Home > Uncategorized > After A Decade At The Barricades, The Lights Go Out At NJ PEER

After A Decade At The Barricades, The Lights Go Out At NJ PEER

Financial Crisis Shutters PEER State Field Offices

What a long strange trip its been

What the scapegoat knows

Earth Day, 2005

Earth Day, 2005

We begin in literature:

Macomber felt a wild unreasonable happiness that he had never known before.

“By God, that was a chase,” he said. “I’ve never felt any such feeling. Wasn’t it marvellous, Margot?”

“I hated it.”

“Why?”

“I hated it,” she said bitterly. “I loathed it.”

“You know I don’t think I’d ever be afraid of anything again,” Macomber said to Wilson. “Something happened in me after we first saw the buff and started after him. Like a dam bursting. It was pure excitement.”

“Cleans out your liver,” said Wilson. “Damn funny things happen to people.”

Macomber’s face was shining. “You know something did happen to me,” he said. “I feel absolutely different.”  ~~~ The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber – Ernest Hemingway, 1936)

I too feel absolutely different: transformed from a professional bureaucrat to a public advocate and activist; and disillusioned by the experience of becoming a whistleblower and all that entails.

What the scapegoat knows

Some have written eloquently of that as “spacewalking”:

“Frank Whitbread is a chemist who worked for a state environmental protection agency. Several times his boss had refused to allow him to testify before a state panel investigating the agency’s failure to test the well water of subdivisions located near sites where hazardous materials had been dumped. Eventually he called up a state senator and told him his story. Shortly thereafter Frank was fired. The state civil service commission made his agency take him back, but he was given no work to do and an office that was once a janitor’s closet.” (p. 75).

Sound familiar? Frank speaks out in the public interest and suffers fierce reprisals from his employer.

But what does it all really mean? In particular, what does it mean for the whistleblower? C. Fred Alford tackles this vital question in his stimulating new book Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (Cornell University Press, 2001).

Alford is sceptical of the heroic accounts in which the courageous employee brings a corrupt organisation to account, benefiting society and receiving society’s gratitude. Instead, he has a much darker, more pessimistic message. Nearly all whistleblowers are destroyed. They lose their jobs, their careers, their houses, their friends, their families. But that is not the worst part. Most catastrophically, whistleblowers lose their trust in people and justice.  (Book review by Brian Martin)

That “spacewalking”, or separation from the mother ship, is what prompted us to form the NJ Chapter of PEER in June 2005.

Since we founded and kicked NJ PEER off in June 2005, we have issued 191 hard hitting reports.

That is some kick ass body of work – that runs circles around virtually every other NJ environmental group – with 20 times the staff and budget – for the quality of the work as well as the impact on public opinion and public policy.

Diogenes looking for

Diogenes looking for an honest man

We have testified at hundreds of legislative and regulatory hearings, public meetings, press conferences, and other events.

Living in truth

We have tried to tell the truth as we know it, and, as the old saying goes: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

We have tried, as Vaclev Havel wrote, to live in truth:

… you do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. […]

By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.

We have tried to maintain hope and not become cynical and bitter, despite our understanding and experience of just how corrupt and broken government and the regulatory apparatus are today.

This is a very difficult line to walk, especially in trying to avoid crushing the enthusiasm of young people and well meaning activists who believe in government and the system – and driving them to despair.

We’ve tried our best.

Foundation fail

But, all that effort is not supported financially by the funders of the NJ environmental community.

They put their big corporate money in far less threatening – and far less effective – organizations and “campaigns”:  “Keep it Green” – “Sustainable NJ”  – Citizens Campaign – NJ Future – Together NJ – Yay!

NJ PEER’s national financial support has dried up, as PEER has undergone a financial crisis and has shuttered State Chapters in New England, Florida, Tennessee, California, and the Rocky Mountain states.

As a result, we’re sad to note that NJ PEER is shutting down for lack of funding.

We are working hard to keep Wolfenotes alive, to put food on the table, and delay the bank’s and Sheriff’s foreclosure on the mortgage.

But we’re not laying down and we’re not done, not just yet.

We close by returning to Havel:

The point where living within the truth ceases to be a mere negation of living with a lie and becomes articulate in a particular way is the point at which something is born that might be called the “independent spiritual, social, and political life of society.” This independent life is not separated from the rest of life (“dependent life”) by some sharply defined line. Both types frequently co-exist in the same people. Nevertheless, its most important focus is marked by a relatively high degree of inner emancipation. It sails upon the vast ocean of the manipulated life like little boats, tossed by the waves but always bobbing back as visible messengers of living within the truth, articulating the suppressed aims of life.

What is this independent life of society? The spectrum of its expressions and activities is naturally very wide. It includes everything from self-education and thinking about the world, through free creative activity and its communication to others, to the most varied free, civic attitudes, including instances of independent social self-organization. In short, it is an area in which living within the truth becomes articulate and materializes in a visible way.

[End note: I hope I didn’t offend feminists or animal rights folks with the Hemingway excerpt. That’s not old fashioned machismo he’s driving at. Read the story.

I could have used an excerpt from Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Malcolm X or Emerson about the liberatory – emancipatory effects of an act the requires courage – or concepts currently sometimes called “agency” or “empowerment”]

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