Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

The environmentalist, who appears in the documentary The Last Mountain about the fight over coal, discusses the lack of government transparency and shares whether elective office is in his future.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is passionate about the environment. For his efforts as the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund's chief prosecuting attorney, he was named one of Time magazine's "Heroes for the Planet." He's also board chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance, works with the Natural Resources Defense Council and is an environmental law professor at Pace Law School. Kennedy has written various articles and books on environmental issues and, in the new documentary The Last Mountain, takes on one of West Virginia's most controversial issues: mountaintop-removal mining.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Robert Kennedy, Jr. to this program. He has dedicated so much of his adult life to environmental issues, including his latest project about the fight over coal. He is featured in a new documentary about coal. It’s called “The Last Mountain” which is now playing in select theaters across the country. Here now a scene from “The Last Mountain.”


Tavis: This documentary, Robert, is about coal and I’ll come to that in just a second. But at the center of this documentary sits an uncomfortable conversation in this country that we have to have about corporations versus democracy, or put another way, when corporations take over the space that democracy ought to occupy. Talk to me about that battle between corporations and democracy in this country beyond just coal.

Robert Kennedy, Jr.: You put your finger on it. That’s what this movie is about. Appalachia, in particularly West Virginia, is the template for what happens when corporations take over a democracy. It’s a company town. What they’re doing is illegal. In fact, if you’ve filled 25 feet of a Hudson River tributary, you would be in jail. If you blew up a mountain in the Berkshires or the Catskills or California or Utah, you would go to jail or a place for the criminally insane.

But they have flattened an area larger than the State of Delaware. They’ve blown up the 500 biggest mountains in West Virginia in the last 10 years and it’s all illegal. They’ve buried 2,500 miles of rivers and streams. That’s illegal. You can’t do it. The only way – in fact, I debated on West Virginia TV a year ago. Don Blankenship, who’s the head of Massey, which is the biggest mountaintop removal company.

I said to him, “By your own records, you had 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. Over the past five years, you’ve had tens of thousands of violations of labor laws, of mining safety laws and all these other laws. Is it possible for you to make a profit without violating a law?”

He said no. He said, you know, these are silly laws. So he acknowledged that his company is a criminal enterprise. Their business plan is to break the law, then get away with it. In order to do that, you have to subvert democracy. So if you go to West Virginia, their democracy essentially doesn’t exist.

If you’re a property owner in the state, you have no right to stop corporations from raining boulders onto your property, poison dust, poisoning your children, poisoning your wells, drying up your streams. You don’t have the right to participate in local democracy which is, you know, the fundamental zoning laws and planning laws. In West Virginia, you can’t zone out these kind of corporate activities.

The transparency has disappeared in government which is the hallmark of democracy. The agencies that are supposed to protect the West Virginia public from these companies have become the sock puppets instrumentalities for the companies they’re supposed to regulate. And the judiciary and virtually every public elected official in the state has been corrupted by big coal.

By every poll, two-thirds of the people in West Virginia want to see mountaintop removal banned, but not a single politician dares to say that in the state. This is what happens when corporations take over government. You know, you see the Tea Party out here, Tavis, saying that big government is the big threat to democracy and I agree with that. I agree.

When we have a government that tortures people, that suspends our Bill of Rights, suspends habeas corpus, that says the Bill of Rights is a luxury we can’t afford anymore, that does extraordinary renditions and whisks American citizens out of the country to places that torture them and eavesdrops illegally on hundreds of thousands of people, as our government is now doing, that is a threat to democracy.

But the bigger threat comes from unleashed corporate power. We have to understand in this country that the domination of business by government is called communism. The domination of government by business is called fascism, and that’s what you’re seeing, that form of government.

Well, our job is to walk that narrow trail in between and hold big business at bay with our right hand and big government at bay with our left and walk that narrow trail in between, which is free market capitalism and democracy.

To do that, we need an independent press that is willing to stand up and speak truth to power and is going to inform the public and we need an informed public that can recognize all the milestones of tyranny and we don’t have either of those things left in this country.

Tavis: You’ve said a lot there and I didn’t want to interrupt because I wanted you to get it out. Now I want to go back and just unpack some of what you just said, if I might, Robert.

In no particular order, number one, what you’ve just described – and I’m playing devil’s advocate here obviously – what you’ve just described in West Virginia, it can be illegal and I’ll tell you why it can’t be illegal. It can be illegal, one, because it’s happening and it can’t be illegal, number two, because you got a whole documentary about it.

