“Would you please turn the lights up,” Robert F Kennedy Jr. asked the stage crew as he took the floor of New York’s Town Hall in Times Square, about to deliver an environmental lecture to a roaring full house this Tuesday. “I want to be able to see if people are leaving.”
It was a joke, just the first of many for the evening, but the fact is that RFK, America’s most prominent environmental lawyer, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Riverkeeper and Chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance, does have a hawk eye on us all—on polluters, on lobbyists, on fake think tanks funded by oil and coal, on corporations, on Jane and Joe Shmoe, and on the government.
One of the things RFK’s got his eye on right now is the link between the coal industry and today’s skyrocketing rates of mercury poisoning. Mythbuster: the toxic mercury making its way into your body and mine does not come in any significant quantity from old thermometers thrown in the trash. It comes from the coal that keeps our lights on and our computers running. Mercury is a byproduct of the coal industry, which dumps the stuff into our waterways to be ingested by fish populations and passed on to pescavore humans.
This past summer, RFK decided he wanted to learn more about his body’s chemical load, got his blood tested for toxins. What he discovered is that he had ten times more mercury in his blood—just from being an occasional pescavore, as most of us are—than the FDA considers “safe.” What that means, a top mercury specialist informed RFK, is that if he were a woman with those levels and gave birth, his child would definitely—not maybe, not probably, but definitely—have IQ loss, and permanent brain damage. Other conditions from which RFK’s hypothetical child might suffer include: speech impediments, ticks, autism, ADD, ADHD, language delay, and more.
“It’s not cheap,” RFK said of coal during a simultaneously hilarious and depressing rant about coal proponents who say the dirty fuel is cheap, abundant and clean. “It’s destroying people’s brains.” Not to mention the mountain tops that have been blown to smithereens in Appalachia and all over coal country as a result of mountain top removal coal mining, or the thousands upon thousands of miles of streams and rivers that have been filled and blocked up with coal ash and debris.
So what’s RFK’s solution to the problem of coal and the havoc it wreaks on American soil and the poisons it puts in our bodies? It’s multipronged: among other things—Obama, a new smart grid that allows green homeowners (like RFK himself, whose home is hooked up to geothermal power and has two solar panels) to make money selling their extra power back to the system, wind power in North Carolina (“the windiest place on earth”), and a free market. Not the kind we have today, but an actually free market, free of coal and oil subsidies. “Show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy,” raged RFK. Oh, and a press that's committed to keeping the public informed about issues that matter. ("That does not mean the gradual emotional decline of Britney Spears.")
It takes one million dollars to keep a single soldier in Afghanistan for one year, bemoaned RFK. “Imagine what would happen if we spent that money hooking up every home to geothermal.”
Tuesday’s lecture was organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with which RFK has worked closely for the past twenty years. The NRDC’s president, Frances Beinecke, introduced the green hero.
One of RFK’s more recent books, out in 2004, is titled Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. “The subtitle makes it sound like it’s a criticism of the Bush administration,” RFK said with a wry glint in his eye, drawing an uproar of laughter from the audience. A few moments later, his cell phone rang, interrupting his mile-a-minute talk. “Would everyone please turn off your cell phones?” he faux-accused the audience, reaching in his breast pocket to retrieve his ringing mobile and switch it off. “Remind me to get that later,” he told the crowd as he placed it on the podium. Not only can the man sue big coal and win, folks, he can make ‘em laugh.