Creating demand; how corporations co-opted environmentalism

BY CLIFFORD GINN

During the 1960s and 1970s, growing environmental awareness led to the passage of this country’s landmark environmental laws, a bureaucracy to administer them and a greater emphasis on environmental factors in administrative decision making generally. While current scientific knowledge demonstrates that we must go much further than any of those laws do to address the many threats to health, safety and welfare that our unsustainable consumer culture creates, there is little question that these laws produced dramatic changes.

As companies in the polluting and extractive industries were increasingly forced to internalize the social costs of their activities, they turned to the public relations industry for help. The consultants examined the grassroots organizing methods that had made the environmental movement and other social movements so successful, and recommended that their employers adopt similar methods. Of course, pollution and waste do not have the same public appeal as health and efficiency, so the industries involved needed to compensate for their lack of popular support with money. The enormous success of the counterrevolution that ensued has been evident in Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses alike.

A primary tool for corporate public relations is the creation of front groups, allegedly grassroots organizations that dress industry’s preferred policies in the garb of “reason,” “science” and “public interest.” Take, for example, The Information Council on the Environment, a coal-industry front group. Documents outlining its media strategy described a plan to target “older, less-educated males from larger households who were not typically information-seekers.” Public relations firms like Merrill Rose encourage companies to “put your words in someone else’s mouth,” and the numerous “citizens'” groups supporting mining in the western states speak quite well for the companies who fund them.

Corporations such as Mobil, Du Pont, Ford, Philip Morris, Monsanto and Pfizer all support multiple organizations with deceptive names like “The American Council on Science and Health” and “Citizens for a Sound Economy.” These groups often share office space with more overt industry lobby groups. The Council for Solid Waste Solutions shares space with the Society of the Plastic Industry, Inc. The Oregon Lands Coalition has the same address as the Association of Oregon Industries.

Sometimes the groups even masquerade as environmental organizations. The National Wetlands Coalition, made up largely of oil and gas companies, was formed to protect its members’ “right” to drill wherever they please, and the Keep America Beautiful Campaign has fought aggressively against recycling legislation.

The media uncritically reports statements from these organizations and government officials cloak favors to their contributors in talking points these groups provide. Media reports also fail to dismiss the outrageous claims about the lobbying power of environmental and other social justice groups. The pollution lobby outspends them at least ten to one, spending over $1 billion.

So where can you go for reliable information? You may not take me seriously when I say “environmental groups,” but let me explain why this is actually a reasonable answer.

Industry’s power is grounded primarily in money. Because companies deliver their message through other people’s mouths, they can propagate lies as often as they like. When one group gets exposed, they start another and pump some money into it. Most people assume that corporate representatives are bending or ignoring the truth when they speak directly on the corporation’s behalf. Recent revelations about the tobacco industry provide only one of thousands of examples justifying such cynicism.

However, environmental groups have nothing if they lose their credibility. Their power is almost entirely grounded in their ability to convey accurate information in such a way that people understand its significance for their daily lives. When I worked for the Sierra Club, every fact that went into print, be it for press releases, information sheets handed out at street fairs or internal newsletters, had to be carefully checked. No exaggerating or fudging was permitted.

There are few incentives to do otherwise. Comparatively speaking, environmentalists have less to gain personally from the policies they advocate than do most lobbyists. It is fairly obvious why Ford Motor Company does not want stricter fuel efficiency standards, but it is less obvious why an upper middle-class Manhattanite would devote hundreds of hours to reducing the number of diesel bus depots in the Bronx. More to the point, organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists (a real environmental group) could not plausibly have any reason for existing, other than to promote reasonable scientific solutions to real environmental problems.

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