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12.09.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

What's there to do about a dysfunctional Congress and fat cat lobbyists? Start making a difference in your own community, says Frances Moore Lappé.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPE: Human beings were never meant to be couch potatoes or just whiners. We wouldn't have made it to where we are, you know, if we weren't doers and problem solvers.

BRANCACCIO: And, meet a shrimper who took on the giant chemical company that she says was polluting her local fishing grounds.

DIANE WILSON: And I realized they were discharging. The EPA knew it. State knew it. I was the only one that didn't know it. And I was so-- I was so outraged because-- because that says something about the whole government.

BRANCACCIO: Diane Wilson on fighting back and winning.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

Remember the Howard Beale character in the movie NETWORK? Remember how mad he was?

Does that describe your view of politics in America these days? You're about to meet two women who also "couldn't take it anymore" but did something useful with their anger. In fact, what they have for us is a blueprint for how ordinary citizens can make their communities better — and maybe even resuscitate our democracy along the way.

First up, Frances Moore Lappé. In her 1970's book DIET FOR A SMALL PLANET, she taught us about the politics of global hunger - and that we had the power to end it. She's still an activist and a writer. Her latest book, DEMOCRACY'S EDGE invites us all to pitch in and construct what she calls "living democracy."

BRANCACCIO: Thanks for doing this.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: So, if the goal is living democracy. What is it dead?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, it's very weak. It's very frail. It's very ineffective. Because I call it actually thin democracy. And thin democracy is what I grew up believing in. That all we needed was elections and a market economy and hey we've got democracy. We're home free.

I didn't realize that actually democracy's premise is the dispersion of power, right. Everybody can have a voice. But our market economy is based on one rule, highest return to existing wealth. So, what happens is that wealth keeps concentrating, concentrating until it's so concentrated that it can subvert our political process. So, that we have 56 lobbyists in Washington for every one person that we put there to represent us. So, that's--

BRANCACCIO: Quite a ratio.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: --thin. That's weak. It can't serve us.

BRANCACCIO: And we clearly do have a problem here. I saw this NBC/WALL STREET JOURNAL poll that showed that 24 percent of Americans believe that the Republicans have their point of view, that they reflect their priorities. The Democrats don't do much better. To put it another way, essentially 2/3 of Americans don't think that Congress has their priorities. Something is broken down here.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Absolutely, I've seen the same sorts of figures like 90 percent of us think that corporations have too much sway in Washington.

And we have been warned about this. We have been warned by Thomas Jefferson, by Dwight Eisenhower. But no one warned us more eloquently than Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April of 1938.

He said, "The liberty of democracy is not safe if we tolerate the growth of private power to the point that it is stronger than the democratic state itself." That in its essence is fascism. That's what he warned us of.

So, that's the fundamental bottom line for me of thin democracy is that it's vulnerable to take over. And that's why--something like 3/4 of us say that-- those in Washington-- it's run by a small group who don't care about anybody but themselves.

BRANCACCIO: Now, this is important stuff. I mean, you've been on a personal journey all these years. At one point, you thought the issue, capital The, was food and hunger. I might say the issue is the gap between rich and poor. Others would say the environment and so forth. But you think lurking under all those things is democracy?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: I do. I do. I think when you peel away the layers it really is the scarcity not of food or anything else.

The scarcity is of democracy in this-- as a living practice. And so, what is emerging that people are saying, "Wait a minute. This isn't the society that I thought that, you know, represents me. And so how can I find that voice?" And people are just giving up their cynicism and saying, "Yes, I can help create the power to make democracy come to life to serve us."

BRANCACCIO: Well, extraordinary people clearly can do this. We've met a few of them in our lives. In a few minutes we're going to meet Diane Wilson, another wonderful woman from Texas. She's a shrimper who took on the issue of chemical pollution where she did her shrimping and so forth. But, I mean, is she-- was she born with special genes that her allow her to take this sort of like action that we're about to see?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well David yes, to me Diane is one of my heroes. But these heroes are everywhere in our world. We're just not seeing them. The corporate media doesn't cover them.

And so what I write about and what is my-- you know, what gets me up in the morning are people who say in education are realizing that kids learn democracy not by studying about it but by doing it.

BRANCACCIO: There'll be people watching this who have that very impulse but say, "Oh, come on. They have all the power. Yes, there are the occasional heroes."

