There’s No Place for Pessimism

Conversation: Ralph Nader


photo of a man Ralph Nader has been speaking truth to power for well over half-a-century, and he’s got a lot to show for it. He played a major role in developing the landmark environmental laws that helped clean up American air and waterways, and was instrumental in the passage of consumer safety regulations, including making seatbelts mandatory, that have saved millions of lives. Nader has run for president of the United States four times, always as a political outsider. (Full disclosure, he was the first presidential candidate I ever cast a vote for!) He helped establish a robust public advocacy system – the Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, system – across much of the country. And he’s written or co-written dozens of books on everything from corporate power to animal rights. In other words, his bragging rights are pretty solid.

For Nader, many of the seemingly distinct causes he’s taken on over the years have actually been intimately connected. For example, he points out, coal mining isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a money in politics issue, it’s a public health issue, and it’s a workplace safety issue. Or take air and water pollution – these aren’t just about contaminating the earth, they are also consumer advocacy issues. As Nader puts it: “Compulsory consumption is what pollution is all about.”

The ever-energetic octogenarian says he’s been motivated by a “thirst for justice” ever since he was a young boy living in Connecticut. It’s this thirst that has kept him going for the past eight decades, and that promises to keep him going through challenging years to come.

Can you start by telling me a bit about when you first knew you were going to be an advocate, if there was such a moment?

Well I always wanted to be a lawyer. From when I was four years old, my father would take me down the main street to the local county courthouse in Winsted, Connecticut. I’d watch the lawyers and the judges and the juries go at it, and I got very excited. I always attributed the word “justice” to lawyers, which is not exactly a widespread impression.

I grew up in a small industrial town – it had about 10,000 people – in northwestern Connecticut, and it was crossed by two rivers, the Mad River and the Still River, and it had all kinds of factories. I mean, in 1900 it had 100 factories and sweatshops. So it was quite polluted. The rivers were unusable; they were all different kinds of colors from the chemicals and other things dumped in them. The town at that time didn’t have a sewage treatment system; they just dumped it in the river. And we went to middle school right next to a keratin factory that was very foul smelling – dealing with animal hides. So, when I got to college I started looking into the whole environmental subject. I was predisposed to be very concerned.

One of your first big environmental causes was around DDT spraying on your college campus. Can you tell me about that?

To show you the lack of knowledge in an institution of higher education, every spring the groundskeepers at Princeton would have these huge hoses and they would spray the tall trees and the not so tall trees with DDT. We would be walking between classes, hundreds of students, and the spray would come at us. Sometimes we would have to wipe it off our forehead. The impression was that it was bad for insects but humans were immune to it.

So, I began to wonder why there were dead birds on the sidewalks on the campus between the various campus buildings. And I took a couple of them once – I remember one was a blue bird and one was a robin, beautiful birds – and I took them down to The Daily Princetonian, the daily college paper, and was ushered in to see some upper classman who had his feet on the desk, smoking. And I said, You know, it seems there’s a connection here. What’s going on? And he said, memorably, Don’t you know that at Princeton we have some of the smartest chemistry and biology professors in the world, and if there’s any connection you don’t think they would have said something or done something? So, I just walked out figuring, You know, maybe he’s right.

That was a good lesson to me: It’s not enough to know, you have to care. If you don’t care, you’re not going to know much more, because you’re not going to ask the right questions.

You’ve mentioned that David Brower, who founded Earth Island Institute, is one of your environmental heroes. What about his approach has inspired you?

I spent a summer working in Yosemite Valley in 1955. And I hitchhiked out with someone else to the West Coast and we arrived in Yosemite when it was dark. So I couldn’t see El Capitan or anything. We found a house with a porch, and we slept on the porch. And the next morning a man came out and woke us up, nicely. I think he knew we were there overnight, and it turned out to be Ansel Adams. Then I looked up, and there was the most glorious natural splendor I’d ever seen in the world! The waterfall over the cliffs, and Half Dome, and El Capitan, and the valley, and the meadows.

