After airing some criticisms of the speech, I wanted to get to the positive elements as well. To me, his speech pointed to one major problem and one major possibility. Not surprisingly, the problem that he focused on was the influence of lobbies on the political system. In his case, he meant that corporate contributions and also the ability of major polluters to hamstring the enforcement of environmental protection laws (like power plants that are able to evade the restrictions of the Clean Air Act) damage both the environment in which we all live and the quality of democracy. Furthermore, he argued that many polluters, including the agribusiness industries, “externalize” as many costs as possible by dumping pollutants into the natural environment and by getting huge subsidies from the government. In this age of bailouts, I wonder if this is something that people from across the political spectrum might be able to oppose together. He described subsidies to agribusiness, commercial fishing, oil, and other industries that pervert the free market, but he didn’t demonize corporations or the free market system. Rather, he said, the true free market encourages responsibility when businesses must deal with the true costs of their enterprises.
The best phrase I’ve heard to describe the attitude that he criticized is “socializing the risks and privatizing the gains.” Once on Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill suggested this to conservative commentator P.J. O’Rourke, who responded with something like, “Well, yeah, they’re not dumb.” And P.J. was exactly right; our system allows for this to happen, probably for a host of different reasons that don’t match neatly with any one group or ideology.
RFK also discussed his faith that the free market held the key to solving the energy issue. He believes that the free market, when not blocked by the subsidies given to entrenched polluters like the coal and oil industries, can provide energy in a much cheaper fashion through cleaner sources like wind energy, solar energy, and geothermal energy. One example was a solar plant that his business had invested in that can provide enormous amounts of power for free to the public. He had great confidence that ingenuity can provide for energy needs and the need for jobs. This theme in his speech was the most exciting. To me, the most promising environmental protection ideas are those that focus on how the public and business can benefit and that uses the incredible innovative potential of the free market.
Finally, I realize that some of this stuff may seem like typical environmentalist rhetoric and that the promise of new energy sources seem too good to be true. I’m not sure if the free energy from the power plant in Southern California is possible. Plus, we know from experience that solutions always engender new problems. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s tongue-in-cheek observation that scientists are to be respected because they’ve solved all of our problems and are now working to solve the problems that have resulted from the solutions.
I need to learn a lot more about the issues that RFK talked about from other perspectives before declaring my allegiance to all of his solutions. But his command of facts about current environmental issues and his enthusiasm about the technological possibilities were enough to convince me that his message definitely needs to be heard.