So how do you sit here and run this story to me, which you’ve run brilliantly, about what’s happening in West Virginia and then tell me that it’s illegal? Illegal stuff like this doesn’t happen in our country. If it’s illegal, it wouldn’t be happening.

Kennedy: Well, like I said, Don Blankenship admitted that he’d had 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act for five years. The West Virginia DP which is responsible for enforcing that law has never given him a penny in fines and he has thousands of other violations that other agencies – he’s been able to disable the agencies that are supposed to implement democracy in this country. So it can be illegal under the law, but he can get away with it.

His business plan is to break the law, to violate the law, and get away with it. You know, what we often look at today is that what happens when corporations take over democracy. Everything becomes a commodity. You see in this film, you know, they say the coal industry brings prosperity to West Virginia, but it doesn’t. It is emptying West Virginia of people. Its whole business plan is to depopulize the countryside. They’ve reduced the number of miners.

When my father started talking about strip mining in the Appalachia back in the ’60s, I remember a conversation I had with him where he said, you know, this is the richest state in the country if you look at the resources and the land, but the poorest people after the state of Mississippi, the 49th poorest people in the country. Why is that? It’s because the corporations have stolen the resources from the people in the state.

He said they’re not just destroying the environment. They are permanently impoverishing these communities because there’s no way that you can regenerate an economy from these barren mud skips that are left. He said they’re doing it so they can break the unions and that’s exactly what they did in West Virginia. When he told me that, there were 151,000 unionized mine workers in West Virginia digging coal out of tunnels in the ground.

Today there are fewer than 15,000 miners left in the state, so nine of ten jobs have been removed, but they’re taking twice the amount of coal out of the state that they were in 1968. The only difference is, back then, a large amount of that wealth was being left in the state for salaries and pensions and reinvestment in the community. Today it all goes straight up to Wall Street.

Tavis: Sadly, your father didn’t make it to the White House, but a guy named Calvin Coolidge did. He didn’t do much while he was there, but he made it. One of the more famous lines to come from Calvin Coolidge, as you know, is that the business of America is business. The business of America is business.

So I ask since when has America not been a corporation? One can argue – I’ve said it before and gotten in trouble for it and I’ll say it again – one could argue that America was a corporation before it was a country. So I hear the points that you’re making. They’re all legitimate, but since when is America not been, Robert, about business?

Kennedy: Well, you’re a cynical man, Tavis [laugh]. You know, I understand what you’re saying, but I see that there’s been a tension in our country between the idealism that created our democracy, the first democracy in the history of mankind. At the time of the Civil War, there were six democracies in the face of the planet. Today, there’s 120 and they’ve been inspired by the American exceptionalism. So we’ve made a ton of mistakes.

We’ve created a model for human beings governing themselves with institutions of justice and by the creation of informed public in the middle class and all these things are components of a good democracy. We lost our democracy almost completely in this country in the gilded age, in the 1880s and 1890s. We had large corporate, what they called, trusts back then, the steel trust, the oil trust, the sugar trust.

John D. Rockefeller was the richest man, far richer than Bill Gates is today, the richest man in the history of the world. It was said about John D. Rockefeller that he had done everything to the Pennsylvania state legislature except for refine it. The legislatures were literally owned by the corporations and they chose the senators back then. So the Senate was owned by corporations.

You know, Warren Harding in 1921 when there was union strikes in West Virginia, 10,000 union workers, he used the United States Air Force to drop bombs on them and poison gas and he was in the pocket of the coal industry. So that’s what happened. We completely lost our democracy then.

How did it get restored? A few really courageous journalists who do what you’re doing today, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, who started exposing these and informing the public and inspiring outrage and indignation. And you had a politician back then, a very tough politician, Teddy Roosevelt, who was willing to stand up to what he called the “malefactors of great wealth” and the corporations.

You know, they passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. They put the bit into the mouths of corporate power. They passed the graduated income tax that forced corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share of operating our country. They passed union laws that allowed unions to organize which created a middle class in this country and created the prosperity and the stability that made American democracy the envy of the world.

They created, among other things, direct election of senators and they created, the most importantly, in 1907 a law they passed that forbade corporate contributions to federal political officeholders or federal political candidates. That law has been in place for 100 years. Now we have a Supreme Court that is the most – it’s not a right wing Supreme Court. There’s no coherent right wing philosophy to this Supreme Court.

The only coherent philosophy to Alito, Scalia, Roberts and Clarence Thomas, one thing, the corporations always win. If it’s government against an individual, the government wins. If it’s corporations against the individual, the corporation wins. If it’s corporations against the government, the corporation wins. Show me one exception to that in any decision written by that Supreme Court.

