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← What it takes to create social change against all odds

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Showing Revision 9 created 10/23/2020 by marialadias.

  1. Over the decades,
  2. my colleagues and I have exposed
    terrible misdeeds and crimes
  3. by large corporations,
  4. which have taken many lives
  5. and caused injuries and diseases,
  6. on top of damaging economic costs,
  7. affecting many incidents.
  8. But exposure was not enough.
  9. We had to secure congressional mandates
  10. to prevent such devastation.
  11. As a result, many lives were saved
    and many traumas prevented,
  12. especially in the areas of automobile,
    pharmaceutical, environmental
  13. and workplace health and safety.
  14. Along the way, we kept getting
    one question again and again:

  15. "Ralph, how do you do all this?
  16. Your groups are small,
  17. your funds are modest
  18. and you don't make campaign
    contributions to politicians."
  19. My response points to an overlooked,

  20. amazing pattern of American history.
  21. Just about every advance in justice,
  22. every blessing of democracy,
  23. came from the efforts of small numbers
    of individual citizens.
  24. They knew what they were talking about.
  25. They expanded public opinion,
  26. or what Abraham Lincoln called
    "the all-important public sentiment."
  27. The few citizens who started
    these movements
  28. enlisted larger numbers along the way
  29. to achieving these reforms
    and redirections.
  30. However, even at their peak,
  31. the actively engaged people never
    exceeded one percent of the citizenry,
  32. often far less.
  33. These builders of democracy and justice

  34. came out of the antislavery drives,
  35. the pressures for women's right to vote.
  36. They rose from farmers and workers
    in industrial sectors
  37. demanding regulation of banks,
    railroads and manufacturers
  38. and fair labor standards.
  39. In the 20th century,
  40. improvements of life came
    with tiny third parties and their allies
  41. pushing the major parties
    in the electoral arena
  42. to adopt such measures,
  43. such as the right to form labor unions,
  44. the 40-hour week,
  45. progressive taxation, the minimum wage,
  46. unemployment compensation
  47. and social security.
  48. More recently came Medicare
  49. and civil rights, civil liberties,
  50. nuclear arms treaties,
  51. consumer and environmental triumphs --
  52. all sparked by citizen advocates
  53. and small third parties
  54. who never won a national election.
  55. If you're willing to lose persistently,
  56. your causes can become winners in time.
  57. (Laughter)

  58. The story of how I came
    to these civic activities

  59. may be instructive
  60. for people who go along
    with Senator Daniel Webster's belief,
  61. "Justice, sir, is the great interest
    of man on earth."
  62. I grew up in a small,
    highly industrialized town in Connecticut

  63. with three siblings and parents
  64. who owned a popular restaurant,
    bakery and delicatessen.
  65. Two waterways,
  66. the Mad River and the Still River,
  67. crossed alongside our main street.
  68. As a child, I asked
    why couldn't we wade and fish in them,
  69. like the rivers we read about
    in our schoolbooks.
  70. The answer: the factories
    freely use these rivers
  71. to dump harmful toxic chemicals
    and other pollutants.
  72. In fact, the companies took control
    of rivers that belonged to all of us
  73. for their own profitable pursuits.
  74. Later, I realized the rivers
    were not part of our normal lives at all,
  75. except when they flooded our streets.
  76. There were no water pollution
    regulations to speak of then.
  77. I realized only strong laws
    could clean up our waterways.
  78. My youthful observation
    of our town's two river-sewers

  79. started a straight line
    to my eighth-grade graduation speech
  80. about the great conservationist,
    national park advocate John Muir,
  81. then to my studies at Princeton
    on the origins of public sanitation,
  82. and then to Rachel Carson's
    "Silent Spring."
  83. These engagements prepared me
  84. for seizing the golden hour
    of environmental lawmaking
  85. in the early 1970s.
  86. I played a leading citizen role
  87. in lobbying through Congress
    the Clean Air Act;
  88. the clean water laws, EPA;
  89. workplace safety standards, OSHA;
  90. and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  91. If there's less lead in your body,
  92. no more asbestos in your lungs
  93. and cleaner air and water,
  94. it's because of those laws over the years.
  95. Today, enforcement of these
    lifesaving laws under Trump

  96. is being dismantled wholesale.
  97. Rolling back these perils
    is the immediate challenge
  98. to a resurgent environmental movement
  99. for the young generation.
  100. As for consumer advocates,
    there are no permanent victories.
  101. Passing a law is only the first step.
  102. The next step, and the next step,
    is defending the law.
  103. For me, some of these battles
    were highly personal.

