This is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

Update: Dennis Kucinich dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 25, 2008.

Dennis Kucinich

Dennis Kucinich.
Photo: SEIU via flickr

He may be eating the front-runners’ dust in the polls, but among deep-green voters, Dennis Kucinich is considered a trailblazer. A Democratic U.S. rep from Cleveland, Ohio, Kucinich is calling for a radical overhaul of the U.S. government and economy — one that infuses every agency in the executive branch with a sustainability agenda, phases out coal and nuclear power entirely, and calls on every American to ratchet down their resource consumption and participate in a national conservation program.

A vegan who counts Ralph Nader among his heroes, Kucinich doesn’t exactly embody the sensibility of the average American. He says his commitment to sustainability “extends to everything I am and do” — from the food he eats and clothes he wears to the policies he espouses. It’s the same progressive platform that made him a darling of the far left when he ran for president in 2004. Will it take him any further this time around?

I reached Kucinich by phone at his home in Ohio.

For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist’s Kucinich fact sheet.

Listen to a clip of this interview:


 

Why should voters consider you the strongest green candidate?

Because mostly our candidates aren’t going to be able to do anything about the underlying issues that threaten our environment. Many of the candidates — Edwards, Obama, and Clinton — are heavily funded by hedge funds on Wall Street, which are driven by a psychology of short-term profits and investments. And with candidates taking that kind of money from those interests, it defies belief that they’re going to be in a position to take this country in the direction it needs to be taken.

What sets your green platform apart from the rest?

As president of the United States, I’m going to shift the entire direction of America. We need to see the connection between global warring and global warming, and it’s oil. Sustainability is the path to peace. And I’m the only true peace candidate in this election. So peace means being in harmony with nature. If you’re in harmony with nature, you don’t exploit nature. You don’t ruin the land, you don’t extract the oil, you don’t take the coal out of the earth.

My underlying philosophy is a green philosophy. It means that I’m looking at a total reorganization of the federal government to create a cooperative and synergistic relationship between all departments and administrations for the purpose of greening America.

You propose, for instance, the Works Green Administration.

The Works Green Administration harkens back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration, where he put millions of people back to work rebuilding America’s infrastructure. I too have an infrastructure-rebuilding program which will put millions of people back to work. Picture this: You take every area of involvement in the federal government — whether it’s the Small Business Administration, or the Housing and Urban Development Department, or the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Labor. Each would incorporate green goals. We’d have billions of dollars loaned to the states at zero interest for green development programs, we’d have programs furthering green housing, agricultural policies would relate to green.

Do you think Americans are ready to answer the call to conserve?

Of course they are, they’re just waiting for leadership, and it has to come from somebody who’s not tied to any of these interest groups, or is worried about whether he’s going to offend a contributor. And so, yes, I think people know that their future’s at stake.

What I intend to do as president is to call forth that instinct which is within every person for not just survival but to be able to thrive. We need to make the connection between prosperity and sustainability. It also means we have to turn toward peace, we have to stop warring, because war is ecocide, war destroys the environment. And so I’m going to call forth the people of this country for a whole new direction. I think America’s not just ready for it, it’s overdue and people know that.

I will also ask the American people to participate in a grand and great conservation effort. Imagine if tens of millions of homes suddenly had an awareness that when you don’t need the electricity, don’t flip the switch. That you use only the water that you need and you don’t use any more, you don’t let the faucet run.

Do you believe that we need a carbon tax in addition to a cap-and-trade program, or neither, or both?

We need to do whatever we can do to create disincentives for the use of carbon-based energy. But that’s not enough. Carbon-based taxes alone won’t cut it, because some people may be willing to pay an extra tax to use something that’s bad for the environment. Inevitably we need a requirement to move away from all carbon-based technologies, and to fund fully all alternative-energy research that is in harmony with the environment.

So you would propose a strict cap on carbon emissions, a carbon tax, and a massive government-supported plan to promote renewable technologies?

Yes, but I’d want to put the emphasis first on the government supporting renewable technologies. A tax could reflect the full cost to society of certain types of energy. But the answer is not simply punishing those people who are using carbons. You have to do everything you can to move people toward renewable energy.

You’ve been calling for years for a renewable portfolio standard that would have the U.S. get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010. Now that 2010 is around the corner, what sort of RPS plan would you implement as president?

Well, obviously we’ve lost the advantage of that particular time frame. For the next time frame, I think we could set something by 2020 and look to 30 or 40 percent. But that means we’re talking about a very sharp turnaround here.

How would you shift the utility industry toward renewables, toward this whole new paradigm?

One of my proposals is to have millions of homes with wind and solar technologies, and people can sell energy back to the grid. The role of utilities will change dramatically because it’s not going to be a centralized approach toward energy production. They’ll have to figure out different ways that they might be able to provide support for green alternatives. I want to see, eventually, all the homes in this country have the option of that technology. In turn, you can create millions of jobs building alternative technologies.

Would nuclear power play any role in your energy policy as president?

Nuclear has to be phased out. The hidden costs of nuclear are enormous — of building these plants and storing the waste forever. It’s not financially or environmentally sustainable.