We have the Supreme Court and last year they repealed this 100-year-old law and made it legal for the first time in a century for corporations to flood our federal political campaigns with a tsunami of money and that is the beginning of the end.

H.L. Mencken used to say a journalist is someone who can’t tell the difference between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. Well, that decision is the end of civilization in this country.

You know, we’ve been spending the last year talking about Charlie Sheen and Brittany Spears instead of talking about what’s really about to destroy our democracy, which is this huge flood of corporate money which is gonna put corporations in the driver’s seat.

Tavis: Talk to me first about what the media ought to be doing that they’re not to inform the public, and then we’ll talk more expressly about the people.

Kennedy: Well, you know, people talk about a liberal media in this country, but there really is no such thing as a liberal media. You have a couple people on MSNBC. This show, which I wouldn’t call liberal. I just say, you know, these are journalists who are actually just telling the truth. Then they’re branded and marginalized as being liberal just for telling the truth.

The same with PBS, you know. PBS was not a left wing ideology. I mean, Air America was, but PBS was not. But anybody who tells the truth is now branded and marginalized. The devolution of the American press began in 1986 when Ronald Reagan abolished the fairness doctrine.

We had a law in this country that we passed in 1928 that said that the air waves belong to the public. The broadcasters can be licensed to use them, but only if they use them to promote the public interest, to inform the public and advance democracy. That’s why we have the 6:00 news. They didn’t want it. The broadcasters didn’t want that because the news departments were chronic money losers.

But they were forced to put on the news at 6:00 and even today you hear news on the music radio stations and that’s an artifact of the fairness doctrine. They said, if you’re using the broadcast air waves, you have to do that. You have to avoid corporate consolidation. That was the other rule.

So you had to have diversity of control and multiplicity of control from all over. That provision was actually strengthened after 1944 by Congress because they saw what Hitler had done in Europe.

You know, Hitler in 1921, the Nazi Party had a one percent approval rating among the German people, but then they made these deals with the media, they made these alliances with large chemical companies and arms corporations, Messerschmidt and a number of others, and all of a sudden, they exploded and they were able to do that because of a lackadaisical media, because of mergers and acquisitions and licensing agreements that they made with the media. So they said we can’t let that happen here. We have to have a lot of different corporations controlling.

Well, today as a result of Reagan’s changes, Reagan abolished the fairness doctrine in 1988 as a favor to the Christian right, which had helped him get elected, and wanted to take over all of AM radio, which is now complete. Talk radio is 95 percent controlled by the right. And the big studio heads helped him get elected who wanted to take over all media.

So now you have five giant corporations that control virtually all 14,000 radio stations in our country, all 2,200 TV stations, 80 percent of our newspapers, all of our billboards and most of the large internet content providers.

So you have five guys who are deciding what Americans hear as news. They no longer have an obligation to serve the public interest. Their only obligation is to their shareholders. They serve that obligation not by informing us, telling us the things we need to understand to make rational decisions in a democracy, but rather by entertaining us.

So they appeal to the prurient interests that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brains for sex and celebrity gossip. We know we’re the best entertained, the least informed, people on the face of the world. They got rid of their investigative reporters. 85 percent of them lost their jobs in the last 15 years.

They got rid of their foreign news bureaus so the Bush and Cheney administration can say to the American people, “Oh, we’re gonna go into this 800-year-old fist fight in Mesopotamia and they’re gonna meet us with rose petals in the streets” and the Americans believe them.

The Canadians didn’t believe them because the Canadians still have a fairness doctrine. Fox News can’t go to Canada. It’s illegal to lie on the air in Canada. So Fox News can’t go there.

England has the same kind of rules and in Europe, but in our country, we lost those rules and, as a result, we know a lot about Brittany Spears’ gradual emotional decline and we know a lot about Charlie Sheen, but we don’t know much about global warming or the fact that the Appalachian Mountains essentially no longer exist.

So much of the media is really dependent on corporate money, so you’re not gonna see – like Air America failed not because it wasn’t popular. In every jurisdiction where it was operating, it was beating right wing radio. There was a huge appetite for it.

The problem was, it couldn’t get advertising because the corporations, the oil companies, the biggest advertisers, the pharmaceutical companies which is now 70 percent of the revenue for news shows on TV is pharmaceutical companies. So it’s very hard to criticize them on the news.

Automobile companies which is the other big player and many other of these companies wouldn’t advertise. They all boycotted Air America, so Air America was like relying on like, you know, hair growth products and this kind of stuff and they were scrambling for money and they couldn’t find it and it killed them.