But that said, they've got the lobbyists. They've got the money. How is someone who is concerned about the concentration of power and the thin democracy as you put it, how are they going to have any real effect?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, I think citizens have common sense and basic democratic values on our side. So, that for example, one of my favorite stories is from a young man named Michael Brune. He became a passionate environmentalist. And in his early 30's he was made the point person for a campaign by Rain Forest Action Network. Taking on Home Depot, one of the worlds biggest companies, that was using wood, selling wood that originated in old growth forests that were endangered.

Not good. And they started a campaign that included some shareholder action, shareholders standing up and saying no, no, no, no, we don't want Home Depot to use this kind of supply, right. So they stepped up to the plate. But then Mike and his colleagues started a campaign with thousands of people across the country. How can we put pressure, how can we wake up Home Depot.

And so one of the things they did is that they talked to people in the company who felt the same way. And they talked to one manager who said, you know, I want to be able to take my daughter to the rain forest some day. I want to keep my job but I want to help you guys too. So he gave Rain Forest Action Network the intercom number. Right, the code, the intercom code for the stores, the Home Depot stores. So that--

BRANCACCIO: So you could like broadcast to inside the store.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: You could broadcast. That's what they did. So their members went inside the stores and got on the intercom and said there is a special on old growth wood on aisle 23, that sort of thing.

BRANCACCIO: And sort of agit prop political theater.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Yes, yes. And of course Home Depot was not happy. And in a fairly short period of time, over the fax machine came a letter from the head of Home Depot saying we are ending this practice. Home Depot saw that there was a huge constituency of citizens who care. And of course even in their own company citizens who care.

BRANCACCIO: And so what if people like me in the media would focus on stories like that you think this country would have a different flavor to it?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: I do. I do. I think we are social mimics.

I think we have to see other people like ourselves doing it in order to believe that we can and see that this is not like the spinach we eat. You know, go eat your spinach of democracy so you can have your desert of freedom. I believe that this is the good life, the engaged life.

I mean, growing up in Texas, my favorite memory of childhood is lying down the hallway from the kitchen where the talk was percolating. The coffee was percolating. And my parents were talking about those big important things. They, in that case, were fighting racism. They were integrating their church. And so that's what the good life is. This is not the dull, duty of citizenship. This is how we come alive as people.

Human beings were never meant to be couch potatoes or just whiners. We wouldn't have made it to where we are, you know, if we weren't doers and problem solvers. So, that's what I mean by living democracy, something not done to us or for us, democracy not as what we have but what we do.

BRANCACCIO: Well Francis, thank you very much.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Francis Moore Lappé, activist and author. Her latest book is called DEMOCRACY'S EDGE, CHOOSING TO SAVE OUR COUNTRY BY BRINGING DEMOCRACY TO LIFE.


BRANCACCIO: Diane Wilson is an unlikely candidate for citizen-activist. She had her hands full raising a family and working at a fish house in Seadrift, Texas. But then a series of environmental red flags set her on a new course, a journey to clean up the waters where she and her family had been shrimpers for four generations. She ended up doing battle with an international chemical company…and winning.

BRANCACCIO: Diane, thanks for joining us.

DIANE WILSON: Well, I'm delighted to be here.

BRANCACCIO: You have five children. You're fourth generation shrimper.

DIANE WILSON: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: But, you're not sitting' there way back when reading MOTHER JONES magazine. So, what was it that got you on this other path?

DIANE WILSON: Well, I had been shrimping. I had been on a-- I had a foam 42 foot shrimp boat. I have five kids and shrimping had gotten so bad that I had to tie up my shrimp boat and I was running a fish house down at the bay.

And one day I had one of my shrimpers and he was this real handsome fella. He really was. And-- but, he had three different types of cancer and he had this huge, huge lumps. They were kinda like tennis balls underneath--

BRANCACCIO: On his arm?

DIANE WILSON: On his arms. Matter of fact, over both his arms and it was-- it was cancer. He had three different types. But, he brought me this Associated Press story and it-- and it was talking about our county. And the-- story was about the toxic release inventory. It was the first time industry ever reported what they were putting into the air, what they were putting into the bays, what they putting down into the wells.

We were number one in the nation.

BRANCACCIO: For toxics?

DIANE WILSON: For toxics within our little county. And that's like 15,000 people. And it it blew my mind is what it did.

BRANCACCIO: So, you see this thing that suggests that you live in one of the most toxic places in the country, hits you like lightening. What do you do?

DIANE WILSON: Well, I did something I never did in my life. I called a meeting. But, the fact that I was gonna have a meeting over it, I mean, the backlash-- the backlash from just calling that meeting was so tremendous. And I just-- you know, it totally be-- bewildered me of where they were coming from to react just about a meeting.

