Robert Kennedy Warned Us About the Environment

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by
The Courier Mail (Australia)

Robert Kennedy Warned Us About the Environment

by
Tor Hundloe

The year 1968 is one etched in history. Youngsters born a generation later know it through the music of the period - Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, of course, Bob Dylan.

The first songfest to make a public statement, called Broadway for Peace, was held in 1968. It featured such icons of the era as Barbra Streisand, Leonard Bernstein and one most have forgotten, Harry Belafonte.

This was a year before Woodstock.

Anyone 50 years of age or older relates to 1968, for the very reason they were there. The world was changing before their eyes. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. So was Bobby Kennedy. The Soviet Union moved dramatically to shore up its empire by invading Czechoslovakia. Brave young Czechs placed flowers in the barrels of tank-mounted guns. This was flower power in the extreme.

The Tet (Vietnamese New Year) offensive by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army heralded the start of the end of the war in that country. History was in the making everywhere one looked.

The baby boomers had created a new form of democratic politics, the organised street march.

To this very day, as recently as the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, this method of political statement survives.

As the preferred method of public demonstration at injustice - real or perceived - it has spread from the West to the far corners of the world. In Tiananmen Square, China, the consequences were horrible.

The most significant change stemming from the year 1968 has only now, 40 years later, borne fruit.

This is the universal awakening to global environmental problems, in particular climate change, water scarcity and (a major cause of these two threats) continuing high levels of population growth.

That a change of mindset took 40 years should not surprise us. The 20th century's most famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, noted that politicians and opinion-makers were too often wedded to 50-year old ideas.

The initial green revolution occurred in 1968. Its champion was the likely next president of the US, Robert Kennedy. More on this in a moment. First we should note two seminal pieces of research published in 1968.

The concept of over-using and degrading an area of land or ocean which no one owned or controlled was given the description of "the tragedy of the commons" by Garret Hardin in a famous scientific paper. We witness the "open access" problem today at peak holiday times on places such as Moreton Island.

In the same year Paul Ehrlich published his powerful warning that we were headed for ecological disaster and economic collapse if we did not curb population growth. His book was aptly titled The Population Bomb.

Ehrlich overstated the threat then, but today it is all too real as we race towards a 50 per cent increase in the world's population within the next 40 years. Hardin and Ehrlich are being proved right. However, they could not see as clearly as Robert Kennedy could as to what was the cause of these problems.

In researching my forthcoming book From Buddha to Bono I came across a dramatic and far-sighted speech made by Kennedy just before he was shot.

Environmental concerns were just starting to be raised in the US in 1968 - it was still two years before millions would march in the streets on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 - but Kennedy was ready to act to pre-empt serious problems.

He did not talk about pollution and ecology. Rather, he talked about pollution and people, about the environment and economics.

Here was potentially the most powerful person in the world telling us that it was our incessant demand for ever more goods and chattels that was leading to disaster. Our demands on nature were too great and would not be sustainable in the long term.

This is what Kennedy had to say: "We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a continuation of an endless amassing of worldly goods."

Worth contemplating just after the Christmas splurge. He went on to point out that we are duped into irrational and unsustainable behaviour by our method of measuring economic wellbeing. "We cannot measure national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for people who break them, the destruction of redwoods, the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and mines and nuclear warheads. It includes the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children."

All these destructive things are supposed to add to our wellbeing.

Kennedy went on to point out that many of the things that make us healthier and happier are excluded from our measure of wellbeing, for example: the safety of our children in the streets; the quality of their education; the integrity of our politicians; the strength of our relationships.

He summed up the situation thus: "GDP measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Those of us who expressed similar views to those of Kennedy in the late 1960s were called "commos, ratbags, bludgers", you name it, by the politicians and opinion-makers of the era.

We were not a danger to society, nor could one consider Kennedy to be. But in 1968 he was too radical and too pro-environment to be the next president of the US.

We will never know if he could have delivered on his promise of a better and environmentally-friendly world. A bullet ended the possibility of an environmental revolution 40 years before it has eventually come.

Tor Hundloe is a professor in the Environment School, Griffith University.

© Queensland Newspapers

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