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Culture Change

Teresa Heinz Kerry
A First Lady of sustainability?

by Jan Lundberg 

For the first time in U.S. history, the White House may soon be guided by principles of sustainability: the capability of the ecosystem to accommodate economic activity indefinitely.  If John Kerry becomes president, his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry would push environmental policy domestically and globally in the direction of lessening threats ignored by the Bush administration: toxic pollution, global warming, and petroleum dependence. 

On February 6 at the University of Tennessee College of Law, Heinz Kerry spoke with me during and after her address on health and energy-related issues.  (I had spoken there the day before.)  This was just prior to the Tennessee primary election which John Kerry won.  As she spoke in favor of massive renewable-energy technology investment and the revision of disposal practices to redirect waste into reusable products, one could have wondered if this was a re-run of Clinton-Gore posturing for some “green votes.” 

The answer is no, if we consider her long-time interest in toxicology and nonprofit work, as well as the depth of her understanding of the issues.  She gave examples of the threat of indoor pollution and medical and dietary risks to public health, such as estrogenic carcinogens.  She also displayed knowledge of how research is manipulated by industry. 

“There is no sustainability in the way we think,” she said.  How refreshing to hear such a realization from someone who could be at the pinnacle of policy formation, after decades of the U.S. frittering away nature’s health and wealth.  An example of reorienting economic priorities toward sustainability is Heinz Kerry’s “cradle to cradle” approach to reducing consumer junk that has almost entirely gone directly to landfills: before counting on recycling and reusing, products must be manufactured with materials and processes that make it possible to avoid the usual “cradle to grave” syndrome.  She displayed a nontoxic ball of fiber, colored with vegetable dye, made by a major chemical manufacturer, designed to become a basic material for an updated consumer product to replace what has already had its use as a rug. 

Heinz Kerry repeatedly mentioned that her husband had gone to four Kyoto Protocol conferences, more than any other candidate or past major U.S. politician.  This in itself is not sufficient comfort for anyone concerned about climate change.  However, she did not imply that we must give up on nature as we knew it and adapt to global warming.  That approach is what most governments and their corporate backers advocate, but such a view is rapidly becoming discredited and untenable by the latest developments in climate science news: (a) one quarter of all species, approximately, will be extinct or going extinct by mid century, thanks to human-induced global warming, and (b) the imminent shut down of the Gulf Stream, due to global warming’s icecap melt and greater rainfall on the ocean, is setting up the northern hemisphere for a sudden ice age within a few years. 

An ice age for the nations using most of the world’s oil – straining heating oil supplies that would be diverted from diesel fuel manufacture, for example – would trigger a global energy crisis.  Along with the fact that world oil extraction is peaking – an historic event triggering for the world economy such unavoidable supply tightness that it can’t be alleviated in time to avoid economic collapse – fossil-fueled growth may be in its last days.  Heinz Kerry has no naivete about advocating a completely renewable-energy economy:  She said “we need to keep using fossil fuels and nuclear.”  She says “no more nuclear plants should be built because we don’t know how to deal with the radioactive waste very well.” 

Although Heinz Kerry has the charm and patience of the best nonpolitician you would want to spend an evening with, she nevertheless could not sign a petition to Tennessee’s governor, placed before her by a local activist fighting mountain-top-removal coal mining.  Although there can be no justification for what this extreme form of extraction does to streams and rivers, Heinz Kerry’s aides successfully argued on the spot that her signing the petition could be used by “the right wing.”  But a copy of the petition was accepted for her future possible signing. 

Heinz Kerry is a most informative commentator on key issues relating to our survival as a species.  Moreover, she is open to a broad inclusion of these issues, unlike the funded environmentalist establishment.  Here is how she responded to a question before the audience regarding petroleum: I asked, “Given problems such as global warming, unending road building that causes urban sprawl, and overpopulation related to over-dependence on petroleum for agriculture, would you advocate the formation of citizen petroleum councils?  These would utilize industry expertise to identify threats to sustainability, and be created on local to international levels to arrive at solutions.”  Her response was that such an idea was along the lines of what should be “mandatory education.”  She felt that schools, PTAs and churches should be utilized for such initiatives as citizen petroleum councils, although she warned, “Americans are busy.  They also like to take care of matters when they feel like it, although they do deal with a crisis once they get going.” 

The importance of dealing with petroleum might justify our temporarily disregarding some of John Kerry's disappointing political stands:  He is gung-ho for huge Homeland Security funding, and he voted for the Patriot Act and the attack on Iraq. Perhaps worst of all, his economic agenda may be Clinton-Bush all over again: he has been pro-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).  But we should encourage progressive tendencies such as his concern over climate change, and those of his wife's, and not cut ourselves off from alliances even when other disagreements may turn out to be unresolvable. 

Heinz Kerry is in favor of so-called green cars and greater fuel-economy standards for internal combustion engines.  She responded positively to an audience query about boosting rail transportation.  People got the impression that her husband, even if president, would not be foolish enough to dismiss her well-reasoned positions.  The audience also could tell she was speaking for the candidate, who of course was benefiting from her ability – as his alter ego? – to travel to a key campaign location and represent him.  There is more than a career or political commitment at work: there at the Knoxville presentation was her son Andre Heinz, whom she wanted me to meet.  He works at The Natural Step in Stockholm.  I asked him, “What is your interest in all this?”  The presidential-looking young man answered: “Sustainability.”  Bravo, and amen. 


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Pentagon plans for climate change: read a Fortune magazine article.

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:


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Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

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Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)



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Culture Change (Trademarked) is published by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) California non-stock corporation. Contributions are tax-deductible.