With all that, it didn’t take much for me to have David Brower come to my attention. He was a man of great integrity, and was way ahead of his [fellow] environmental advocates in terms of putting his foot down and saying, Well, once you compromise on the destruction and contamination of nature, it becomes a surrender. It isn’t like you are dealing with some business deal and you cut the deal at a certain price between what the two parties each wanted.

That level of integrity and knowledge and actual living in the wilderness and hiking and climbing and loving it – he was like a modern-day John Muir. I was always very impressed by him and his knowledge and stamina and strong positions, which got him pushed out of a lot of environmental groups.

You’re probably best known for your work around consumer advocacy. How do you see that work as connected to your environmental advocacy?

Well, in many areas, there wasn’t any difference because compulsory consumption is what pollution is about. You can’t not breathe when you’re in a polluted environment day after day. And the same with eating foods with pesticide and herbicide residues, and [drinking] contaminated water. You’re doing all this as a consumer, but obviously the environmental dimension is compelling.

I was very concerned when I was pushing for auto safety legislation in the mid- to late 1960s starting with my book Unsafe at Any Speed. I had a major chapter on the power to pollute, about California’s struggle to challenge the auto companies way ahead of the federal government because they were suffering in Los Angeles from all the smog. And then in the late ‘60s we went to defend the coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky because they were being exposed to black lung disease and dying in far greater numbers than the miners who died from accidents. And that was, of course, a form of horrendous pollution – over 400,000 coal miners have died from black lung disease from 1890 to the present time. That’s about how many US soldiers, sailors, and airmen died in World War II.

At the same time, Earth Day emerged, which I helped work on with Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. And there were 1,500 events that April – I think it was April 21, 1970 – at colleges and universities around the country. I know because I did about four of them up the East Coast. And that was when we were in the middle of fighting for the new air and water pollution laws, which today are still the generic legislation for what followed.

It was all really one seamless web when you saw that. It was a heady time for the birth of the latest installment of the environmental movement that continues to this day.

What do you think about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt? What would you say to him if you saw him?

Last year I called for his impeachment and sent a memo to all members of Congress. He is the most impeachable of all of Trump’s nominees. There wasn’t much reaction, even from the Democrats. Every week there was another outrage. He is rolling back life-saving standards, weakening them, taking lawyers off cases that were already in the courtroom, ready to settle … He is a public criminal, literally, a public criminal, driving out some of the best environmental staff in the EPA, forcing them to take positions against their conscience. Having his office barricaded, ordering a bullet proof automobile, and all kind of surveillance. I mean he’s like an environmental Doctor Strangelove.

Do you think we could get someone better than Pruitt under the Trump administration?

We’re not going to get anybody worse. Conservatives breathe and drink water and want their kids to grow up in safe environments. So, I think Trump is misreading the public on this one. It’s much harder to hoodwink people on pollution issues because they live it, they’re exposed to it. We might get a moderate, someone with a pleasing personality.

You motioned the connection between our consumption of air and water and environmental issues. But what do you think about our overall obsession with consumption as a society? How can we get past that?

One way, of course, is that you consume less – less packaging, less bottling, less plastics. You just reduce your own solid waste consumption, and you push for laws that require five cents per bottle, and prevent certain materials in packaging.

What we [really] need to do is convert our economy into a carbohydrate-based economy, and not a hydrocarbon-based one. That’s the big one. And it’s going on here and there all over the world, obviously. The world is undergoing a conversion. I just saw a report saying in 2017, solar, in all its manifestations, was the largest single source of new electric generating capacity.


Yeah, number one. It was more than coal individually, more than oil and gas individually.

That’s hopeful.

