Even with a struggling economy, high unemployment and thousands protesting American greed, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is optimistic.

“I’m very optimistic that we have good choices,” he said to the crowd at Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University Thursday night.

Kennedy cheered American resources like wind and solar energy, initiatives that will drive this country to energy independence.  Our dependent energy policies and our false sense of capitalism, Kennedy said, are crippling the nation.

“We don’t have free market capitalism in this country. We have corporate crony capitalism,” he said.

Kennedy stated that he is an advocate for the free market, and believes corporations are necessary and important. Corporations, he says, create jobs and prosperity, but many are only focused on the dollar.

“Without them we would be lost, but we shouldn’t let them run our government. That’s where we need to draw the line,” he said.  “Corporations don’t want the same things for America that Americans want. Corporations don’t want democracy and they don’t want free markets. They do want profits, and the best way for them to get profits is to use their surplus dollars to invest in our campaign system, which is just a system of legalized bribery,” he said.

The pressure for profits and shareholder value creates an environment where corporations are forced to choose shareholders over the greater public good.

“We want to ultimately build a national marketplace that does what a market is supposed to do, which is to reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste.”

That requires a shift in economic thinking and a focus on the environment.

“We’re not protecting the environment [only] for the sake of the fish and birds. We are protecting it for our own sake because we recognize that nature is the infrastructure of our communities,” said Kennedy.

Unlike the talking points often given by Kennedy’s naysayers, protecting the environment does come down to the bottom line.  “There’s this mantra–we have to choose between economic prosperity on one hand and environmental protection on the other–and that is a false choice,” he said.  “In 100 percent of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy.”

Kennedy has devoted much of his life to protecting the environment. Time magazine named him one of the “Heroes for the Planet,” for his work restoring the Hudson River with Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization that protects the Hudson River and the New York City watershed.  Kennedy acts as the Chief Prosecuting Attorney.  His work with the organization led to 160 Waterkeeper organizations around the world, including the Yadkin Riverkeeper, which helped to sponsor Kennedy’s speech at Wake Forest.

“The best measure of how a democracy functions is how it distributes the goods of the land,” said Kennedy. Part of that is effective energy policy.  America’s energy independence is vital to the country’s future. “We need the energy,” he said, “So how do we extract it, employ it, and distribute it in a way that doesn’t diminish our quality of life and that doesn’t compromise the aspirations of our children?”

Energy independence is not a pipe dream. Kennedy said we have the greatest wind resource in the world, and our solar capacity, if realized, could power the entire United States energy grid. Kennedy says the change is going to come fast because the market will demand it.

Energy independence, says Kennedy, will change the economic course of the country.

“We (can) have a system in this country that gives us free energy forever. That is the biggest permanent tax break in the history of mankind.”

But, we have to recognize it.

“It is right in front of us. It’s simple and easy and all of us have the duty to understand this and pursue it,” he said.   “It doesn’t diminish our wealth. It is an investment in infrastructure. It’s an investment we have to make if we are going to ensure the economic vitality of our generation and future generations.”

For More Coverage of the Kennedy’s visit to Winston-Salem:

Kennedy visits Badin Lake, Lake still has PCB Pollution

Pictures from the Event

CEES Director Miles Silman on Kennedy and Wake’s role in Green Jobs

Kennedy encourages law students to consider environmental activism