Green Giant 

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Activist John Wade has strong feelings about the environment, to say the least. While his actions earned him a three-year stint in federal prison (see this week's feature story), his determination to affect change is undiminished.

Now he's found equally passionate allies.

"I have attempted to stop the destruction of the environment with any tools available to me," Wade says. "While for a short period of time I was involved in illegal activism, I have always been more involved in radical legal activism."

Since getting out of prison, he's been taking classes at VCU. That's where he got the idea to stage a film festival, after taking a class on nonfiction film taught by Michael Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit Richmond Moving Image Co-op.

With the help of Jones, Wade and other students have assembled "The Biggest Picture," Richmond's first environmental film festival set to feature eight films, mostly documentaries, and four speakers at the Byrd Theatre. Organizers hope to create awareness about specific issues such as overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, mountaintop removal mining, global warming and corporate profiteering.

"I hope people are motivated to get to work on whatever environmental issue they find most alarming or inspiring," says Wade, a longtime vegetarian who says he's never owned a car and bikes everywhere. "There will be lots of environmental groups at the festival and it will be a good chance for people to get involved."

Wade knew he needed a big-name speaker for added oomph. But Robert Kennedy Jr. wanted $30,000 and Al Gore costs $150,000 -- plus there's a two-year waiting list for the Nobel laureate. After hearing a speech in Baltimore months ago by longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Wade waited in a book-signing line and simply asked for Nader's help. He agreed.

Love him or hate him, Nader, 73, is the most important consumer advocate this country has ever produced and one of the most influential figures of the last century. He's the guy who got seatbelts put in cars, among countless other legislative feats that have improved life in this country. To those who blame him for Bush, Nader has countered that Gore lost a number of states he should've won (such as Tennessee), that social scientists have proved his pushing Gore to the left actually won him more votes and that Gore would have won Florida if not for illegal voter removals perpetrated by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris ("Either we're all spoilers of one another … or none of us are," Nader has said).

Nader recently formed an exploratory committee to help decide whether he will run for the presidency this year, and he is also suing members of the Democratic leadership for alleged illegal tactics used to sabotage his last campaign — such as signing fake names on Nader's petitions (one of the softer examples). The case is in the U.S. District Court of Virginia. Nader spoke with Style Weekly from his workplace in Washington, D.C.

Style: What should we be doing about the environment?

Nader: The most important is always to start with people's health, the health and safety of air, water, soil and food, then you move up in scale to global warming. If you start with climate change and global warming, it's too abstract to a lot of people, or too much in the future. But the two go together. So if you reduce the pollution on the ground from motor vehicles, you're reducing pollution in people's lungs and at the same time cutting greenhouse gases. I always favor starting at point of contact with the people and what their perceived concerns are. That's an important strategic switch that the environmental groups have to make.

Do you think the pollution fine of $20 million against Richmond-based Massey Energy was enough?

Well, let's assume it's paid. A lot of fines are very much in arrears to the federal government. The bigger question is the Supreme Court of West Virginia revisiting a much larger verdict — over $50 million — because there was a conflict of interest with the chief justice, who sided with Massey. He withdrew and they're going to look at it again. Historically, the federal government fines are way below what they should be given the damage, sometimes absurdly low. That's true not only of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] but OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration].

What does it say that Al Gore has been more effective outside of office?

That's what I said to him at his book-signing in D.C.: "How's it feel to be free, Al?" He said, "It feels pretty good." Now it's time for him to go to the next step. He's world-famous. He now has to start advocacy groups in the area of climate change. There's the old saying by one of the founders of the European Common Market, Jean Monnet: "Without people, nothing is possible, but without institutions, nothing is lasting." Gore has to build hard-fibered groups who will swarm over Congress and get things done: solar energy, fuel-efficient vehicles, generating plants, lighting, heating — those require federal standards and pushing corporations faster. He's a global asset now, but he's not deploying it in institutional form, yet.

As Naomi Klein points out in her telling book "The Shock Doctrine," we see plenty of privatization schemes ready to go after environmental disasters like Katrina. Why are there not contingency plans to benefit the people affected?

Because the corporations have captured the political system and Congress. You can have all kinds of agitations, street demonstrations, and evidence of practical technologies that are environmentally benign, but if these do not cross into the electoral/political/governmental system, nothing happens. In the early '70s, when there was a surge in Earth Days and demonstrations, it crossed right into the congressional institution and we passed some of the most fundamental laws. You're not seeing that anymore. That reflects just how powerful the corporations have become in turning Washington into corporate-occupied territory. That's why the film "The Corporation" [screening at the film festival] is so important educationally, because young people don't learn about this in school. … Another new book to read is David Cay Johnston's devastating best seller, "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill)."

Why was John Edwards unable to get any traction?

Well, he spoke to the workers' concerns. It's one of the big puzzles of the American voter -- they don't go in large numbers to populist candidates. Partly because they're served up mainstream candidates with higher polls and greater money and they want to be with winners. Second, most voters are either Republican or Democrat; they're hereditary voters who don't switch very readily.

It seems like a lot of people these days vote along cultural "wedge" issues, maybe because the economy and foreign policy can be so difficult to understand.

That's the failure of the Democratic Party. The moment they started dialing for corporate dollars around 1980, they took traditional economic issues off the table, like keeping up with minimum wage, universal health insurance, cracking down on corporate power, consumer protections and so on. Once they did that, it created a vacuum that the Republicans were happy to fill with issues like abortion, gay rights, the so-called wedge issues. That threw the Democrats on the defensive, and because they weren't willing to throw the Republicans on the defensive on economic populist issues -- year after year after year -- the public expectation never went in that direction. So it was more and more vectored to these social values issues.

What's it going to take for a third party to have success?

I hate to say it, but its going to take a multibillionaire like a [Ross] Perot or [Michael] Bloomberg to turn it into a three-way race, because the costs of surmounting all the obstacles can only be paid by the very rich. … That doesn't mean we won't find a lot of organizers who want to hit the road and mobilize people, but for that, there also needs to be a higher political consciousness among people in their 20s and late teens, who do a lot of the footwork.

How is your current organizing effort going in case you decide to run this year?

We're in the process of testing them now. We're getting some good pro bono lawyers, which you have to have. We always have a lot of young people. It's whether we get the resources to employ and deploy them.

Looking back at the Bush years, what will be his lasting legacy?

That he continually violated the U.S. Constitution, he violated federal criminal laws, treaties like the Geneva Convention. He engaged in an illegal war, invading and occupying a country and damaging the U.S. around the world, costing us an enormous amount in soldiers' lives and the treasury. He came in with a surplus and added $3.3 trillion in deficit, while household income has continually declined.

He's been the greatest disaster the country has seen in the White House … a world-class rogue president who did anything but fulfill his promise to bring honor and dignity to the White House. Democrats could not defeat him in the elections or hold him accountable to Congress under the impeachment clause of the Constitution. He'll be known as a president who was not held accountable by Congress and the courts, and that's a very bad precedent for future presidents who are inclined to violate the Constitution and laws of the land.


"The Corporation" and seven other environmental-themed films will be shown Feb. 9-10 at the Byrd Theatre. Ralph Nader speaks Saturday at 1 p.m. Michael Jones, Brian Dixon and Larry Gibson speak Sunday. The event features music by California band The Peach-Colored Jug Smugglers.

Tickets are $10 for one day or $15 for a weekend pass and are available at Capital Ale House, Ellwood Thompson's, Chop Suey Books, Black Swan Books, Rowlett's Bicycle and Ipanema Café. Call 432-1611 or visit www.thebiggestpicture.org.

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