Yeah. So, it’s already underway. We’ve got to convert all of this, all the way down to household cleaners and aerosols and all of that. I think what’s beginning to be seen – it’s taken a long time – is it’s a much more efficient economy when it doesn’t pollute. Pollution is a sign of inefficient combustion, for example, inefficient packaging, inefficient use of materials. We have the potential to get rid of way over 90 percent of our contaminants, and have a better standard of living, and have a more efficient economy. The problem is we are the consumers without much power, and [corporations] are the polluters who are organized to the teeth, historically. It’s a gradual process of dislodging the polluting cartels, so to speak, and replacing them with the renewable economy.

What has it been like for you personally during the Trump administration, to see the rollback of so many hard-won environmental regulations?

It was like a tidal wave. We are used to either holding the line or advancing it, and suddenly we were thrown on the defensive trying to keep what we achieved in the last 40-50 years from being destroyed, dismantled, or suspended. But now I think the tide is going to start to turn. It will start to turn in the November elections. Even the Trump supporters will realize this is nuts what’s going on. When you destroy the environmental advances of an economy, you are destroying a lot of jobs. Look at the jobs in solar installation and pollution control technology.

It was kind of like a shock – he came out of the box and became president and he’d never masked that he hated the environment. It was even grotesque: He’d say beautiful clean coal. It was a shock to all the environmental groups and consumer groups – they’re still not getting over it. But Pruitt’s on his way out. And the election is going to sober [Trump] up.

And aside from the election, how do you think we can be most effective as advocates with an anti-regulation president in office?

Just by organizing. It never takes more than 1 percent representing a majority opinion to organize Congress watchdog groups in each congressional district – and you’ll win almost every battle. Because there’s only 535 members of Congress, and you usually start off with 25 percent of them on your side to begin with. There’s almost nothing out there in the congressional districts that they have to worry about other than the demands of the auto dealers or the companies that don’t want environmental regulation.

When you ask yourself, How do we get all these good things we’re are talking about? chances are great that they have to go through Congress. Congress has to say either no or say yes. They can say no on behalf of the polluting class, or they can say yes on behalf of the breathing class. And we outnumber them.

It’s amazing how few advocates understand the enormous leverage [they can get] just from organizing in the congressional districts. They will march and demonstrate and connect around the world, but it all comes down to what’s under that dome in Washington DC. And while [lawmakers] love money and campaigns, they love votes more. They love money in order to scare off competitors and put adds on TV to mislead voters, but the voters can cut that right off to pass and nullify that money. And that’s what it takes. We’ve done it in the past. We’ve done it on one-tenth of one percent.

You’ve been fighting for improved vehicle fuel efficiency for decades. What do you think about the current showdown over the fuel efficiency standards enacted under the Obama administration?

That’s a critical fight right now. The standard in 2025 [will be] about 52 miles per gallon (under test conditions), but in reality, it is under 40 mpg because of the loopholes. And now, the EPA, they’re setting the stage to scuttle it.

That one they are going to have trouble with, because European cars are going to come in with better [fuel efficiency]. Japanese cars are coming in better. California is giving them fits every day now because they’re not going to give up their special standards for fuel efficiency, which they got carved out of a congressional law years ago. It’s going to be a battle royal, but I don’t think [the Trump administration is] going to get away with it. And I don’t think people want to get fewer miles per gallon.

What’s the number one thing you think we can do on a policy level to address climate change?

Accelerate renewable energy. So instead of going 20 miles per hour, go 80 miles per hour [on renewable energy work]. Because now the price is in the favor of renewables.

You’ve written dozens of books, mostly nonfiction, but your recent novel Animal Envy was a bit different. What inspired you to delve into the issue of animal rights and why did you choose a fictional approach?

I wanted a new approach to develop a higher awareness of the interdependence between the animal world and human beings. So, I developed a system where the animals – mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects – spoke to the humans, rather than citing scientific studies and surveys and so on. I used the fable approach.

The themes of the fable are, number one, the more we recognize the different kinds of intelligence of animals, the less destructive [we will be] of them. The more we think they’re just dumb beasts, the more we’re going to brutalize them.

