A Grist interview with Democratic presidential contender Dennis Kucinich
Photo: Kucinich for President.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has gone to great lengths to bill himself as the only true progressive among the Democratic presidential candidates — vehemently opposed to war, NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization, and vehemently in support of universal health care, social security, and welfare. “I am running for president of the United States to enable the goddess of peace to encircle within her arms all the children of this country and all the children of the world,” Kucinich said when he officially announced his candidacy on Oct. 13. So does he also have a direct line to the goddess of sustainability? And will he urge her to encircle within her arms the planet? How does environmentalism fit into his progressive agenda? Of the 10 key issues in the political platform described on his website, “Environmental Renewal and Clean Energy” comes in at number 10. Should we take that to mean it’s last on his list of priorities?
When Grist got ahold of Kucinich on the campaign trail, he answered with a resounding “no.” In fact, he said, the theories of sustainability that we associate with environmentalism are the defining principles of his entire political strategy — not to mention his personal life. In the following interview, Kucinich pledges to increase America’s reliance on renewable energy sources to a whopping 20 percent by 2010 and reveals insights into his veganism, his car, and his favorite environmental visionaries.
Hi, it’s Dennis Kucinich. I’m in a very rural area so the reception may come in and out.
Great. Let’s start with a general response to President Bush’s environmental policies so far.
I’ll start by saying that [as president] I will have an Environmental Protection Agency.
So the implication is that Bush doesn’t have one at all?
The implication is that the EPA under Bush stands for Every Polluter’s Ally. The air and the water and the land are viewed by this administration as just another commodity to be used for private profit. We have to be about what one writer called “the great work” of restoring our air and our water and our land. [We have] to look at it as the common property of all humanity — as the commonwealth, rather, of all humanity. And so my candidacy arises from a philosophy of interdependence and interconnection which respects the environment as a precondition for our survival.
Is this philosophy of interconnection at the root of your progressive platform? You are known as the progressive Democratic candidate. Can you elaborate on what makes you more environmentally progressive than other candidates?
I’m not tied to any corporate interests that would strip our forests, that would pollute our air or water. Throughout my career, I have worked for structures of law that protect the environment, and the principles that animate my campaign are principles of sustainability. The principles that animate my life are principles of sustainability.
It sounds like you are referring to a broad, far-reaching notion of sustainability — not just in terms of the environment, but in terms of econ–
Everything. In terms of everything. You know, monopolies are not sustainable economically. A full-employment economy is sustainable. Health care for all — that’s sustainable. Taking the profit out of health care creates sustainable health systems. Preventive health care, complementary and alternative medicines [are part of] a sustainable approach to health care. And universal education from pre-k[indergarten] all the way through college is a sustainable approach toward education. A qualitative approach to education is sustainable, as opposed to quantitative, which is based on test-taking.
So you want to apply the principles of sustainability we associate with environmentalism to an all-encompassing political model?
Yes. Sustainability is a principle that must infuse our whole approach to life. And the environmental movement is the path toward that. It’s the key to understanding that the Earth and the air and the water provide the precondition for life. Life cannot exist without that. So we need to organize our structures of governance in a way that helps support basic principles for the furtherance of life on this planet. And when there is a collision between those values that support life and economic practices, the economic practices must always yield to protect the environment.
That’s a very strong statement. Many environmentalists, and certainly most politicians, believe that there have to be tradeoffs between environmental and economic concerns. The Bush administration has led us to believe that these two goals of growing the economy and protecting the environment are radically incompatible. That’s untrue, but still, you can’t deny that big business at large fundamentally does not like environmental regulations. How would you balance these issues as president, knowing that you can’t fully antagonize big business?
Well, wait a minute, you have to have enforcement of [protections for] air and the water. Many big businesses are not using sustainability, [so] we have to show big business where [it] can make money by being sustainable. That’s where the profits are in the future. You know, the thinking of the future shows that you can make money from clean air and clean water — [that will] improve productivity. And we have to recognize that air pollution and water pollution find some sort of transfer of wealth away from the people of the country toward corporations. That’s not fair and that’s not just. So I intend to challenge that thinking and lead America to new thinking on sustainability.
You have a 90 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters, which is strong. But many of the candidates have strong records and are wrapping themselves in the environmental mantle. Can you elaborate on how your record and vision on the environment differentiates you from the other candidates?