  104. I lost friends in high school and college
    to highway collisions,
  105. the first leading cause of death
    in that age group.
  106. Then, the blame was put on the driver,
  107. derisively called
    "the nut behind the wheel."
  108. True, drunk drivers had responsibility,
  109. but safer-designed vehicles and highways
    could prevent crashes
  110. and diminish their severity
    when they occurred.
  111. There were no seat belts,
    padded dash panels,
  112. no airbags or other
    crash-worthy protections
  113. to diminish the severity of collisions.
  114. The brakes, tires and handling stability
    of US vehicles left much to be desired,
  115. even in comparison
    with foreign manufacturers.
  116. I liked to hitchhike,
  117. including back and forth
    from Princeton and Harvard Law School.
  118. Sometimes, a driver and I came upon
    ghastly crash scenes.
  119. The horrors made a deep impression on me.
  120. They sparked my writing
    a paper at law school
  121. on unsafe automotive design and the need
    for motor vehicle safety laws.
  122. One of my closest friends
    at law school, Fred Condon,

  123. was driving home one day from work
    to his young family in New Hampshire
  124. and momentarily drowsed
    behind the wheel of his station wagon.
  125. The vehicle went to the shoulder
    of the road and tipped over.
  126. There were no seat belts in 1961.
  127. Fred became a paraplegic.
  128. Such preventable violence
    created fire in my belly.

  129. The auto industry was
    cruelly refusing to install
  130. long-known lifesaving safety features
    and pollution controls.
  131. Instead, the industry focused on
    advertising the annual style changes
  132. and excessive horsepower.
  133. I was outraged.
  134. The more I investigated the suppression
    of auto safety devices,
  135. publicized evidence from court cases
    about the auto companies
  136. negligently harming vehicle occupants --
  137. especially the instability
    of a GM vehicle called the Corvair --
  138. the more General Motors was keen on
    discrediting my writings and testimony.
  139. They hired private detectives
    to follow me in order to get dirt.
  140. After the publication of my book,
    "Unsafe at Any Speed,"

  141. GM wanted to undermine
    my forthcoming testimony
  142. before a Senate subcommittee in 1966.
  143. The Capitol Police caught them.
  144. The media was all over
    the struggle in Congress
  145. between me and giant General Motors.
  146. With remarkable speed compared to today,
  147. in 1966, Congress and President Johnson
    brought the largest industry in America
  148. under federal regulation
  149. for safety, pollution control
    and fuel efficiency.
  150. By the year 2015,
  151. three and a half million deaths
    were averted just in the US,
  152. millions more injuries prevented,
  153. billions of dollars saved.
  154. What did it take for a victory
    against such overwhelming odds?

  155. Well, there were:
  156. one, a few advocates who knew how
    to communicate the evidence everywhere;
  157. two, several key receptive
    congressional committee chairs
  158. led by three senators;
  159. three, about seven reporters
    from major newspapers
  160. who regularly reported on
    the unfolding story;
  161. four, President Lyndon Johnson,
    with assistance,
  162. amenable to creating
    a regulatory safety agency, NHTSA;
  163. and five, a dozen auto engineers,
    inspectors and physicians
  164. who divulged crucial information,
  165. and who need to be better known.
  166. One more factor was critical:
    informed public opinion.

