Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, public hero and presidential spoiler, spoke to a sell-out crowd at Toronto's Ryerson Theatre last Friday. While much of the audience looked like leftovers from a Grateful Dead concert, very little about Nader's presentation was retrospective. Looking somewhat thinner, older and greyer, in his characteristic navy suit, Nader has clearly lost none of his fire.
His message: urgent attention is needed to change our current headlong course toward catastrophic climate change.
"You are not going to be the generation to hand the world over in a giant meltdown," Nader said, and then asked, "How do we reduce the silent, cumulative violence known as air pollution? It is violent because it destroys life, natural systems and health. And without nature, we don't exist." Nader pointed out that the average peak hurricane speed has increased by 50 percent since 1949.
Nader blames 100 years of dependency on the "infernal, eternal, internal combustion engine," which he says is both grossly inefficient and grossly profitable." As Nader explained, "an inefficient combustion engine sells more gas than an efficient one." Inefficient design also means that cars need to be replaced more often.
According to Nader, the large government subsidies that have been given to both the oil and auto industries in Canada undermine our democracy.
"Corporations have incredible power, but they don't have a single vote," said Nader. Corporations, particularly those whose products are gross contributors to climate change, have little regard for the future of the planet. He repeatedly referred to these corporations as "omnicidal", and said that they simply do not know when to stop.
Nader believes passionately that it is the commitment of ordinary citizens that can change the tide. He referred to the inspirational words of first century statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero who said, "Freedom is participation in power."
"There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship," Nader added. "You are the courage and the backbone of well-intentioned politicians." The crux of Nader's argument is whether or not we are willing to be that backbone. Forty years of activism have left him wary of what he calls "the unconscious civilization", a term borrowed from the title of a book by John Ralston Saul. (A book he also encouraged everyone to read.)
"How close is the problem to the sensory capacity of humans?" Nader asked, and cautioned that as a society we are just too busy to get involved.
"Those who choose to live their lives in virtual reality will be condemned by the reality that they ignore," he cautioned. "Once the highway is cleared for the people to take over, will they bother?"
The upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal presents a perfect opportunity for citizens to become a very conscious civilization. From November 28 to December 9, Canada will host the first meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal in conjunction with the eleventh session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention. The Montreal meeting is set to be the largest intergovernmental conference on climate change since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, and will set the agenda for the next important steps we must take to avoid catastrophic climate change. With some 8,000 to 10,000 delegates in attendance, Nader encouraged everyone present at his lecture to participate.
"Imagine what would happen if 200,000 people showed up," he asked. Now that might change the world.
For more information on the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change, visit UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Nader's Public Citizen, formed in 1971, is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that continues to represent consumer interests in the U.S.
Perhaps Nader's greatest contribution to social activism was the formation in 1970 of the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a network of student-funded organizations at universities throughout Canada and the U.S. Since its inception, PIRG has created a breeding ground for social activism. Many of today's environmental leaders are PIRG alumni. Visit Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) for Canadian chapters.
Ralph Nader came to prominence in 1965 with the publication of his book, "Unsafe at any speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile", which chronicled the resistance of manufacturers to improve on car safety. Nader's expos led to, among other things, the death of the Corvair and the inclusion of seat belts as a basic safety feature in all automobiles. Still a prolific writer, Nader's observations can be found at Nader.org
Nader's candidacy in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential election may have inadvertently helped to put George W. Bush in the White House, but it also put the environment back on the public agenda. For more on Nader's political journey, visit Vote Nader.org