BRANCACCIO: If you move forward from the meeting and you do-- a lot of things happen including a lot of homework.

BRANCACCIO: But, your attention starts focusing on one of the plants.

DIANE WILSON: That's right.

DIANE WILSON: Oh, that's right. It just so happened that Formosa Plastics, was coming to Texas. They were the biggest polluters in Taiwan. But, they were also bringing in the biggest expansion Texas had ever had.

BRANCACCIO: They make some of the stuff that goes into PVC pipe over there.

DIANE WILSON: Oh, yes.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, an important industry, you gotta admit, if you have any plumbing in your house.

DIANE WILSON: PVC is polyvinylchloride, vinyl chloride. That is a direct link to angiosarcoma, a cancer of the liver, spontaneous abortions.

BRANCACCIO: Did you find that any of their stuff was getting into your bay?

DIANE WILSON: I remember the first time I even talked with them, I said, "Do y'all have any environmental problems? You know, do you, like, have any releases?" And I still remember what the plant manager said. He said, "Oh, we had this little pop valve release." And he said, "It's kinda like a garden hose springing a leak."

He says, "I think that's the only thing we had." Well, come to find out is they had contamination in Delaware; they had contamination in Louisiana and matter of fact-- they had violated their waste water discharge so bad that even the state said they changed the whole ecosystem down there. And they were violating probably like 300-- 300 times out of a year. You know, that's pretty much most the time they were violating their permit.

BRANCACCIO: Was it your sense that these chemical plants were affecting the ecosystem that you knew best?

DIANE WILSON: We had already had a brown algae. We had a red algae. We had a green algae. And-- when these algaes start covering the bay, it's kinda like this carpet and the fish can't even breathe cuz, you know, I was at the fish house and I would-- I would see fish trying to stick their heads out of the water so they could breathe. And then when you have this start happening and then we starting have this dolphin die off. It was-- it was real-- it was real bad, yeah.

BRANCACCIO: And some people when confronted with an environmental challenge in their backyard or in their bay shake their head and say, "Well, what are you gonna do? We need industry." What did you do?

DIANE WILSON: I started out trying to go through the typical route. And I find out real quick that the regulatory process does not work when your politicians are just like that with the corporations.

And then, you know, like-- Formosa Plastics, they weren't going to have to do any kind of study. They were gonna get their permits in record time.

BRANCACCIO: You're saying that you can't-- you-- found wait around, waiting for environmental regulators to fix this stuff because they're too connected to the politicians?

DIANE WILSON: Oh, absolutely. Well, we had the mayor had a contract with 'em, the senator had a contract with 'em. These are the people that-- that endorse their permits. And so the thing of it is you try to go through the citizen community involvement and you go right up against that political landmine out there.

BRANCACCIO: Now, a lotta people watching this program right now have gone that far and they've bumped into this immutable wall. What did you do to get past that wall?

DIANE WILSON: I said, "they're -they're-they're not getting it. They are not getting it." It is like I love that bay. And it was like, nope, they're not getting this. And so, I did a hunger strike. I said-- and matter of fact, it came off the top of my head. I said, "I'm gonna do a hunger strike." And I remember the-- it was-- one of the environmentalist that was involved me at that time and he-- he just laughed. And he said, "Diane," he said, "They don't do hunger strikes in Texas." He said, "That's California style, you know? And especially a woman, you know?" He said, "They're gonna laugh you out." And I kept saying, "Nope, I'm-- I'm doing it. I'm doing it." And so I knew that's why I had to act on it, and within two weeks, I got exactly what I asked for.

BRANCACCIO: Like what?

DIANE WILSON: I asked for an environment impact study on Formosa and that was what the politicians had guaranteed them they wouldn't have to do. That was what the EPA said they wouldn't have to do. Formosa flatly refused to do it and they did it. They had to do that.

BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the story about you and your boat and you got in your head-- this is even in-- in a weird way more intense than a hunger strike.

DIANE WILSON: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: What are you gonna do? Sink your boat?

DIANE WILSON: Well, what I had been doing is I had been fighting Formosa Plastics Waste Water Permit and I had followed it all the way to the EPA in Washington. The judge was waiting to give a decision and legally-- I mean, federal law, I had that permit blocked. They could not start discharging all their pollutants into that bay until they-- until they-- until we got an opinion from the judge.

