I once knew a man. A very annoying man. A man who saw injustice being done and took action in fierce and effective ways. Dr. Wally Burnstein, D.O., annoyed polluting corporate executives, as well as people who could not be bothered to speak up. He was my mentor and my friend and though the polluting corporations celebrated his passing on April 11, 1996, there were thousands who mourned the loss of this extraordinary individual who refused to compromise where our health and the health of the planet were concerned. Both feared and loved, Wally held fast to his principles and made a profound impact with his life. Perhaps for this earth day celebration he will inspire a few more.
Wally: If we support technology that destroys nature, the destruction of nature leads to our destruction, all species, but particularly our destruction. If everybody has cancer, if children are developing cancer at the age of 5 and 10 years old then what’s the sense? Nothing takes precedence over us staying healthy and us staying alive, of keeping the earth alive, keeping the Mother alive.
As a physician Wally saw the consequences of living in a polluted environment and chose to focus his activism on two essential components on which we all depend. In 1986 he created Food and Water Inc. and went to work against the Food Irradiation industry and successfully brought it to its knees. With a base of tens of thousands of dedicated individuals, who shared his mission, Wally created ingenious phone and letter writing campaigns that were amazing in their effectiveness. There were no computer generated forms or petitions to sign in those early days of the environmental movement. It all depended on people calling people, calling corporations, calling state and national representatives by the thousands. Long, hard, tedious work, with Wally goosing people of good will to mobilize for what they knew was right, not what leaders thought was realistic.
Wally: Of all the issues that people are working on, the most important issue is to show that corporate science and corporate technology are destroying nature and therefore, destroying our health. And we’re destroying our future generations, our DNA, so all future generations will have birth defects, so nothing else is more important, nothing should take precedence.
Michael Colby, at that time Executive Director of Food and Water remembers Wally. “Like most everything in his life, Wally didn’t hold back when he laughed. He had those deep, deep belly laughs that were contagious to everyone around…a laugh that signified fullness of living. What’s the point of activism if you’re not having fun? Indeed. And people often thought we were devastated by the attacks we were so often under. Hardly. We were laughing. We believed in what we were doing and we were determined to have one hell of a good time in the process.”
Anyone who knew Wally was in awe of his artistry with the telephone. He used it to provoke, to plot, to strategize, laugh, rant and expose corporate evil, while sitting in his living room slowly dying of cancer, the very disease he fought so hard to prevent from happening to anyone else.
Wally: So what we have to work on, all of us together, is to show where corporations, corporate science is destroying our very life, our ability to live, they’re destroying our Mother, they’re destroying our major support system and therefore, there will be no life, so why are we doing anything else? Cancer is a preventable disease, and in order to cure cancer you have to prevent it, in order to prevent it you have to stop the technology and science, as we know it today.
One of my favorite stories about Wally, and there are many, tells how he met with a prominent New Jersey senator regarding an environmental issue. The senator asked Wally how they could come to a compromise on the issue, and Wally asked him what kind of compromise, one where his children developed cancer or one where the senator’s children developed cancer? With his stand of “no compromise” Wally inspired many others to reach heights never thought imaginable. As he was well known to do, I will let Wally have the last word.
Wally: I feel terrible about the earth legacy I’m leaving to my children, but I’m hopeful that we can work to turn it around so that with each succeeding generation the planet becomes clean. I want to see a return of the birds, the butterflies, the trees, clean air, clean water, clean food. I want to see a return of a world that nourishes us and all other species. To achieve that vision, all of us must help.