When you get into your first toxics fight, the hardest thing to
understand is the government. Corporations you can understand.
Corporations only exist to return a profit to their investors. They are
also supposed to obey the law, but no one expects a corporation to have
a conscience or to "do good" if it's not required by law and if it's
going to cost real money. (Corporations sometimes sponsor "meaningful"
events, like concerts on Sunday TV, to give the appearance of doing
good, but most people recognize this as part of a game plan for turning
Modern corporations, pursuing profit, are dangerous, at least the ones
playing with hazardous chemicals. To protect themselves, Americans look
to government. The power of government is supposed to shield us from
the stupidity or the malevolence of corporations. When you get into a
toxics fight, the hardest thing to understand is that the government
isn't protecting you and doesn't seem to be interested in protecting
you. This is a rude shock.
Governments develop their own agenda. In some sense, government is
simply an extensions of business. From local zoning boards up to the
President, government can be viewed this way. But there's something
else at work as well. To some extent, governments have their own
agenda, independent of business--maintain stability, keep things the
way they are, reduce the rate of change. The indelicate way to phrase
this is "CYA--cover your ass" meaning don't risk anything, don't go out
on a limb, don't take chances--don't do what's right, do what's safe.
Bureaucracies take on a life of their own, serving their own goals, not
the goals of the people they were set up to serve. The main goal of a
bureaucracy is to survive; doing anything is secondary.
Once you understand that the government isn't going to protect you--
isn't even trying to protect you but rather is trying to protect itself
against you--you are ready to deal in the real world. Now you have two
alternatives: (1) put on your hip boots, enter the swamp of electoral
politics and try to reform government from the inside, or (2) become a
citizen activist and work on government not through government.
If you have taken the second route, this book's for you: The Citizens
Toxics Protection Manual from John O'Connor and friends at the National
Campaign Against Toxic Hazards. This is the best 10 pounds of
information you'll find packed between two covers, which is why we call
it "the ten-pound manual." Based on years of experience, this manual
distills the essential information that citizens need to protect
themselves against predatory corporations and do-nothing government.
Whether this is your first fight or you are a seasoned citizen-warrior,
you'll find this ten-pound manual wonderfully useful.
The good stuff starts in Chapter 3: Organizing to Win--how to get your
group together and keep it together; how to plan and develop a
strategy. In the eloquent phrasing of Ray Salek [Citizens Organized for
Pollution Prevention (COPP) in Bridgewater, NJ]: how to "Kick derriere."
Chapter 4 tells how to conduct a corporate campaign, including how to
find out what you need to know about a corporation to affect its
behavior; but it's Chapter 5 that really delves into "researching and
obtaining information." Chapter 5 is not as detailed as you might like,
but it's plenty to get you started.
Chapter 6 is "Cleaning up toxic waste sites" by the country's leading
expert on Superfund cleanups, Dr. Hank Cole of Clean Water Action. This
chapter is the best thing we've seen on Superfund and how to make it
work for you.
Chapter 7 by Richard Youngstrom describes a new tactic that citizen
groups are beginning to use--the on-site inspection of facilities.
Rather than waiting for chemical problems to develop, some groups are
trying to prevent problems by insisting on their right to inspect local
factories. This is not a casual sight-seeing stroll through the plant
after hours; it's a careful look at a company's operations and it's
done with technical expertise and plenty of preparation.
Chapter 8 is a long (166 single-spaced, typed pages) discussion of
environmental laws and the handles they offer to citizens, written by a
really smart lawyer, Sanford Lewis. Read it carefully.
Chapter 9, "Using the Media," shows you how to turn this major
institution against your adversaries. These days, environmental fights
really boil down to your ability to turn one social institution against
another, to whack your adversaries with the biggest institutional 2x4
you can find. The media is one of the best 2x4s around, and one that is
accessible to you if you approach it right.
Chapter 10 presents "a new strategy for providing comprehensive
environmental protection in the community"--toxics use reduction. This
is a fundamental approach to environmental protection, one guaranteed
to work if the nation's environmental movement can pull it off. It was
the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards (a coalition of grass roots-
oriented groups) that first focused on toxics use reduction, while
others were advocating "waste reduction." It is now clear to anyone who
thinks about it that reducing the use of toxics materials is the only
way to control environmental destruction and minimize human exposure to
toxics. Waste reduction does nothing to keep toxics out of municipal
dumps and incinerators, it does nothing to prevent toxic exposures of
workers and their families, it does nothing to prevent Bhopal-type
accidents, it does nothing to prevent indoor air pollution, which is
where most Americans get exposed to toxics. In short, "waste reduction"
is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. Toxics use
reduction is what we must have.
Chapter 11 discusses community health surveys, how to do them and how
to use them. [Warning: Before you undertake a health survey, phone the
Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (Arlington, VA) at 703/276-
7070 and ask them why they think community health studies may be a
Chapter 12 is "Health Effects of Toxic Wastes in the Environment," plus
four worthwhile appendices.
All citizens aiming to kick derriere should own a copy of the ten-pound
manual. It's a steal at $25 from: National Campaign, 20 East Street,
Suite 601, Boston, MA 02111; phone (617) 482-1477.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: information services; federal; citizen groups; john
o'connor; national campaign against toxic hazards; ray salek; hank
cole; clean water action; sara; richard youngstrom; sanford lewis;
legislation; laws; enforcement; regulations; strategies; source
reduction; waste reduction; cchw; opinion surveys; health; occupational
safety and health;