I have a long and consistent record of working for protecting the environment. I was active in helping draft the first environmental law protecting the air as a member of the Cleveland City Council 30 years ago. I led the effort in Ohio challenging nuclear power as being unsafe, unreliable, and unsustainable, and I’m still leading the effort in challenging it. And, most recently, I was at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, advocating a plan with Mikhail Gorbachev for a Global Green Deal that would enable the introduction of $50 billion of new solar projects around the world. It will be a major initiative to use our country’s leadership in sustainable energy production to provide jobs to Americans, to reduce energy use here at home, and to partner with developing nations to provide their people with inexpensive, local renewable-energy technologies.
How would you extend that international clean-energy vision to the United States?
As a peace advocate, I will launch a major renewables effort [so that] Middle East oil fields [do] not loom so large as strategic or military targets. There has to be a renewable energy portfolio [standard] of 20 percent by 2010. And that means introducing wind, solar, hydrogen, geothermal, biomass, and all of the options that must be available and need incentivizing. That also means withdrawing incentives for the production of nonrenewable energy. I’m not talking about building new hydro dams; I’m not talking about damming up more rivers and streams.
Wow, that’s a much more aggressive proposal than other candidates. But it would be incredibly expensive, given that we currently get less than 1 percent of our energy supply from renewables and 2010 is only seven years away. Do you really think you could fund the entire renewable project by diverting subsidies for traditional forms of energy?
That’s right. And in addition to that, we need to subsidize the development of new energy technologies. And I’m willing to do that through NASA, which has been of singular importance in our economy in developing technologies for propulsion, for aerospace, for materials, for [medicines], and for communication. We need to fund NASA in, among other areas, a mission to planet Earth.
So is the idea tha–
We need a mission to planet Earth. And that mission to planet Earth is a mission that includes sustainability, the development of new energy technologies, and the conservation of our resources — and we can then move successfully toward the creation of a 20 percent portfolio by 2010.
But there’s another critical area here, which is peace. War is not sustainable. So my policies would end once and for all the war against Iraq by ending the occupation, by getting the United Nations in and the U.S. out, and by getting the United States to rejoin the world community in the cause of international cooperation.
In that way we set the stage for a new world, where the United States participates by saving the global environment. When we think about the environment, we have to take the broadest approach toward saving the planet itself. And that means we have to get rid of all nuclear weapons. The United States must get rid of all nuclear weapons, and as president, I will lead the way toward nuclear disarmament internationally, and I’ll lead the way by signing the biological weapons convention and the chemical weapons convention and the small arms treaty and the land mine treaty, join the international criminal court, sign the Kyoto climate change treaty, and take all those steps that affirm the integrity of the planet itself. Because you cannot look at the environment in a compartmentalized way. The environment is everything and it includes all those claims for survival from people all over the world. We have to work to once and for all end war. And that’s the dream of the Department of Peace, which is a bill that I introduced in the last two Congresses which now has 50 cosponsors.
So this is an extension of your original point that you want to have a holistic approach to sustainability.
Exactly. What differentiates me from all the other candidates is that I see the whole world as one, as being interconnected and interdependent. It’s not to be divided along the lines of race, color, creed, or economic theory.
So issues are not to be divided and compartmentalized, but considered as a whole, just as you consider the people in our nation as a whole?
It’s one human family. And the United States has the obligation to sustain that human family.
I’d like to plumb this further, but I know our time is limited, so let’s move to your personal relationship to the environment.
Well, for the last eight and a half years I’ve been a vegan, and everything that implies.
What does that imply?
[Veganism] translates to being a conserver of resources. The choice of food that helps to promote sustainability [translates] to a choice of an American-made car that has one of the best mileages you can get, to —
What kind of car?
It’s a Ford Focus. So I try to live it, not just [preach it]. I live in the same house in Cleveland that I’ve owned for 32 years.
Do you have energy-efficiency measures or solar on your roof?
I haven’t retrofitted my house, but I made sure that I’m part of a public power company.
Do you spend much time outdoors?
Yes, I’m constantly taking hikes. You know, I’m constantly in nature. All the time. I’m walking wherever I can walk instead of drive.
Even with your busy schedule and on the campaign trail you get to do all this?
Well, on the campaign trail, I can’t walk between stops.
But if you could you would, no doubt!
What about reading? Your policies seem to have a lot of larger theoretical underpinnings. What books have influenced you?
The people whose writings I follow include Wendell Berry and Thomas Berry and John Robbins and Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins and [other] pioneers in sustainability. My holistic view is informed by, you know, hundreds of books I’ve read. People like Michio Kushi, who wrote One Peaceful World. That’s where I come from.