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Do you remember when Ralph Nader unmasked the dangers of the 1962 Corvair and GM’s cover-up? “[I]n 1965 he wrote a groundbreaking book on the same theme, Unsafe at Any Speed. It exposed the reckless rear suspension design of the 1960–63 Chevrolet Corvair by General Motors (GM). Nader’s work was well reported, but the book initially failed to attract much public attention. It spooked GM, however. Apparently fearful that lawyers might use the book’s exposé of its poor design practices to bolster product liability lawsuits against the company, the automaker decided to try to discredit Nader. It sought ways to unearth any unsavory personal details of Nader’s life. Suddenly, Nader recalled, attractive women approached him while he was shopping — an apparent attempt to “honey trap” him into compromising situations. The company also hired a private detective, former FBI agent Vincent Gillen, to snoop around Nader’s friends and associates and to tail him wherever he went. “Our job,” Gillen told his team of sleuths, “is to check his life and current activities to determine what makes him tick, such as his real interest in safety, his supporters if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, his boys, and so forth, drinking, dope, jobs — in fact all facets of his life.”

Naders Raiders

“In early 1966, several months after GM’s probe began, police at the U.S. Capitol noticed that Nader was being followed. They let him know. He told others, and the story soon made its way into The Washington Post. That was followed by a larger story on the surveillance in The New Republic. The publicity forced GM officials to admit to Detroit News reporter Bob Irvin that they had ordered the investigation.”

In the years immediately after the GM incident, Nader and his growing cadre of colleagues tackled unsanitary practices in meat and poultry factories; the hazards of natural gas pipelines; radiation risks from X-rays; smoking on airlines, trains and buses; and dangerous working conditions in coal mines.

“Naders Raiders” became a real threat to the corporatists. “In the years immediately after the GM incident, [Nader] and his growing cadre of colleagues tackled unsanitary practices in meat and poultry factories; the hazards of natural gas pipelines; radiation risks from X-rays; smoking on airlines, trains and buses; and dangerous working conditions in coal mines.

These early forays into corporate practices were characterized by painstaking research and scrupulous attention to detail. The resulting exposés not only received massive media coverage, but they also encouraged mainstream journalists to go beyond the mere reporting of daily news and launch major investigations them-selves. More important, they electrified a whole generation of activists.”

“Elements of the business community, however, began to understand the implications of the consumer movement all too well. It threatened cozy cartels, reckless manufacturing practices and contempt for fair dealing in the marketplace. This was no hippie, flash-in-the-pan project that could be ridiculed into retreat, but a serious social movement that was increasingly popular, respected and covered favorably by national news media and talk shows.

“Leading corporate executives pondered how to respond. On August 23, 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, submitted a confidential memo to the chairman of the organization’s education committee. His memo was titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.”

“What now concerns us is quite new in the history of America,” Powell wrote. “We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts .” (Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court a few months after the writing of this famous memo).

At about the same time as “Unsafe At Any Speed,” problems with cigarettes became public. “The first surgeon general’s report on the adverse health effects of smoking was published in 1964 (HHS, 1964). Within a year of that report, the first law requiring the labeling of cigarette packages with health warnings was passed (the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965); it was followed a few years later by bans on cigarette advertising on television and radio (the 1969 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act). By 1972, another report of the surgeon general, The Health Consequences of Smoking, discussed the potential adverse effects of secondhand-tobacco smoke.”

But the problems with tobacco and with fossil fuels were known well before that. “Organizations worried about climate change have long drawn comparisons between the petroleum and tobacco industries, arguing that each has minimized public health damages of its products to operate unchecked.

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“Some have urged federal regulators to prosecute oil companies under racketeering charges, as the Department of Justice did in 1999 in a case against Philip Morris and other major tobacco brands.

“Oil companies bristle at the comparison. But overlap between both industries existed as early as the 1950s, new research details. For example, in 1956 both industries hired the public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton. “From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,” CIEL President Carroll Muffett said in a statement.”

But the dangers of tobacco were known much earlier. “Lung cancer was once a very rare disease, so rare that doctors took special notice when confronted with a case, thinking it a once-in-a-lifetime oddity. Mechanization and mass marketing towards the end of the 19th century popularized the cigarette habit, however, causing a global lung cancer epidemic. Cigarettes were recognized as the cause of the epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s, with the confluence of studies from epidemiology, animal experiments, cellular pathology and chemical analytics. Cigarette manufacturers disputed this evidence, as part of an orchestrated conspiracy to salvage cigarette sales. Propagandizing the public proved successful, judging from secret tobacco industry measurements of the impact of denialist propaganda.”

And now we have the fossil fuel companies pounding us with similar “denialist” propaganda.

From our experience with GM and the Corvair, with the tobacco companies and lung cancer, and fossil fuels and climate change, we can see how capitalist corporations deal with dangers that they create. They will not admit that they are the cause of the dangers that are found. And they will not adopt solutions that benefit society because it costs them too much.

If the fossil fuel companies were owned by the government, we would probably see a more rational approach. This does not mean that the government would automatically terminate fossil fuels. For example, Norway has huge fossil fuel reserves. “Coal and oil have long been sought-after investment targets, but that is changing. Norway is increasingly withdrawing its huge sovereign wealth fund from fossil fuels. But for finance, not climate protection.” In other words, Norway is trading its fossil fuels for money in order to protect its piggy bank. “Norwegian MPs have backed a decision to divest the country’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund from oil and gas exploration firms and invest more in renewable energy companies that aren’t listed on stock markets.” Norway is moving towards renewable energy, but its fossil fuels remain active, because other entities will be mining them. In effect, Norway is protecting its own interests as an investor but not as a country impacted by climate change.

Can the United States make a better choice? What can it do about its own fossil fuels production? It could ban the production of fossil fuels, but this would deprive the owners of fossil fuels of what they own without compensation. Or, it could nationalize fossil fuels and then withdraw them from the market, but this would be a huge burden on the nation. Or, it could set up a schedule, lowering the use of fossil fuels in transportation, heating, and other products, while at the same time exploring with the fossil fuel companies alternative uses that would not affect climate change. For example, we know that fossil fuels can be used for plastics. Many of the plastics generated have caused problems (think of one-use plastic bottles), but this is not always the case. Plastics can be safely used as building materials, to replace glass, to make bicycle helmets, child safety seats and airbags in automobiles, as well as cell phones, televisions, computers and other electronic equipment that makes modern life possible. Plastic could doubtless be used for home and office furniture, suitcases, and a host of other products. In other words, oils can be made into plastics and used that way instead of for burning, avoiding climate change impact. And plastic can be recycled.

One of the most significant problems with our capitalist system is that capitalists frequently break the law and endanger society when their investment might potentially injure others. Capitalists are also encouraged to pay workers as little as possible and to charge consumers as much as possible. None of these outcomes are beneficial to the society. We should begin to rethink how we want our system to operate.

michael hertz

Michael T. Hertz