During an Earth Day celebration, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accepted USC College’s first annual Sustainability Champion Award on behalf of his environmental group’s steadfast activism and successful litigation against the nation’s most egregious polluters.
The inaugural award presentation took place at Town and Gown during a dinner honoring the Waterkeeper Alliance — an international advocacy organization dedicated to preserving and protecting local waterways.
Kennedy is chairman of the grassroots group that has spawned more than 175 Waterkeeper organizations across the globe, winning a litany of victories in the fight against agricultural, industrial and urban pollution.
The award was presented by the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, which co-hosted the ceremony along with the College. Housed in the College, the center fosters research, education and partnerships addressing sustainability challenges in metropolitan regions. It also generates solutions enhancing the natural environment, economic vitality and social equity of cities worldwide.
“We’re launching this annual award and Earth Day lecture as a way to highlight the critical work that individuals and organizations are doing to ensure that we all have a future — and that our children and grandchildren have a future,” said Jennifer Wolch, the center’s director and professor of geography in the College.
“And we can imagine no one better to inaugurate our Sustainability Champion Award tradition than tonight’s awardee.”
USC College Dean Howard Gillman noted that the annual event would bring together leaders in diverse fields “to foster collaborations that will generate new knowledge and new solutions.”
“And, as you all know, we are so honored to have such a leader with us tonight,” Gillman said during the April 23 event.
Gillman presented Kennedy, a licensed master falconer, with a gift: William Leon Dawson’s Birds of California: A Complete, Scientific and Popular Account of the 580 Species and Subspecies of Birds Found in the State.
“We understand that you have a special place in your heart for birds,” Gillman told Kennedy.
The 1923 four-volume edition is considered the most famous account of California’s birdlife. Signed by Dawson, it included embossed pictorial green cloth covers, 110 color plates, 30 photogravure plates and more than 1,100 photo illustrations.
“This is the best award I’ve ever received,” Kennedy said, carefully opening one of the massive books and gazing at a page. “I collect old books and anthologies on birds, but I don’t have this or anything like this in my collection.
“I’m very, very grateful for it. I’m grateful to be here and I’m grateful for the chance to meet all of you extraordinary people. I applaud your strong commitment to sustainability.”
The award ceremony was sponsored by several leading Southern California firms: Hines, AECOM, Buro Happold, TCW, Wachovia, CB Richard Ellis, Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP, Clark Construction and Thomas Safran & Associates.
After the ceremony, Kennedy delivered a nearly two-hour speech — an impassioned, well-cited indictment of the Bush administration for its assault on America’s air, water and land.
Calling President Bush “the worst environmental president in American history,” Kennedy said the present government was “a really good example of what happens when you let corporations run a democracy.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Web site lists over 400 major environmental rollbacks implemented by the current administration over the past seven years “as part of a deliberate, concerted effort to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law,” he said.
“It’s a stealth attack,” he said. “The White House has used all kinds of ingenious machinations to try to conceal its radical agenda from the American people, including Orwellian rhetoric. When they want to destroy the forests, they call it the Healthy Forest Act. When they want to destroy the air, they call it the Clear Skies Bill.”
But most insidiously, he said, “they have put polluters in charge of virtually all the agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution.”
Almost without exception, he said, Bush’s top 100 environmental appointees were once lobbyists for “the worst of the worst of the worst of the worst” of polluting industries.
The administration wants to convert the country’s natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, he said, in order “to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, then we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy.”
“But our children are going to pay for our joyride,” he said. “They’re going to pay for it with polluted landscapes, poor health, and huge cleanup costs that are going to amplify over time, and that they will never, ever be able to pay off.”
Drawing loud applause, Kennedy said many Americans are uninformed about important issues because of a “negligent and indolent press in this country that has simply let down American democracy.”
“They appeal to the prurient interests that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brains for sex and celebrity gossip,” he told the sold-out audience of 280 at the Alfred Newman Recital Hall.
One major news story ignored by the American press, he said, involved coal-burning power plants. President Clinton’s administration had been prosecuting the worst 75 of those plants — an industry that donated $48 million to Bush’s campaign in 2000 and has given $58 million since.
“One of the first things that Bush did when he came into office was to order the Justice Department and the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to drop all those lawsuits,” he said. “Immediately after dropping the lawsuits, the White House abolished the New Source Rule, which was the heart and soul of the Clean Air Act.”
He ended by imploring people to become environmental warriors:
“Those of us who understand what it is that makes America worth fighting for have to keep fighting to take it back from those who don’t.”