It was a breath of fresh air, especially after an election in which Kentucky politicians of both parties competed to see who could be the biggest sock puppet for the coal industry.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at Transylvania University on Wednesday about "Green Capitalism: Why Environmental Policy Equals Good Business Policy."
Kennedy, 61, son of the slain presidential candidate and nephew of the slain president, is an accomplished environmental lawyer, anti-pollution activist and partner in a renewable-energy investment firm.
Kennedys are like Bushes; most people either love them or hate them on principle, without actually listening to what they say. But this talk was worth listening to, because Kennedy clearly explained our nation's biggest problem, what could be done to solve it and why that isn't happening.
Surprisingly, his message had as much appeal for libertarians as liberals. Conservatives could find a lot to agree with, too, if they care about conserving anything besides the status quo.
Kennedy's main point was that Americans don't have to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. In fact, the only way to have a strong economy in the long run is to take care of our nation's air, water and land.
The best way to do that, he said, is a combination of true democracy and free-market capitalism. Trouble is, polluters have used their money and influence to corrupt the political process and distort free markets.
"You show me a polluter, and I'll show you a subsidy," he said. "I'll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his production costs. That's all pollution is."
Kennedy told how he started his environmental career working for commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in New York. Their industry was devastated by General Electric, which for three decades dumped more than a million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson.
"They saw their fishery destroyed, not because they had a bad business model, but because somebody had better lobbyists than they did," he said.
"One of the things I learned from them was this idea that we're not protecting the environment so much for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we're protecting it for our own sake," he said. "Nature is the infrastructure of our communities."
Kennedy said we are now seeing a struggle between rich, old-energy industries that create a lot of pollution — coal, oil, gas and nuclear — and new, renewable-energy technologies that are cleaner and increasingly cheaper.
Pollution destroys our natural infrastructure and creates huge public health costs, both in terms of dollars and lives. "It's a way of loading the costs of our generation's prosperity onto the backs of our children," he said.
Fossil fuel industries also receive more than $1 trillion in annual taxpayer subsidies, ranging from direct payments and tax breaks to the huge military presence in the Middle East to secure oil-production assets. Meanwhile, these industries lobby to eliminate the small subsidies offered to encourage alternatives.
If a truly free market forced the oil industry to internalize its costs, gasoline would sell for $12 to $15 a gallon. "You're already paying that," he said. "You're just paying it from a different pocket."
Kennedy argued for more market-based systems, such as cap-and-trade, to account for the hidden costs of fossil fuels. That would expose their inefficiencies and waste and level the playing field for solar, wind and geothermal.
"You need to devise rules for a marketplace that allows actors in the marketplace to make money by doing good things for the public, rather than forcing them to make money by doing bad things to the public," he said.
Kennedy likened it to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States in the 19th century, a moral decision that helped spark an explosion of innovation in labor-saving technology and wealth that we now know as the Industrial Revolution.
The biggest barrier to renewable energy replacing fossil fuels is the lack of a modern national electric grid, he said. Government investment in that grid would create opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish, just as previous investments in the Internet, interstate highways, railroads and canals did.
A good way to start would be laws to allow homeowners and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, from electricity they generate with solar panels and wind turbines and sell to utilities.
"It will turn every American into an energy entrepreneur, every home into a power plant, and power this country based on American imagination and effort and innovation," he predicted.
It also would be good for national security. "A terrorist can blow up one power plant," Kennedy said, "but he would have a hard time blowing up a million homes."
Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will be complicated. "But it's not as complicated as going to war in Iraq," Kennedy said. "It's something that we can do. We just need the political will."