The second is, if we’re destroying their habitat we’re destroying our habitat. It’s simple. If we destroy their water, poison their water, poison their air, we’re doing it to ourselves, too.

And then the third is the staggering amount of scientific information that we can get from them. They see things we don’t see, they smell things we don’t smell, they hear things we don’t hear. How do they do all of this? How are they superior to us in those ways?

And then, the last thing, sort of as a theme in the book, is that there’s a common sympathy and understanding in human beings that is tapped by animals. You have domesticated animals who are slaughtered food, then you have pets, then you have wild animals, and they all have different messages for us.

The other thing I didn’t make too much of, but that is very serious now, is zoonotic diseases. Three quarters of all human infectious diseases come from animals. So, we better understand them, especially since brazen scientific endeavors now want to clone parts of pigs, clone animals outright, and breed them in labs without knowing fully what they’re doing, what the consequences are. So, we’re allowing runaway science without understanding its integration with nature and what the consequences are. Because the corporate science is only emphasizing the short-time benefits and profits. They’re not going to tell us what the long-term risks are.

What accomplishment, environmental or otherwise, are you most proud of?

To [be able to] show people what an individual can do if they want to – because a lot of people give up on themselves, they say, Who am I? I don’t count, I don’t have any influence, I don’t have any money, I don’t matter, so I just live my private life. When I started out I had no money, I had no influence, I had no contacts. So, I try to humbly [suggest] that one person can make a difference. The big problem is: Can many people make the difference as [a] society? We know one person can make a difference. But to make the difference, really, [we need] to scale it up so that the whole society is behind transformations that are necessary for posterity and the planet.

Programmatically, obviously, [I’m proud of] three-and-a-half million lives saved in the US in auto safety since 1965-66. And all the water and air pollution [regulations] we worked on, and occupational safety [laws]. They go through ups and downs. They’re not enforced very much, and often not all by certain administrations in Washington, but they’re still on the books. So, if we have a progressive movement in this country, they are there, ready to spring into action off the shelves.

The other thing is student Public Interest Research Groups. We’ve had thousands of young people trained all over the country, California PIRG, Massachusetts PIRG, New York PIRG, Minnesota PIRG, Colorado, and so on. So that’s very good and that’s still going strong.

Given where we stand now with the state of the environment, civil rights, income inequality, the #MeToo movement, gun violence, and so many other things, would you say you feel discouraged or hopeful regarding the future?

Well, I abolished pessimism as a sophomore at Princeton because it has no purpose. It’s part of developing a civic personality – you don’t get discouraged, you don’t get disillusioned, you’re resilient, you share credit with others, you keep up to date on knowledge, and you work on a number of issues so if you lose some, you still win some, so it keeps you motivated. That’s part of the civic personality.

I don’t say I’m not hopeful. I do say that we’re not using 1 percent of our civic potential in this country. We’ve got to not only have more people at the local level engaged, but we have to be smarter, more strategic. We are still protesting the same way they did 150 years ago. We protest, we demand, and we do it on a weekend when the legislators and members of Congress are away, and the groundskeepers pick up the debris, and then it’s back to the routine. No! You’ve got to have fulltime watchdogs representing large numbers of supportive people who can help here and there and vote the right way. We need to be more innovative, more creative, and use technology for more than just announcing meetings and retrieving information. We’ve got to be able to talk about startups and innovation in the civic arena the way they do in Silicon Valley and the corporate arena.

You have been doing this for so long, and yet you seem to have endless energy and drive to keep fighting the good fight. What’s your secret to saying motivated and involved?

Ever since I was a young boy, there was a hunger for justice. I would go to movies, and I couldn’t stand the bullies. I couldn’t stand the bullies in school either, by the way. Now I have to deal with corporate bullies and their political minions. So, it’s really a thirst for justice. A just society is what human beings are all about. You don’t have any freedom or liberty without justice, or peace. I had a lucky choice of parents, too.

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