Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader, the principal force behind establishment of the nation’s Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, walked into a Whitman College environmental studies class Thursday to talk shop.

“It’s incredible,” said Don Snow, senior lecturer of environmental humanities and general studies, about the opportunity to have a former presidential candidate in the classroom. “This guy is one of the most important figures in American politics.”

Time magazine recently named Nader as “One of the 100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century.”

Nader’s visit at Whitman started the day before with an almost two-hour lecture and question-and-answer session to about 1,300 people in a packed Cordiner Hall.

Nader told the audience his observation is that the current generation is interested in issues and focuses on charity. But he said “justice is different than charity,” and that there should be a focus on justice as well.

Charity cares for the poor. “Justice asks why in this rich country there are so many poor...,” he said. “Justice is adversarial… It makes great demands. It makes controversy.”

Ralph Nader

It was a Whitman sophomore’s idea to invite Nader, and Charlie Weems ’12 said the idea evolved into a challenging coordination and event-planning effort.

“But it turned out great; I’m really happy people seemed to enjoy it,” said Weems, lectures director of the student-run Whitman Events Board, which sponsored the event.

Weems said Nader’s “gravity” impressed him most.

“He really thinks before he says anything; he really considers what you’re saying before he responds,” he said. “I found that very valuable.”

Weems said he will take to heart Nader’s message to “keep the passion up and get involved.”

Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” resulted in congressional hearings and a series of automobile safety laws passed in 1966. He spearheaded efforts to establish the Meat and Poultry Inspection Rules and the Freedom of Information Act and was instrumental in the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

He also helped establish the PIRGs — Public Interest Research Groups — the student-funded and controlled organizations on college campuses in 23 states that have published hundreds of ground-breaking reports and guides, lobbied for laws in state legislatures, and called the media's attention to environmental and energy problems.

Snow told his students that things they take for granted wouldn’t exist “without people like Ralph Nader.”

“I often stress to students that one of the greatest accomplishments of the environmental movement is freedom of information — laws that guarantee our right to know about arrangements our government enters into with private industry.

“Ralph Nader did maybe more than anyone to open the processes of government to inspection.”

— Virginia Grantier