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Published: Sunday, 9/23/2007

Experts take a back seat to celebrities

I had a feeling of deja vu as I sat down in the University of Toledo's Libbey Hall with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., some 90 minutes before he delivered his speech on campus Thursday night.

Mr. Kennedy said he'd pepper the audience with examples of how the Bush Administration put corporate lobbyists into some of the nation's top jobs for reshaping and enforcing environmental policy.

The fox watching the henhouse. I get it. What I don't understand is whether enough Americans care and, if so, what that means about our collective sense of values.

That's when Mr. Kennedy went old school on me, telling me Thomas Jefferson believed democracy works only when the masses are properly educated. Mr. Kennedy now applies that to the enormous downsizing of today's print and broadcast media, calling it an injustice for the industry to put so many journalists out of work and consolidate itself into the hands of a few powerful conglomerates.

Anna Nicole Smith. O.J. Simpson. Paris Hilton. As Mr. Kennedy said during his speech: "We know more about Tom Cruise and Katie [Holmes] than we do about global warming."

Sex and celebrity gossip, baby. Mr. Kennedy believes tabloid journalism has infiltrated newsrooms because corporations are motivated by sheer profits. In his mind, we are the "best entertained and least informed people in the free world."

So where does he fit in our knowledge of the environment?

Stanford University climatologist Stephen H. Schneider led U.S. participation in this year's historic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was released in Paris. That's the one in which 1,500 of the world's top scientists declared in the strongest words ever that man-made pollution is warming the planet. Not that I expect anyone to know what the IPCC is, mind you.

Harvard University's E.O. Wilson has been one of the top biologists, nature essayists, and defenders of life's diversity for years. He's now part of a major effort to draw more attention to the environment through religion.

The late Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, is credited for inspiring the modern environmental movement by challenging conventional thought about DDT and other pesticides.

How familiar are they in comparison to Mr. Kennedy? Or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Al Gore?

We love our symbols. And our celebrities. This is no knock on Mr. Kennedy. He comes from a family that has been a source of inspiration and scorn. The assassination of his uncle in 1963 is one of the earliest memories of my life, coming when I was 4. The assassination of his father came when I was 9. It prompted me to go into my piggy bank and buy a 680-page biography of him that I was far too young to understand. It made me pay closer attention to newspapers and magazines and to learn more about the Vietnam War and civil rights than a lot of kids my age did in 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is an accomplished lawyer, journalist, and author, regardless what people think of his political views. He draws a following. The 1,250-seat Student Union auditorium where he spoke had sold out far in advance, so UT simulcast his speech in Doermann Theater to accommodate up to 600 more people.

He has a rock-star persona. Is that wrong?

"When we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves," he said near the end of his speech. "I don't believe nature is God, but I do believe it is the way God communicates with us."

He ended by quoting a famous Native American proverb: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."

Unfortunately, nobody knows who came up with that.



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