Nuclear makes up 20 percent of America’s electricity supply. What would you replace this with?

You don’t want to leave a gap in our energy needs, but at the same time, with a program of conservation and movement toward alternative energy, we can begin phasing out nuclear.

What about coal, the source of more than half of our electricity supply? Would you phase that out, or do you believe in the promise of advanced coal technologies?

No, coal has to be phased out. In the same way that the Department of Agriculture for years was paying some farmers not to grow, I think we can get to the point of paying coal miners not to mine. Why should the miners have to suffer from the lack of foresight of our energy policies? That’s something that I intend to address in my Works Green Administration.

The electric utility industry would argue that such a massive shift would pass along huge rate hikes to consumers. How would you protect Americans from these expenses?

We do not need to be held hostage by the utility industry. I’m not someone who’s going to roll over when these utility industries issue their threats. We’re going to break up the monopolies in utilities, that’s No. 1. No. 2, these utilities are going to be closely regulated for their activities. No. 3, they’re going to be required to go green as license conditions. No. 4, they’re going to be closely monitored and shut down if they violate the Clean Air Act. We’re going to have a very aggressive EPA, and utilities are not going to be dictating energy costs. I don’t mind working with them, I don’t mind moving toward areas where they can be cooperative in protecting the environment, but they’re not going to run energy policy.

But such a transition would create huge costs. How would you pay for them?

It pays for itself. See, the whole idea about sustainability is that you conserve, you save, and then you use the savings for other things. However, where we need financial incentives, this is where the government can play a major role in putting money into circulation for the production of these [green] products, and to put people to work. Roosevelt understood in the ’30s that there were things he had to do to move the economy. And I understand what we need to do to move the economy in a green direction.

Do you support subsidies for ethanol or other gasoline alternatives, like biodiesel?

I don’t know about subsidies. I think those technologies are transitional to fuel-cell technology. I wouldn’t want to create incentives to lock us into usages that are not where we ultimately want to go. And there is a serious issue with ethanol and its impact on food supplies.

Many argue that the U.S. shouldn’t commit to a global greenhouse-gas reduction target that doesn’t involve China and India. Do you agree, and how would you bring them to the table?

First of all, as president, I’m going to let the rest of the world know that the days of America trying to be a nation above nations is over. We have to quit trying to dominate other countries, and we have to step out of our isolation and into the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. I think the world is ready for an American president who puts the sword down, so that nations won’t have to spend a tremendous amount of their resources trying to prepare for war.

We have to be ready to take the lead, but we need to have harmony with other nations. As president, I intend to work with the leaders of China and India and other nations to promote an environmental consciousness and sustainable economies. I will use trade as a vehicle to try to raise the level of living for all people, and environmental sustainability must be the watchword. All of our trade agreements must have within them requirements for protecting the air and the water and the land of all the countries we do business with.

After climate and energy, what do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?

Agriculture — the way we grow our food — and we really need to make sure that we protect our water supply. These issues are closely tied to each other.

Who is your environmental hero?

Oh, I have many. Thomas Berry, whose book The Great Work talked about how our great work in life is to achieve a real harmony with the environment. I think Lester Brown has done some incredible work on raising the consciousness of people. Amory Lovins has done some excellent work, and I think Ralph Nader has pointed to a lot of the environmental implications of corporate conduct and trade laws. And John Robbins has been so incredible in his awareness of the impact of the food we eat on our environment.

What was your most memorable wilderness or outdoor adventure?

As a child, we lived in the city, we moved around a lot. But there was one place we lived, above railroad tracks, and on the other side of the tracks was this vast acreage called “the gulley” that was created with the blasting of the railroad. It had these huge rock piles and vegetation everywhere and it almost looked prehistoric. It was a place that I would go to often and find solitude and be able to just think. So much of my own life has been connected with a desire to be close to nature, to be close to the water, to be close to green.

If you could spend a week in one natural area of the U.S., where would it be?

I would say somewhere in northern Maine. The whole state is beautiful, but northern Maine is just extraordinary, and I’ve seen all 50 states. I also love Maui.

What do you do to lighten your environmental footprint?

My philosophy of life extends to everything I am and do. If I say I’m for peace, I’m for peace in the kind of products that I use, in the kind of shoes that I wear, and in terms of the clothes that I wear, in terms of my eating habits. I’m always thinking in terms of sustainability. That’s the way I live. I live in a small house and we’re very conscious of our energy usage. I drive an American car, a Ford Focus, but it’s one of the highest fuel-economy cars.

I’ve been living an essentially vegan lifestyle since 1995, and that has led me to a condition of extraordinary health and clarity. Now, I’m not, as president, going to tell everyone what they have to eat, but I will share my own story about how the choices that I’ve made have meant, for myself, a better life, and a happier life. I’m 60 years old, but I’ll bet that I’m in better physical shape than a lot of people a lot younger.

If George Bush were a plant or an animal, what kind of plant or an animal would he be?

Clinton button

I don’t want to go there.

Fair enough. Would you spin it around on yourself? If you were a plant or animal, what kind would you be?

An eagle.

How so? Truly American?

No. Keenness of vision.