Legal clerk and environmental activist Erin Brockovich spoke about her experiences fighting energy companies in court and called for students to take personal action in the environmental movement Tuesday night in Bovard Auditorium. The Undergraduate Student Government Program Board’s Speakers Committee and Environmental Student Assembly partnered to put on the event.
Brockovich, the subject of the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie Erin Brockovich, brought a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric in 1993 over the company’s contamination of drinking water in Hinkley, California. Despite a lack of formal legal training, she scored a victory for the environmental movement when she settled the case for $333 million in 1996, the largest settlement paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.
At Tuesday’s event, Brockovich shared her views on environmentalism, focusing on episodes over her past 22 years of work and connecting them to the current Flint water crisis. Starting the night with questions about her film, Brockovich explained that the movie concept began when a friend shared her story with another friend, who had connections in the film industry.
“I didn’t aspire for any of this,” Brockovich said. “[My friend] would ask me stories about my day, and I’d tell her about green water and frogs with two heads. She thought it was pretty odd because I didn’t really have any business going around collecting toxic waste. I often wore stilettos and miniskirts.”
However, once the film deal was confirmed, she spent a year with the writing team to verify the movie’s accuracy.
“It was probably 98 percent accurate,” Brockovich said. “They did a very factual piece, and that was very important to me.”
Brockovich wanted the content of the film to reflect the value that she placed on the environment, and not just the legal process of taking on a large energy company.
“I’ve always had great passion for the environment and people,” Brockovich said. “We live in an environment where we coexist together. It becomes very near and dear to us, just like a member of our own family.”
She told the audience that the environment is fragile, but necessary for everyone.
“We are either going to benefit from it, or we are going to begin to suffer from it,” Brockovich said. “We just don’t think about it until it could be gone.”
Brockovich brought up the fact that the event took place during Earth Month, a month devoted to reflecting on the state of the earth and taking action to help improve it. However, she questioned whether such a month was actually helping tackle environmental issues or whether it simply gave a sense of false support.
“Does it have to be one month out of the year?” Brockovich asked. “It’s a topic of conversation that we should be having every month.”
Brockovich recounted the failure of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency in saving the environment, a problem that she has witnessed during her career in environmentalism and advocacy.
“We want to believe that our government and these agencies are in place to protect us,” Brockovich said. “I see the disappointment when I become the bearer of the bad news. These agencies have been very absent, especially when it comes to the environment.”
Because of this, she urged the audience to start becoming aware of the environmental issues occurring in their communities and calling for action.
“We have to begin saving ourselves,” Brockovich said. “We’ve been comfortable too long.”
Brockovich then described her new digital project, the Community Health Book, where people can document the adverse effects of environmental issues, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other personal injuries. She explained that her focus was on helping people, collecting data and using it to create communities, and saw an application in situations such as the Flint water crisis.
“Flint, Michigan is really concerning to me,” Brockovich said. “The lack of transparency is causing issues for everybody. This is a human issue — every single one of us is entitled to the truth and to clean drinking water.”
Having toxic chemicals in drinking water, however, is not exclusive to Flint. According to Brockovich, local governments and agencies over the country put chemicals in water to save money and make a profit.
“We have a safe drinking water act which is supposed to protect us,” Brockovich said. “It’s not. They’d come up with something to save a buck.”
Brockovich explained that her personal background has shaped her values and work. She cited her mother and father as her main inspirations.
“By birthright, I tend to think like an engineer and I’m snoopy like a journalist,” she said. “I have a perspective of people. It’s been drilled into me since I was a little girl.”
Using these stories, Brockovich reflected on the nature of leadership.
“Everything you do in life requires you to have a strong character,” Brockovich said. “Your strength of character comes from you and how you perceive yourself. So you become that leader that you’re actually looking for.”
Brockovich discussed Realization, Assessment and Motivation, a program which she has developed over her past 22 years of work. She encouraged the audience to know who they are, stick to personal choices and be motivated. Ultimately, she believes that everyday people are beginning to take personal responsibility for solving global problems, but that more can be done.
“A social movement is happening,” Brockovich said. “Change is here, and I think it’s really exciting. Superman’s not coming, so tag, you’re it.”