  167. A majority of people learned about
    how much safer their cars could be.
  168. They wanted their vehicles
    to be fuel-efficient.
  169. They wanted to breathe cleaner air.
  170. The result: in September 1966,
  171. President Lyndon Johnson signed
    the safety legislation in the White House
  172. with me by his side, receiving a pen!
  173. (Laughter)

  174. Between 1966 and 1976,

  175. those six critically connected factors
    were used over and over.
  176. It became the golden age
    of legislation and regulatory action
  177. for consumer, worker
    and environmental protection.
  178. Those connected elements
    of our past campaigns
  179. need to be kept in mind
    by people striving to do the same today
  180. for drinking water safety,
  181. antibiotic resistance deaths,
  182. criminal justice reform,
  183. risks from climate disruption,
  184. bio- and nanotech impacts,
  185. the nuclear arms race,
  186. peace treaties,
  187. dangers to children,
  188. chemical and radioactive perils,
  189. and the like.
  190. According to a solid study in 2016
    by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine,
  191. preventable hospital deaths
  192. take a mind-boggling 5,000 lives
    a week in America.
  193. The 1980s climax:

  194. our dramatic struggle
    to limit smoking in public places,
  195. regulate the tobacco industry
  196. and establish conditions
    for reducing smoking.
  197. Their struggle began in earnest in 1964,
  198. with the US Surgeon
    General's famous report
  199. linking cigarette smoking
    to cancer and other diseases.
  200. Over 400,000 deaths a year
    in the United States
  201. are related to smoking.
  202. Public hearings, litigation, media exposés
    and industry whistleblowers
  203. joined with crucial medical scientists
    to take on a very powerful industry.
  204. I asked Michael Pertschuk,
    a leading Senate staffer,
  205. how many full-time advocates were working
    on tobacco industry control at that time.
  206. Mr. Pertschuk estimated no more
    than 1,000 full-time champions in the US
  207. pressing for a smoke-free society.
  208. I say that's a remarkably small number
    of people making it happen.
  209. They had a public opinion majority
    of aroused people, nonsmokers,
  210. behind them.
  211. Many smokers were quitting
    the nicotine addiction.
  212. Just think: from 45 percent of adults
  213. down to 15 percent by 2018.
  214. The tipping point was when
    Congress passed legislation
  215. empowering the Food
    and Drug Administration
  216. to regulate the tobacco companies.
  217. Keep in mind that advances
    for consumers and workers

  218. are usually followed by
    a variety of corporate counterattacks.
  219. When the fervor behind such reform fades,
  220. then legislatures and regulatory agencies
    become very vulnerable to industry capture
  221. that stalls existing
    or further enforcement.
  222. What's that saying?
  223. "Justice requires constant vigilance."
  224. We see the difference between
  225. the driven stamina of counterattacking,
    profit-driven corporate power
  226. and the fatigue that overcomes
    a voluntary citizenry
  227. whose awareness and skill need renewal.
  228. It is not a fair contest
  229. between large companies
    like General Motors, Pfizer,
  230. ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Monsanto,
  231. plus other very wealthy
    companies and lobbyists,
  232. compared to people protection groups
    with very limited resources.
  233. Moreover, the corporations
    have immunities and privileges

  234. unavailable to real human beings.
  235. For example, Takata was guilty
    of a horrific airbag scandal,
  236. but the company escaped
    criminal prosecution.
  237. Instead, Takata was allowed to go bankrupt
    and its executives kept nice nest eggs.
  238. But organized people need not
    be awed by corporate power.

  239. Lawmakers still want votes
  240. more than they need
    campaign finance from corporations.
  241. We far outnumber corporations
    in potential influence.
  242. But voters must be connected clearly
  243. to what organized voters want
    from the lawmakers.
  244. Delegating the constitutional
    authority of "we the people,"
  245. we want them to do the people's work.
  246. A people's Congress,
  247. the most constitutionally powerful
    branch of government,
  248. can override, block or rechannel
    the most destructive corporations.
  249. There are only 100 senators
    and 435 representatives
  250. with just two million
    organized activists back home,
  251. a Congress watchdog hobby.
  252. Congressional justice
    can be made reliable and prompt.