So it’s hard to find right now – MSNBC, I think, is a good place to go, this show, and there’s a few other, Rolling Stone Magazine and Vanity Fair even have great investigative reporters. And there’s places that people go on the internet and find this stuff, but it’s not well organized yet.

Tavis: When I go to the internet after this show airs, I can bet you all the money that I have, which ain’t much, but I would bet you all the money that I have that I’m going to get a litany of people – I know this because it happens every time you come on this program – who watch you and say you are so knowledgeable, you are so passionate, you are so committed, you got that Kennedy legacy to build upon and you’re doing that in your own way.

But with all of this, why not elective office because so many others in your family have seen that as a platform to redress the issues that you’re concerned about?

Kennedy: Well, you know, I look at doing elective office many, many times. I have family issues. I have six young kids and they’re now older and I would look at that kind of opportunity now. If I thought I could be more effective there, I would do it.

But, you know, it’s hard these days, Tavis, to make that choice because even looking at the Senate, at one point, I had the opportunity when David Patterson was in there to get that Senate seat in New York. You know, I looked at it and Washington, D.C. in many ways is paralyzed in a way that we’ve never seen it before.

I have so many friends who are in the Senate and the Congress and are just frustrated because they feel like they’re just wasting their lives up there. There’s no real changes.

I know Obama hit the same wall. Obama came in really wanting to change things, but he hit a wall of corporate money, oil and coal money. When he tried to pass the Cap and Trade system of pharmaceutical money, when he tried to pass the Obamacare which, of course, then got watered down into a much less effective, much less economical, program.

Republicans made it that way. You know, he wanted a single payer plan and that’s what we have with Medicare which actually works. You know, it’s a quarter of the cost. He hit that wall of money. You know, I think in Washington, D.C., you hit it.

The places where I’m most active these days is at the state governments because there’s a little bit more freedom for innovative governors to actually get programs through.

Tavis: I got a minute to go here. I agree with you in everything you’ve said tonight about the devolution of our culture, the decay of our civilization, but I know you to be a hopeful person and I make a distinction between being hopeful and being optimistic.

Optimistic, you know, doesn’t always work because the facts aren’t there to suggest you should be optimistic. But you’ve always been a hopeful person for the years I’ve known you. So at this moment, with all that you’ve said tonight, before we wrap this program in a minute, what makes you hopeful?

Kennedy: Well, you know, Martin Luther King said the tools for advocacy were agitation, legislation, litigation and education. I would add to that, innovation. We are seeing today a wave of innovation in this space and the energy space which is gonna democratize our energy system in this country and take it away from big coal not because of legislation on Capitol Hill, but because solar and wind can make electrons cheaper and deliver them cheaper than coal can.

Right now, one of the companies I’m involved with is called BrightSource and it’s building one of the biggest power plants in the world in the Mohave Desert, 2.7 gigawatt plants. We’re building it in three years. It takes ten years to build a coal plant, 30 years to build a nuke plant. We’re building it at $3 billion dollars a gigawatt. That’s the cost of the plant. That’s the same as a coal plant. It’s one-fifth the cost of a nuke plant.

Once you build our plant, it’s free energy forever because the photons are hitting the earth every day for free. All we have to do is pick them up. The sun’s not gonna stop shining, the wind’s not gonna stop blowing. It’s cheaper to build a wind or solar plant that it is to a coal plant.

Once you build that coal plant or oil plant, now you got to go to Saudi Arabia, punch holes in the ground, bring up the oil, refine it expensively, genuflect to local sheiks who despite democracy and are hated by their own people, get in periodic wars that cost trillions of dollars, ship it across the Atlantic with military escort that we pay for, not Exxon, spill it all over the Gulf, spill it all over Valdez, burn the oil and poison everybody in our country. So the big costs happen after you build that plant.

Once you build a wind or solar plant, it’s free energy forever. We have 500 gigawatts of carbon-generated power in this country. To replace them with wind and solar is about $1.5 trillion dollars.

That’s two years of oil exports, you know, of the export of U.S. cash to bring in oil. We can pay for a whole system that gives us free energy forever. And despite the efforts of the incumbents, these disruptive technologies today are at a tipping point and they’re cascading and I’m watching it on the ground and that gives me a tremendous amount of hope.

Tavis: I love this guy and I think you can see why. His latest project is called “The Last Mountain” about coal in America and corporations versus democracies we’ve been discussing tonight. I’m always honored to have you on this program.

Kennedy: Thank you, Tavis, for what you’re doing.

Tavis: Thank you so much. Oh, man, thanks for what you’re doing. Wow.

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Last modified: August 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm