An Interview with Robert F Kennedy Jr.

This, to me, is one of the most alarming things that this Administration is doing -- it's compromised the scientific process and systematically intimidated, blackballed, fired, muzzled and gagged scientists in every department of government. Scientists who produce science that challenges corporate profit taking, or that might be an obstacle to corporate profit taking, are routinely punished or punished by muzzled or gagged. -- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

BuzzFlash: Toward the end of your recent indictment of the environmental policies of President George W. Bush in Rolling Stone you ask the question: "Does the government protect the Commonwealth on behalf of all of the community members or does it allow wealth and political clout to steal the commons from the people?" What is your judgment about the Bush Administration in terms of how it measures up on that question?

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: One of the central roles of government from the beginning of the first organized communities has been protection -- the safeguarding of the commons on behalf of the public. The commons under Roman law -- under the Code of Justinian -- were defined as those things that are not susceptible to private ownership; in other words, the shared resources, the air that we breathe, the waterways, the dune lands, wetlands, wandering animals.

And under Roman law, if you were a citizen of Rome, the Emperor himself, whether you were humble, noble, rich or poor, could not stop you from crossing a beach flowing at an ebb and taking out the fish. Everybody had a right to use those resources. Nobody had a right to use them in a way that would diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others.

That principle is echoed in the Magna Carta and in the constitutions of all of our states, through a doctrine that's called the Public Trust Doctrine. And it's at the heart of our environmental laws. And again, from the beginning of time, the first acts of tyranny were to privatize the commons. In fact, the Magna Carta was passed because of the Battle of Runneymede, which was precipitated by King John's efforts to turn the rivers, the fisheries and the deer over to private corporations and privileged parties.

Under the Bush Administration, we're seeing the same thing that happened in this country during the 1880s and 1890s, during the Gilded Age, where now -- as then -- large corporations have an undue influence on government officials, and where they are literally stealing things that belong to the public.

One out of every four black children in New York now has asthma. We don't know what's causing the pandemic itself, but we know that asthma attacks are triggered by ozone in particulates, and that the primary source -- about 40 percent of those components of air pollution -- are coming from 1,100 coal-fire power plants that were supposed to have been cleaned up 10 years ago.

But the energy industry gave $48 million to President Bush and the Republican Party during the 2000 race, and the payback is billions of dollars of relief from regulations that are meant to protect the commons, including the Clean Air Acts' resource performance standards, which the Bush Administration abandoned last month. So it's illegal for those companies to put those substances into our air, but the Bush Administration has now said that it is no longer going to enforce the laws against them.

BuzzFlash: You call this, in your article in Rolling Stone, "looting the commons."

Kennedy: Let me add one other thing. Yesterday, the Bush Administration announced that it wasn't going to enforce mercury standards. And mercury, you know, is a potent neurotoxin brain poison. Forty percent of the mercury emissions in our country are coming from those same 1,100 power plants, and they have poisoned the fresh water bodies across America. There're now 28 states in which it is unsafe to eat any freshwater fish in the state.

According to the CDC, there are 325,000 children born each year who have been subjected to such high levels of mercury in the womb that they are at risk for permanent brain damage. The Clinton Administration classified mercury as a toxic substance under the Clean Air Act, and required the utilities industry to remove 90 percent of the mercury within three years. But the Bush Administration has now abandoned that requirement and adopted a new proposal that will effectively allow them to discharge mercury forever.

BuzzFlash: How is this happening? You've been involved with the environment throughout your professional career. You're an attorney who works on cases trying to protect the environment. How is the Bush Administration getting away with what you describe -- in essence, an assault on almost every aspect of the environment?

Kennedy: There are over 200 major environmental rollbacks that are now being promoted by the Bush Administration, and they're listed on NRDC's website. They're getting away with this because the media isn't paying attention. And the reason I say that is that polling, including the Republican Party polls taken by Frank Luntz, consistently shows that Americans across party lines favor strong environmental protection and strict enforcement of our laws. Republicans and Democrats favor strengthening our environmental laws by margins upwards of 75 percent. So the White House proceeded with an understanding that its anti-environmental agenda is unpopular with the American people and has successfully concealed its agenda through a series of stealth attacks designed to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law.

NRDC obtained a memo and released it to the press -- from Frank Luntz to the President and to top Republican leaders -- in which he recommended that strategy as necessary for preserving the president's electoral strength. Luntz says in his memo that the rollbacks are unpopular with the public, including the Republican Party stalwarts, and that the science was against the Republicans on these issues. And he recommended recruiting industry scientists who would sow confusion about the science. And he recommended concealing the anti-environmental actions of the Administration underneath the mantle of environmental rhetoric.

BuzzFlash: Can you give examples? The cynically named "Clear Skies," for instance?

Kennedy: Yes, "The Clear Skies" initiative. The Bush Administration has followed Luntz's advice by cloaking its anti-environmental agenda with deceptively named initiatives -- for example, "The Healthy Forests Act," which was passed Wednesday, is really a way of reintroducing 1950s-style industrial logging to public lands that were thought to be protected forever. "The Clear Skies" Agenda is a bill that guts the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists called it the Clear Lies Initiative. And Luntz recommends that, instead of "weakening," that the Republicans use the word "streamlining," which they do.

The Administration invariably releases news about these initiatives on Friday afternoons when the press is sleeping, or on holidays. Over the next several weeks during the Christmas holiday, you can expect that we're going to see a lot more of these initiatives.

BuzzFlash: The use of science comes off as somewhat ironic almost from the first week Bush was sworn in. One of the first issues that came up was global warming. He said we're not going to enact any regulations unless we can first put them through a "science-based" series of tests. What you're suggesting, Robert, as one of the subtitles in the Rolling Stone commentary states, is that they're "cooking the books" scientifically.

Kennedy: Yes. This, to me, is one of the most alarming things that this Administration is doing -- it's compromised the scientific process and systematically intimidated, blackballed, fired, muzzled and gagged scientists in every department of government. Scientists who produce science that challenges corporate profit taking, or that might be an obstacle to corporate profit taking, are routinely punished, muzzled or gagged.

I'll give you an example. Last year, a Department of Agriculture scientist produced a series of reports that showed that discharges from hog factories operated by big agri-businesses like Smithfield and Tyson's Foods, include, on average, a billion antibiotic-resistant bacteria every day, which cross property lines and threaten downwind neighbors and their herds.

I invited this scientist to make a presentation to a group of farmers and farm activists in Clear Lake, Iowa last year, to about 1,100 or 1,200 farmers and farm activists who are fighting agri-business on factory farms. And the hog industry -- the Pork Producers Council -- learned a day before he was supposed to make his presentation to us that he was going to visit our conference. They contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered him not to appear at the conference. He later told me that he had been ordered to not speak at over a dozen events -- mainly presentations to local county health departments on his findings. And remember, this is a taxpayer-funded study. The USDA also ordered him to withdraw the study and not publish it.

The study is peer-reviewed quality study that was funded with taxpayer money, but it offended the industry. And the industry has so much control over our government officials that the USDA, which is supposed to be protecting small farmers and rural communities, has instead become an advocate for big agri-business and is muzzling its own scientists when the science shows that agri-business practices are posing a public health threat. The same Administration ordered government scientists not to study methyl bromide, another pesticide. They've ordered government scientists not to study mercury. And they've muzzled two scientists within the EPA who were studying mercury poisoning.

The U.S. Department of Interior has altered a series of reports on polar bears, trumpeter swans, and caribou in the Arctic that show that industry practices are damaging these animals. They've done the same on desert fishes in Arizona, on timber wolves, on grizzly bears. All of these reports indicated that corporate activity was threatening the continued existence of these species. And so the Administration ordered the science halted.

BuzzFlash: On this specific topic of manipulation of science, you have a paragraph, about midway through the article, about global warming, in which you mention that a report, which had been suppressed by the Bush Administration, was leaked by dissident EPA scientists. It showed that a Senate plan co-sponsored by John McCain could reduce pollution that causes global warming at a very small cost, and the Administration basically squashed that. To knock the leaked study off the radar screen, the Bush Administration announced it was launching a $100 million, 10-year effort to prove that global temperature changes have, in fact, occurred naturally.

Kennedy: Ha.

BuzzFlash: And you say now the delay tactic was done to benefit the fossil fuel barons. So we had a study ostensibly that showed really we could reduce the pollution that causes global warming for very little cost. The Bush Administration suppresses that. When it finally is leaked, then they come up with a study that's going to waste one-tenth of a billion dollars to try to prove, over a 10-year period, that it's all really due to natural causes.

Kennedy: That's right. My Rolling Stone piece mentions 12 different major studies on global warming that have been suppressed or altered by the Bush Administration. And the president's father used this same tactic. One of the studies that this Bush Administration has suppressed was a 10-year intensive study that was inaugurated by President Bush's father when he was president for the same reason -- to delay action on what was already a consensus among the world's scientists: that global warming exists, and that it's caused by the byproducts of our population growth aided by industrial discharges into our atmosphere.

That report, inaugurated by the original President Bush, also concluded that this is a crisis that has to be addressed immediately. That was suppressed, and now the son has launched another 10-year study. His intention is transparent -- a continued delay on any action on global warming gasses.