  253. We've proved that again and again
    with far fewer people.
  254. But today, Congress,
    marinated in campaign money,
  255. has been abdicating its responsibilities
    to an executive branch
  256. which too often has become a corporate
    state controlled by big companies.
  257. President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
    in 1938, in a message to Congress,
  258. called concentrated corporate power
    over our government
  259. quote -- fascism -- end quote.
  260. A modest engagement
    of one percent of adults
  261. in each of the 435
    congressional districts,
  262. summoning senators and representatives
    or state legislators
  263. to their own town meetings,
  264. where the citizenry presents their agenda,
  265. backed by a majority of voters,
  266. can turn Congress around.
  267. Our representatives can become
    a fountainhead of democracy and justice,
  268. elevating human possibilities.
  269. I dream of our schools,

  270. or after-school clinics,
  271. teaching community civic action skills,
    leading to the good life.
  272. Adult education classes
    should do the same.
  273. We need to create citizen training
    and action libraries.
  274. Students and adults love knowledge
    that relates to their daily lives.
  275. Large majorities of Americans,
    regardless of political labels,
  276. favor a living wage,
  277. universal health insurance,
  278. real enforcement against
    corporate crime, fraud and abuse.
  279. They want a fair, productive tax system,
  280. public budgets returning value
    to the people back home
  281. in modern infrastructure,
  282. and an end to most corporate subsidies.
  283. Increasingly, they're demanding
    serious attention to climate disruption
  284. and other environmental
    and global health perils and pandemics.
  285. Big majorities of people
    want efficient government,
  286. an end to endless,
    aggressive wars that boomerang.
  287. They want clean elections
    and fair rules for voters and candidates.
  288. These are changes
    that bring people together,
  289. changes Congress can make happen.
  290. People around the world favor democracy,

  291. because it brings the best
    out of its inhabitants and its leaders.
  292. But this objective requires citizens
    to want to spend time
  293. on this great opportunity
    called democracy,
  294. between and at elections.
  295. History gives examples
    that encourage us to believe
  296. that breaking through power
    is easier than we think.
  297. People say to me,
    "I don't know what to do!"

  298. Start to learn by doing.
  299. The more they practice citizen action,
  300. the more skilled and innovative
    they become at it.
  301. Like learning a trade, a profession,
    a hobby, learning how to swim,
  302. their doubts, prejudgments and hesitancy
  303. begin to melt away
    in the crucible of action.
  304. Their arguments for change
    become deeper and sharper.
  305. From 1965 to 1966,

  306. when I was making the case
    for safer automobiles,
  307. I realized that there were a lot
    of industries making a lot of money
  308. from dealing with
    the horrific results of crashes:
  309. medical care, insurance sales,
    repairing cars ...
  310. There was a perverse incentive
    to do nothing but maintain the status quo.
  311. By contrast, preventing these tragedies
  312. frees consumer dollars to spend or save
    in voluntary [ways]
  313. for better livelihoods.
  314. What it takes is a small number of people
    to exert their civic muscle,

  315. both as individuals and organized groups,
  316. on our legal decision makers.
  317. Ideally, it only takes a few enlightened
    rich people contributing funds
  318. to accelerate citizen efforts
    against the commanders of greed and power.
  319. Why, in our past, rich people
    donated essential money
  320. for the antislavery, women's right
    to vote and civil rights movements.
  321. We should remember that.
  322. With the onset of climate catastrophe,

  323. every one of us needs to have
    a higher estimate of our own significance,
  324. of our own sustained
    dedication to the civic life,
  325. as part of a normal way of daily living,
  326. along with our personal family life.
  327. Showing up thoughtfully
    is half of democracy.
  328. That's what advances life, liberty
    and the pursuit of happiness.
  329. Remember, our country
    is full of problems we don't deserve

  330. and solutions which we do not apply.
  331. That gap is a democracy gap
    that no power can stop us from closing.
  332. We owe this to our posterity.
  333. Don't we want our descendants,
  334. instead of cursing us
    for our shortsighted neglect,
  335. don't we want them to bless our foresight
  336. and bright horizons which can
    fulfill their lives peacefully
  337. and advance the common good?
  338. Thank you.

  339. (Applause)