Last night we had the opportunity and pleasure of seeing Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. give a keynote address at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, as the opening to the UCSC all alumni weekend. The theme of his talk was Crimes Against Nature.
It's rare that any modern orator (particularly one that suffers from spasmodic dysphonia) can hold an audience's attention for 90 minutes without a break, but Mr. Kennedy did just that, and did it handily, pausing only for a sip of water when the audience was applauding one point or another.
His comfort with, and mastery of, the keynote medium was evident from the start, when rather than stand behind the lectern with a pile of notes, he stood in front of it and started right in. That the talk was extemporaneous was brought home when, about 75 minutes in, he said, "And the point I wanted to start with, before I went off on that tangent, was..."
"Show me a polluter and I'll show you a subsidy." Mr. Kennedy made a point of saying that he's a free market capitalist, but that environmental destruction is a result of breakdowns in the market. If we were paying the true cost of gasoline, it would be around $12/gallon. Instead, the oil companies externalize the true costs in the form of billions of dollars spent defending foreign oil fields, making local communities pay for the clean up of their polluted waterways, direct subsidies in the form of tax breaks from the Federal Government, and so on.
Cheap "clean coal" at only 11 cents/kilowatt is anything but cheap or clean when you consider that the mercury used in mining, that's now flowing through our rivers, has raised mercury levels in American's bloodstreams to the point where a sizable percentage of American women have doomed their future offspring to cognitive disabilities, or that the effluents from burning coal (despite laws to install scrubbers) cause over a million asthma attacks each year and a million lost days of work, or that the mountains, valleys, and waterways of West Virginia are being filled in and leveled - a feat that not even the last ice age could accomplish - to extract the coal that will then have to travel on special, re-enforced, 18-inch thick roadways, built, again, at public expense.
Meanwhile, the American Southwest is "the Saudi Arabia of solar." An area of Arizona, 85 miles by 85 miles square (smaller than the area currently being strip-mined in Appalachia), could in theory supply enough solar energy to power the entire country. The Great Plains are the "the Saudi Arabia of wind" with some of the windiest places on the planet.
But that farmer in the Great Plains cannot build wind turbines and start selling energy, and even if massive solar fields were installed in Arizona, they can't power the nation, because of an antiquated power grid, and archaic rules that don't encourage innovation or the entry of small entrepreneurs into a market dominated by oil and coal and the politicians they control.
There is hope and reason for optimism, however. Those nations that gone carbon-free have thrived. Contrary to all the warnings of the naysayers, those that have taken bold moves to rapidly get their power grids off of oil (or, at least, foreign oil) have had booms of innovation and entrepreneurship that lifted entire national economies, as well as increased quality of life through environmental stewardship.
Mr. Kennedy estimates that the United States could be off of foreign oil by "the end of Obama's second term" and off of oil completely in 12 years. While this may sound pie-in-the-sky, and too rapid, we have many historical examples of where we've made and met just such challenges.
In the lead-up to World War Two, FDR said we'd build "a ship a day" and airplanes and tanks, etc. We built them, and it helped lift the economy out of the depression. But "the assets we built were taken to Europe or the Pacific and blown up." This time, we can put the economy to work building new assets - clean power plants, a modern power grid - and keep these assets here, working for us, providing the clean, inexpensive energy we require without digging, blasting, drilling, or importing a thing.
Following the 90-minutes speech, and a standing ovation, a 20-minute Q&A session was held, moderated by Vinod Khosla (founder of Sun Microsystems), who had also introduced Mr. Kennedy.
One of the questions from the audience asked about those who use religious arguments to refute global warming or to oppose environmental legislation. Mr. Kennedy said that his reading of the bible, and other religious texts, always points to taking care of the earth and all its inhabitants. "God didn't say to Noah, 'Get two each of the animals that are profitable.' He said, 'All my creatures are worthy of saving.'"
The final question was a request for one thing we could each take away from evening and do immediately, to which Mr. Kennedy answered, "Sometimes it's more important to change your politician than your light bulb."
Mr. Kennedy stayed after, in the lobby, signing autographs, posing for pictures, and talking to members of the audience. It was an honor to get to thank him personally (and have him sign my ticket stub).
As long as this post is, I'm afraid I only touched on a few of the important points made, and facts presented. That there was a lot of technical information is true; but it was presented with warmth, humor, enthusiasm, heart, and a spirit that held us rapt, and inspired us all to be better stewards of our planet, and better citizens of our country.
Odd-Uncomfortable Historical Note: The venue for last night's speech was the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom in Santa Cruz. Cocoanut Grove (with the same, old-fashioned spelling, coco-a-nut) was also the name of the nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Mr. Kennedy's father was assassinated in 1968, although the site of his final speech was the Embassy Room.