BuzzFlash: Near the end of the indictment of the Bush Administration, you make the statement that corporate capitalists do not want free markets. They want dependable profits, and their surest route to crush competition is by controlling the government. You go on to suggest that what we've seen happen in the Bush Administration is that the industries that are governed are now basically governing themselves because Bush has appointed so many industry people to regulatory jobs. They've gone through the revolving door and end up policing the very industries they're coming from.

Kennedy: All of our federal agencies have now been captured by the industries that they're intended to regulate. The head of the Forest Service is a timber industry lobbyist. The head of our public lands is a mining industry lobbyist. The chief of staff in the White House, Andrew Card, was chief counsel to General Motors and its top lobbyists. And 22 of the top 38 White House officials all have energy industry pedigrees. We have a president that says that he doesn't listen to TV, and he doesn't get his news from the newspapers, but gets it from his staff. Unfortunately, all of his staff are from the energy industries, and the rest of them have corporate pedigrees. So they, of course, have a rosy view of what's going on in our country, and their opinions about how our nation ought to work may not always reflect the best interests of the American public.

I think my concern regarding the increasing control of government by large corporations should be a central issue to all Americans. I was raised in a milieu where I was taught that communism leads to dictatorship and capitalism leads to democracy. But it's not that simple. Free-market capitalism definitely democratizes a country. But corporate crony capitalism is as antithetical to democracy in America as it is in Nigeria. And corporate control of government is fascism. The definition of communism is the control of business by government. The definition of fascism is the control of government by business.

A farmer sent me a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary's definition of fascism the other day, and the definition is roughly that the control of government by large corporations with right-wing ideologies, driven by bellicose nationalism. That has a familiar ring these days.

Democracy is fragile. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be stewarded. And the free market has to be protected through government regulation. As I say, capitalists do not want free markets. They want profits. And the best way to capture profits -- to capture a reliable profit stream -- is to get control of government and use government to crush your competition.

And that's what's happening in this country -- the free market is being eliminated. And in many of the major sectors, the free market has already disappeared. There is no free market left in agriculture. A farmer can't raise a pig and get it slaughtered, and bring it to a stockyard and sell it. The stockyards are gone. The farmers are out of business, and hog production and meat production and chicken production in this country is now controlled by giant agri-businesses, as is grain production. The same is true in the energy sector, and in the media -- you've got 17,000 news outlets in this country that are now controlled by 11 corporations. And it's even happening on Main Street, where Wal-Mart is coming and knocking out the Main Street merchants, the small entrepreneurs -- those who really make American democracy viable. And it's a frightening thing for our country. But we need a free market.

I heard Jim Hightower say that the free market is a great thing. We should try it sometime. We're losing it in America. And when we lose the free market -- the free market democracy, the democracy of the marketplace -- political democracy will fall soon after. And that's something all of us should be afraid of.

BuzzFlash: Again, you've devoted your life to trying to keep the environment as pristine and as useable as possible for the public good. There's been talk by some large corporations -- Enron was dabbling in it -- of actually privatizing water rights. Is the public not seeing what's happening in terms of the privatization of the environment?

Kennedy: The privatization is occurring when a coal company and a utility poison the air that your children are supposed to be breathing. That's the privatization of a public resource. It's a privatization of a public resource when General Electric dumps PCBs into the Hudson River so that nobody can eat the fish, so it's illegal to sell the fish in the marketplace, because those fish were owned by the public. And they were owned by the commercial fishermen who utilized that resource for generations -- for 350 years. But all of a sudden, those fishermen were put out of business -- the small business enterprises were put out of business because General Electric had better lobbyists up in Albany. And they were able to dump grease onto the political skids and dump their PCBs into the Hudson. They made a big profit by privatizing the commons -- by liquidating a public asset for cash, which were the fish of the Hudson River.

And the coal companies and the utilities are liquidating a public asset for cash, which is the air that we breathe. And it's not just that our public lands are being opened, or that our water systems are being sold to private companies, but you can privatize the commons through pollution, because that's a public asset that is being essentially reduced to private control. It's being stolen from the public through your actions.

And that's what's going on on Capitol Hill. It's much more subtle, in most cases, than somebody kind of outright buying a public water supply. But it's much more ubiquitous too. It's happening everywhere, all around us, with the things that we always took for granted -- the air, the water, the fisheries, the wetlands. All the things that are owned by the public, such as the aquifers that are the infrastructure to our quality of life. Those things are being stolen from us by private corporate entities with political clout.

BuzzFlash: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., thank you very much for your time.

Kennedy: Thanks for having me.

This interview was originally published on Buzzflash.com
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