for populism, the corporate kleptocracy must steal elections, eliminate poor voters from the rolls, lie about the issues and employ propaganda and all the lowest alchemies of demagoguery, including appeals to religious and patriotic symbols and dividing the electorate using bigotry, greed, and racial and religious prejudices—the “wedge” or “cultural war issue,” according to Kennedy.
Even using these techniques, as Kennedy says, the policies they advocate are so viscerally unpopular that their hold on the voting public is always remaining tenuous. “Politics,” Kennedy explained “Is driven by both money and political intensity. Since they don’t have reliable ground troops, they must overwhelm the system with their money.” For this reason, “The hostile takeover of our democracy by polluting corporations and our country’s transition into a colonial economy is completely reliant on the financial floodgates opened by Citizens United.”
To further make his point, Kennedy said, “So you have the Koch’s who have deployed their front group ALEC—American Legislative Exchange Council—in every state working with local legislators in the anti-American enterprise of impeding the transition to new energy by bribing and blackmailing politicians to weaken support for wind and solar and foster a hostile environment toward renewables.
“The Koch brothers understand that renewables are good for the economy, good for our security and good for democracy. They create high paying jobs, promote small businesses, create wealth, democratize our energy sector, give us local, resilient power and reduce dependence on foreign carbon that makes them for the country, but bad for the Koch brothers.
“Renewables fill the Koch brothers with fear. In order to compete, they have to rig the rules that govern energy in this country to favor the dirtiest, filthiest, most destructive, most poisonous and addictive fuels from hell over the cheap, clean, green, local and patriotic fuels from heaven. But even with market and utility rules against them, new renewable technologies are so efficient that the allow wind and solar to beat the carbon industry even in their rigged markets and slanted playing fields—the only way for carbon to survive is by massive subsidies. The Koch brothers cannot compete against renewables in a free market without their subsidies.”
A recent report by the International Monetary Fund said, global energy subsidies amounts to $5 trillion annually, with the U.S. providing $700 billion in subsidizes to big oil “the richest industry in the history of the planet,” remarks Kennedy.
“Why would we be doing that?” he asks. “The only reason we’d give subsidies to a century old industry with the biggest profits in human history is because the oil barons own our government. There is no economic reason. Carbon’s economic model is looking at the same bleak future as the horse and buggy industry faced in 1903. So what do you do when your profits rely on a fading economic model? You use your money and use the campaign finance system that consists of legalized bribery to get your hooks into a public official who allows you to privatize the commons, dismantle the market place and rig the rules to give you monopoly control,” Kennedy explained.
Free market capitalism is the most powerful economic engine ever devised. But, according to Kennedy, it must be harnessed to a social purpose, as it will drag us down the path of political oligarchy and environmental destruction. Free market rules should allow people to make themselves rich by doing good things for humanity. But under the Koch’s scheme, oilmen get rich by dong bad things to humanity, he said.
Corporations are a useful economic tool. However, “corporations should not be running our government because they don’t want the same thing for America as Americans want,” he continued. “They don’t want democracy. They want profits. They want no competition. They are corrupting our democracy. They are stealing everything that we care about in this country.
“I believe in a true free market where you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community, where we properly value our national resources and where we reward efficiency. But polluters make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves while lowering quality of life for everybody else. They undervalue natural resources or take them for free. And they do it all by escaping the discipline of the free market. Polluters externalize their costs to artificially lower the price of their product. The 28 environmental laws that we passed after the first Earth Day in 1970 were intended to restore true free market capitalism by forcing actors in the marketplace to pay the true cost to bring their product to market. There is a huge difference between true free market capitalism—which makes a nation more efficient, more prosperous and more democratic—and the kind of corporate crony capitalism which we have today.”
After 45-minutes of some of the most powerful comments about the reality of the world today, Kennedy finished by telling the crowd, “But we are not going quietly. We’ve heard the summons to the barricades and we are filling the streets. We are the soldiers in a revolution against carbon. And this is an industry that no longer has a justifiable economic model.”
Pointing at the roaring crowd, he said, “Every single person here is willing to die with their boots on. That commitment is what brought you the Waterkeeper movement. We are going to keep fighting for these landscapes, for these rights, for these rivers and for all the values that we care for as a people and as a society.”
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