Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks at UMass

By Vickie Palmatier

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – son to Robert “Bobby” Kennedy and nephew to John F. Kennedy, who has made his mark as a dedicated environmental activist and lawyer – spoke at the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts last night about his efforts in environmental conservation.

At a lecture titled, “Our Environmental Destiny,” his talk was centered on the government, the environment and the connection between the two. He frequently drew upon history to further emphasize his points.

Kennedy is the spitting image of his father, but his voice no longer sounds like him due to his condition, spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his voice to sound raspy. This did not stop him from offering his insight in the politics of environmentalism to a packed stadium at UMass last night, the capstone to the UMass Earth Day Festival this year.

As part of his career in law fighting environmental degradation, Kennedy has successfully filed over 400 lawsuits against polluters across the country, helped form more than 160 organizations across the world, is a professor in environmental law at Pace University and, earlier in his career, served as the district attorney for New York City.

“The democracy and the environment are ultimately intertwined … In the 15th century there was a clean air act in England that made it illegal for people to burn coals. It was a capital offense and people were executed for it,” said Kennedy early on in the lecture.

Kennedy also stressed the fact that protecting the environment would not, contrary to popular belief, be bad for the economy. The ideas and inventions he conveyed to the audience would not only help preserve the Earth, but save an immense amount of money for the government and help the economy.

“It doesn’t diminish our wealth; it’s an investment in infrastructure. It’s an investment we have to make if we’re going to secure the economic vitality of our generations and our future generations,” said Kennedy.

He also said, in regards to the coal industry, there are currently more people employed by the solar industry than coal. The medical insurance rates and death numbers due to coal are devastating to communities, as well as destroying the environment.

“I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was 14-years-old where he told me we’re not just destroying the environment, but permanently impoverishing these communities because there is no way they will ever regenerate,” said Kennedy, providing some insight into his childhood and incentive to his lifelong devotion to the environment.

Kennedy, once again drawing on history, compared conserving the environment to the abolitionist movement. When the longtime debate of abolition came to an end and the slaves were emancipated, the U.S. economy boomed almost instantly due to a need for innovation. He believed with the switch to solar power, history will repeat itself and the economy will rise.

Kennedy also used metaphoric comparisons to accentuate his desire for change. He compared the flourish in cell phone technology and the shift from cathode ray tube televisions to flat screen televisions to the environment and use of solar technology.

“The last tube television factory went out of business three years ago,” said Kennedy. “And no one noticed.”

Kennedy spoke to the audience about innovative technology, such as electric cars and energy efficient light bulbs, which, according to him, save consumers so much money they end up making money compared to the less energy efficient, more costly machines they used before.

He also shed light on BrightSource Energy, a company committed to developing and installing solar thermal technology, creating steam for electric and petroleum power worldwide.

Kennedy ended the lecture by reiterating his desire for governmental change. He referenced past presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who predicted the American government will fall not to outside forces, but to corruption within itself.

“It’s more important to change your politician than your light bulb,” he said.

Some students in the audience said they were inspired to become more involved in sustainability and protecting the environment.

“I’m probably going to read his book now, and I’m definitely going to go to his website and see how I can get involved,” said Alessandra Monroe, 20-year-old public health major.

Recent UMass graduate in finance, Alex Notis, enjoyed Kennedy speaking about his personal experiences.

“It was interesting to hear him talk about what he’d actually done himself in his own business ventures,” said Notis.

George Bixby, 20-year-old finance major, took a lot away from the lecture.

“I thought it was interesting that the new light bulbs that are being produced are twenty times more efficient than the ones being used now, and the fact that you can power the United States three times over on wind farms in North Dakota, Montana and Texas,” said Bixby.

The lecture also made 20-year-old plant, soil and insect science major Paul Hindle think about his own purchases in the future.

“When it came to the cars, it kind of gives you something to think about. For me, personally, it made me think, ‘Do I want to invest in a car now, or do I want to wait and see what’s going on in a few years with the developing of electrical cars?’ It’s something to consider,” said Himble.

Victoria Palmatier can be reached at [email protected].