“How many of you have heard of Interface Corporation?” the speaker asked.
Four hands went up.
“And how many of you have heard of Halliburton?” he asked.
Every hand went up.
Ralph Nader had made his point—in journalism, bad news drives out good. His audience knew all about the rogue corporation operating in Iraq but little of the Georgia carpet manufacturer that is a profitable success while still cleaning up after itself with a massive recycling program for its raw materials.
The hair that was jet black when General Motors was siccing private detectives on him is now salt and pepper, but the lanky, stooped-shoulder posture and dull black suit that bespeak his spartan lifestyle are the same. At 73, Nader still draws crowds, as he drew 234 people to an appearance that marked the opening of the new student union at the University of Nevada, Reno.
He praised the building in typical Nader fashion, not for its architecture or amenities but for its planned photovoltaic features and its pocketbook impact, praising the inclusion of a credit union instead of a bank. He delighted the audience by pronouncing Nevada correctly and by calling the campus by its original name—”You notice I say the University of Nevada. Enough of Las Vegas, huh? My only pandering tonight.”
Outside, young Republican protestors objected to his presence. Inside, a Democratic audience member denounced Nader for running against Al Gore and taking away “his” votes.
If offending the two party system is a credential, Nader has something for everyone—harsh criticism of government to offend Democrats and harsh criticism of corporations to offend Republicans.
He isn’t new either to UNR, where he has spoken before, or to Nevada, whose issues he has regularly dealt with. For years, Nader has had the nasty habit of being right too soon to suit Nevada politicians.
At a 1973 governor’s conference, he denounced the Atomic Energy Commission, the agency that told the public that atomic testing in Nevada was not harmful. Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, a Democrat, bristled. He told Nader, “I’ve probably worked with the AEC more than any other governor… I’ve gone to them with some tough questions and they’ve always come up with the answers.” Nader responded that he couldn’t believe O’Callaghan’s attitude “when the federal government is using his state as a guinea pig. Why doesn’t the state of Nevada demand more public participation in the AEC’s decision-making process?” Disclosures of the AEC’s misconduct in Nevada were yet to come. (The AEC is now folded into the U.S. Department of Energy, which is trying to make Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into a nuclear waste dump.)
In 2000, he incurred the wrath of Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid for running for president against Reid’s pal Al Gore. But Nader has long since seen his work as moving beyond the political arena and seen politicians as part of the problem. After succeeding in getting numerous major pieces of legislation through Congress early in his career, Nader found that administrations of both parties were reluctant to enforce them and he turned his attention to more direct action through citizen groups and in local communities.
His remarks at UNR probably won’t endear him to Nevada politicians, either, because they included condemnation of the Mining Law of 1872: “They [mining corporations] get free, virtually free … your gold, your molybdenum, your silver.”
His view of the foot dragging of the political process and the unwillingness of politics to enact sweeping changes to deal with great threats was one of his topics at the student union. One such sweeping change, he said, would have eliminated the need for the Yucca Mountain waste dump: Stop generating the waste.
“How do you deal with leaded gasoline? You get rid of it,” he said. “You don’t bring it down ten percent every year.”
But usually it doesn’t happen that way, Nader said. The politicians and regulators waver, unwilling to order such sweeping changes because they have “big fund raisers with the polluters in Washington and elsewhere” and the needed strict compliance standards are never issued. Thus, allowable levels of toxic pollution are permitted.
Using existing technology to enhance the energy derived from existing sources would solve much of the U.S. energy problem, he said, but timid politicians won’t require it.
“Material science is so developed in our country and other countries that there are really vast, vast efficiencies possible where you can get 10 times more work out of a certain amount of natural resources, whether it’s timber or whether it’s oil or whether it’s gas…”
Nader quoted two scientists: “Reducing waste represents a vast business economy. The U.S. economy is not even 10 percent as energy efficient as the laws of physics allow. Just the energy thrown off as waste heat by U.S. power stations equals the total energy use in Japan.”
Most of the crowd was receptive to Nader, but during the question period one audience member denounced him for allegedly denying the presidency to Gore. “Haven’t you any shame?” the man asked Nader. The normally imperturbable Nader flared, telling the man to stand to hear his answer.
“We are not second class citizens, sir, because we are third party or independent candidates. We have an equal right to run. … Those are our First Amendment rights, the right to run as a candidate, the right to vote. … If you’re a Democrat, tell your fellow Democrats that they’ve become very good in recent decades at electing very bad Republicans because they whine, and they carp, and they sell out to the corporations.”
The crowd cheered wildly at hearing the mild-mannered activist express outrage.
Nader said Harry Truman in 1948 also had a third-party opponent, Henry Wallace. “You know what Harry Truman did? He didn’t whine, he didn’t carp. He took the issues, domestic issues, away from Henry Wallace.”
Nader devoted the bulk of his remarks to trying to motivate the members of his audience, particularly the students. Never again in their lives, he said, will they have the freedom of action they have as students, much less the assets they have—student newspapers, meeting halls, laboratories.
Of his mixed audience of young and not so young, he asked, “How does the campus awaken on this? … They’ve got 15,000 or so days before they turn 65, a little over 2,000 weeks. Did last week go quickly? You haven’t seen anything yet. Ask your parents and grandparents. There’s no time, you know, to spend 10 years to ‘find yourself’ in your 20s. You’re adults. You’ve got high levels of idealism. You’re not afraid of taking on new technology. You know how to use the internet. And you’ve got the students who came before you to stand on their shoulders, the students who did the civil rights struggles and the environmental… You’ve got to be less self-indulgent, less making excuses for yourself.” Other groups with fewer numbers—abolitionists, suffrage workers, labor organizers—accomplished more with fewer numbers and at risk of life, he said.
He also said they have better prospects of success than they realize.
“Remember when they said the tobacco industry was invincible? … There are dozens of examples like that. … Why? Because a lot of people—like the Mississippi River, which starts with a few drops of water in northern Minnesota and becomes the rivulet and then the rivulets become brooks and the brooks become streams and the streams become rivers and the rivers become tributaries and then you’ve got the Mississippi River—because enough people objected to smokers blowing smoke in their face.”