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Lana Pollack: Commencement Season (Part 2)

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This is the second part of the commencement address Lana Pollack delivered at the University of Michigan on April 26, 2008:

Before Silent Spring was published in 1962, Rachael Carson faced serious legal threats from Velsicol Chemical, the company that produced DDT in St. Louis Michigan, (which is still one of the worst Super Fund sites in the U.S.). Fortunately, Houghton Mifflin, her publisher, held fast to its determination to publish Silent Spring, offering Carson protection in the face of serious threats of a lawsuit. After publication, Carson suffered all sorts of attacks on her science and her character. But she was brave and never backed down. Unfortunately, Rachel Carson died of cancer before she could see the full, revolutionary impact of her bold and brave work.

Countless lesser-known people have also been brave enough to blow the whistle when they saw a cover-up of gross public health or environmental threats—people whose names are not in the history books like Rachel Carson or so much in the news as NASA’s Jim Hansen.

In the 1970s, Love Canal biologist Beverly Paigen supported a community of New York homeowners, led by Lois Gibbs, in providing scientific information essential to the federal government’s decision to move the entire community out of harm’s way. And in the early 1980s, at the EPA, veterinary pathologist Adrian Gross blew the whistle on his superiors, who were in cahoots with chemical companies denying the negative human health impacts of their pesticide products.

In recent years, the whistle-blower list has grown long with brave public servants who’ve taken steps to call out the politically appointed heads of their own agencies for being in bed with the industries they were charged with regulating. In every case, these people have paid an emotional price, and too often their insistence on pursuing right behaviors has come at financial costs as well.

My favorite stories are of the brave people I know here in Michigan. These people are working hard and withstanding pressure to protect a small watershed, a favorite cold-water trout stream, a neighborhood, or a local park. Occasionally a local newspaper will tell their stories, but often it’s hardly from the activist’s perspective. Blogs and emails tell of their efforts, but seldom is this carried to a big audience.

Some individuals take risks quietly. It was not unusual during the years of Michigan’s previous governor for the Michigan Environmental Council to receive calls from state
employees letting us know about specific cases where their agencies were issuing permits to pollute that violated the law and would damage Michigan’s waters. With this information we could file a Freedom of Information Act request specific to that instance and, in some cases, we could get the decisions modified or reversed. I leave it to you to judge the bravery of individuals who made the confidential calls, but there’s no doubt that their actions helped protect Michigan’s environment during a period of serious environmental threat.

To recognize people who might otherwise not be so honored for their courage, the Michigan Environmental Council established Michigan’s highest environmental award, the William and Helen Milliken Distinguished Service Award. This year the honor is going to SNRE professor Bunyan Bryant, in recognition of his pioneering research and writing on environmental justice; his extraordinary success in teaching, guiding and inspiring students; his vision, persistence, and personal generosity in bringing the University of Michigan’s Environmental Justice Initiative to life; his international reputation as a leader in social and environmental justice; and of course his positive impacts on Michigan’s environment.

In the context of what I’m saying today, Bunyan Bryant has demonstrated a lot of bravery over the years by persistently advancing a subject that many of his peers in the academic world originally—and erroneously—dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow.

Eight years ago, the Michigan Environmental Council added the Petoskey Prize to recognize grassroots activists who demonstrated courage. While we didn’t plan it this way, the honors have mostly gone to individuals who’ve found themselves as underdogs with little or no money, facing off against multi-billion-dollar interests that were damaging Michigan’s environment. The Petoskey Prize winners, all of them working as volunteers, have time and again taken on the most powerful forces in their communities.

When a corporation puts a good salary check in the hands of a substantial part of the community and when that corporation generously supports local arts, the scouts, the hospital, the college, and maybe even some parks—it’s not easy to call the company to account, no matter how egregious its environmental transgressions.

It’s not easy, as Debbie Romak of Romulus did, to go up against a company whose public relations budget for a month is more money than she’ll make in a lifetime.

It’s not easy, as Lynn Henning of Lenawee County has done, to speak out when she knows enough science to know she’s right, but doesn’t have the credentials to match the experts on the company payroll.

It’s not easy as Carol Drake of Benton Harbor is doing, to stand up at her city council and ask it to do the right thing, when she’s been pleading her case for three years and she knows the votes are not there.

It’s not easy, as Dianne Hebert and Michele Hurd Riddick of Midland have done, to walk into a shareholder meeting—even with valid proxies and well-reasoned position statements—when their every move is crowded by bulky plainclothes company security men whose assignment is mainly to intimidate them.

While the Petoskey Prize winners have experienced all this and much more, none of them have been especially bold. In every case, all they have done is to insist that the laws be enforced and the environment protected in accordance with those laws. What distinguishes them is that they are brave, that they don’t cave to pressure—the kind of heavy-duty pressure that over time can bend rocks, but can’t crush these winners.

I don’t think for one minute that brave people don’t have some part of them that wants to be just like everybody else, to fit in with the in group, to be liked rather than tolerated. I don’t doubt that brave people have days when they are tired and want to have someone else fight the good fight. In this way, I think brave people are just like everybody else, except that they are willing to do what needs doing when others are not.

I also think brave people are optimists. They are energized and sustained by something more than just a strong sense of right and wrong. They are fed by a rich belief that they can make a difference, that standing up and speaking out will change the course of history, at least the history of their communities, neighborhoods, or maybe just a favorite stream.

So on this day, as we celebrate your commitments and achievements, I want to leave you with a message of optimism and a sense of possibility. As I mentioned at the outset, you are graduating at a moment in need of great societal change. Fortunately, we’re at a tipping point with opportunities that are qualitatively different than those of the previous generation. Not since the early seventies have there been such opportunities to put an environmental education from SNRE to work, with real traction on behalf of a healthier, safer, more just world.

Our social, political, and economic stages—in this country and many others—are set for change; and they are set for you to make a difference. Whether you do or whether you don’t make that difference is for the most part up to you. I’ve no doubt that whatever career and volunteer activities you pursue—whether in the public, private, or non-profit sector—the opportunity to make a difference with an occasional simple act of bravery will surely present itself many times over.

Once again, congratulations on your achievements and good luck in your endeavors. I hope that a healthy measure of optimism and confidence in your capacity to make a difference will never be out of your reach.

Thank you.

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