Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

WALLA WALLA, Wash.— In a speech that celebrated nature as “the infrastructure of our community,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also saluted “the strong sense of community” at Whitman College Thursday in Cordiner Hall.

“(This college) has a high commitment to environmental advocacy,” Kennedy said at the outset of his lecture, “and advocacy and activism are what it’s all about.”

An audience of 1,121 Whitman students, faculty, staff and Walla Walla residents heard Kennedy deliver an impassioned talk that echoed the title of his book “Crimes Against Nature” as well as his speech to the Sierra Club in 2005, when he received the conservation group’s William O. Douglas Award.

He called George W. Bush “the worst environmental president in the history of this country,” chastised the American media for being “negligent and indolent” (“We know more about Kate and Tom Cruise than about global warming,” he opined) and said that “when we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves and impoverish our children.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Frank Dunnivant said he was stirred by the content and pitch of Kennedy’s speech. “It gives me something to aspire to in my class rant,” he said. “It’s motivated me.”

Bob Carson, Grace Farnsworth Phillips professor of Geology and Environmental Studies at Whitman, said the talk was “outstanding for our students” and “important for the larger community to hear.”

“It’s been a good week at Whitman for the environment,” said Carson, noting also the lecture Monday by Earthjustice’s Martin Wagner ’83 and the current exhibition at Sheehan Gallery that documents the effects of climate change.

Kennedy, a master falconer, avid whitewater rafter and professor of environmental law at Pace University, is president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental alliance comprising more than 100 “riverkeepers” around the world. He also serves as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national group that works to enforce and strengthen environmental laws.

Through his work with these groups, Kennedy said during and after his talk, he has come to realize that “the core environmental issue” in America and the world is “how you allocate the resources of the land.” He maintained that the current “rhetoric” on Capitol Hill that mandates choosing between economic prosperity and environmental protection is “a false choice.”

“In 100 percent of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy,” he said. His statement triggered loud applause.

Kennedy, who interrupted his undergraduate studies at Harvard to attend the London School of Economics for a year, allowed that he was a strong advocate of free-market capitalism in solving environmental problems. The idea captured the attention of many students in the audience.

“I thought the view he presented using free-market solutions was very interesting,” said junior Matt Stenovec, an environmental humanities major. “He talked a lot about regulation at first. It’s challenging to think about deregulation in terms of environmental protection.”

In his strongest appeal, Kennedy said that America must address current violations of the environment “for the voices of future generations.” “This is not just the destruction of the environment (that we face),” he said. “It’s the subversion of democracy.”

“I thought his points were mind-opening,” said Larry Malott, landscape specialist at Whitman. “It showed me the importance of being open to the fact that there is truth in all sides.”

After his lecture, Kennedy signed books in the foyer of Cordiner and attended a reception at Baker Faculty Center with President George Bridges and about 40 Whitman students.

Sophomore Aisha Fukushima, student intern in the Office of the President and a guest at the reception, said Kennedy’s talk was “especially refreshing for students to hear” because “it took a strong stand.”

“Often in our critical discussions we get into a lot of reasoning and semantics,” she said. “That’s good, but you also have to come to grips with what you believe. It was good for us to hear that kind of authority in (Kennedy’s) speech.”

Kennedy’s lecture was part of Whitman’s ASWC (Associated Students of Whitman College) Public Speakers series chaired by Cory Ulrich. The series continues Feb. 21 with a lecture by former United Press International bureau chief and White House Press Corps member Helen Thomas.

Photo credit: Daniel Bachhuber ’10


Keith Raether
Office of Communications, Whitman College