And-- my name is Diane. So, one day I was talking to the EPA lawyer and-- -- I was just-- talking and asking how things were going. And she thought I was Formosa's lawyers, whose name was Diane too. And so she thinks I'm Formosa's lawyers. So, she's like, "Oh, well, how's the discharge going? Do you have any problems with that chloroform? Is that vinyl chloride too-- too high or how is it?" And I realized they were discharging. It did not matter-- it did not matter that they were violating the law. The EPA knew it. State knew it. Formosa was discharging. Me, the little community activist following the letter of the law -- I was the only one that didn't know it. And I was so-- I was so outraged because-- because that says something about the whole government.

And I did the most outrageous thing I could think of and I knew it had to deal with me. It had to be my risk, my boat and so I took the thing I valued most and took it out there.

I'm just gonna sink it right on top of that discharge. It was gonna be a monument to their crime. It was-- it was my outrage is what it was. And--

BRANCACCIO: You're gonna sink your own boat? Your-

DIANE WILSON: Sink my own boat.

BRANCACCIO: --beloved boat?

DIANE WILSON: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Right at the place where you figured the pipe was coming out--

DIANE WILSON: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: --with the-- with the--

DIANE WILSON: The

BRANCACCIO: With the pollution.

DIANE WILSON: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: So, you're out there at what? Night?

DIANE WILSON: Yeah, matter of fact, I was because one, you know, you have to-- cuz it was a pretty good ways for me go out there and also I removed the engine because if I had sunk the boat with a diesel engine, they would have-- you know, they said-- they would have said I was the polluter. So, I took the engine out and I got a shrimper to drag my boat and it was after dark and we started sneaking round and it just so happened this crazy storm came up, a weird storm.

So, it was blowing about 40 miles an hour and-- a-- kind of a stool pigeon told the corporation that I was taking my boat out there to sink it. So, they called the Coast Guard. So, here come three boatloads. It was at midnight. I remember it was midnight when all of these Coast Guard boats showed up.

And there were these two big cutters and this little roustabout and they were-- I remember they were yelling at me through the speakers. They were really intent to know if I was out there on that boat intent on sinking it. And-- and so they said I was a terrorist on the high seas. They were gonna give me 19 years in the penitentiary, $500,000 in penalties.

Formosa was polluting. But, I was the criminal. And, eventually, they confiscated the boat. The end result was that Formosa Plastics was sitting there watching the whole thing. And they were like, "What is it gonna take to shut her up?" And I was like, "Do zero discharge. Recycle your waste stream." So, that's how I got zero discharge from Formosa Plastics.

BRANCACCIO: If you take a look at polls, most people say that they're environmentalists. They believe in clean water. And you say, "Do you believe in clean air?" They say, "Yeah, I believe in clean air." But, there are those, even some environmentalists, who worry that their environmentalism doesn't go very deep. That if you ask people what if it's environment versus your job, the people always say, "My job." Cuz they wanna feed their families.

DIANE WILSON: That's true.

BRANCACCIO: It's the job stuff that goes deeper.

DIANE WILSON: When I tried to talk with the workers, that was their whole thing. It's like, "I gotta pay for this truck. I gotta pay for this house. At least I've got health insurance." Cuz even fisherman didn't have health insurance. At least they had that. But, the thing of it is is I always got the worker when he got sick, when his kid got sick, when he fell off of a-- one of these towers because of a safety violation.

And then they would start coming to me. And that's how eventually I got to be such good allies with the workers.

BRANCACCIO: Before you go, do you have any final words for someone who's watching this and wants to make their world, their community, their town a better place?

DIANE WILSON: Well, I got to say is that life isn't a spectator's sport. You have to be involved.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Diane Wilson, thank you very much.

DIANE WILSON: Thank you for having me.

BRANCACCIO: Diane Wilson's book, AN UNREASONABLE WOMAN: A TRUE STORY OF SHRIMPERS, POLITICOS, POLLUTERS AND THE FIGHT FOR SEADRIFT, TEXAS.

DIANE WILSON: Thank you very much.

BRANCACCIO: My pleasure.


BRANCACCIO: We've posted more about both these women and their books on our Web site at pbs.org.

And next week on now… Congress is fixing to give more tax cuts to the wealthy at the very same time that money for health, food stamps, and other social programs is being slashed.

JIM COOPER: It's a reverse Robin Hood. They're taking from the poor in order to give to the rich.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW, From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.


BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

Read excerpts from DEMOCRACY'S EDGE

Hear more from Diane Wilson

Get involved in your community

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.



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