Global Spin

David Edwards

The Ecologist, Nov-Dec 1997 v27 n6 p251(2)

Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Sharon Beder, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1997.

This book deals with the real environmental crisis - the one that consists, not in decaying ecosystems, ozone depletion and global warming, but in the corporate domination of what we are able to hear, see, know and think; the crisis that lies in the fact that the modem mass-media system is a corporate one deeply embedded in, and dependent on, the wider corporate status quo; and in the related capacity of corporate power to boost facts, ideas and political choices conducive to profit maximization, and to stifle those that are not. The effect of these realities on the environmental movement has been both dramatic and catastrophic.
In 1989 a New York Times poll found that 80 per cent of people surveyed agreed that "protecting the environment is so important that standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost." In the same year Green parties in Europe attracted 15 per cent of the vote, while 16 per cent of Canadians surveyed said the environment was the most important problem in Canada.
By 1991 all this had changed. In that year 50 per cent of those surveyed agreed that environmentalists had "gone too far" compared with 17 per cent the year before. The decline in Green party fortunes reflected this perception, notably in Britain where Jonathon Porritt observed that the British Green Party had "all but disappeared as a serious political force."
How can we account for such a rapid change in public feeling? According to Sharon Beder, the answer lies in a massive corporate response to the threat of costly environmental regulations. Corporate executives soon came to realise that environmentalism was, in their own words, "the life and death PR battle of the 1990s." The objective, one consultant told the oil and gas industry, was to "put the environmental lobby out of business", to render it "superfluous, an anachronism". Likewise, a consultant told a meeting of the Ontario Forest Industries Association: "You must turn the public against environmentalists or you will lose the environmental battle as surely as the US timber industry has lost theirs."
The aim was clear, the means also - money, lots of it. US corporations today spend over $1 billion a year waging the war of ideas through propaganda of various kinds. The assault against environmentalism begins deep in cultural norms, which are shaped around clearly defined corporate objectives. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow explains:
"Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... We need things, consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate."
Consumption as religion, no less. The average American is exposed to some 3,000 advertising sermons to this grubby god every day of his or her life, with more money being spent persuading Americans to be consumers than is spent on higher education or Medicare. As with every power religion, impressionable children are a prime target. As though speaking from the pages of Brave New World, the senior vice-president of Grey Advertising declares:
"It isn't enough to just advertise on television ... You've got to reach kids throughout their day - in school, as they're shopping at the mall ... or at the movies. You've got to become part of the fabric of their lives."
They achieved this goal with the corporate educational materials currently flooding the US education system. Corporations like Lifetime Learning Systems remind their corporate clients that "Kids spend 40 per cent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can't reach them ... Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well."
Environmentalists out to spoil the party are subjected to a barrage of corporate flak: "Environmental education is engaging children in politics in primary school and, frankly, is indoctrination," as David Reidnauer, of the US National Center for Public Policy Research, would have it.
If environmentalists are to be prevented from bringing about public awareness in school and beyond, the public must be swamped with misleading, confusing information contradicting the scientific consensus. This is a chief task of thousands of corporate-funded think-tanks and PR companies. The logic is crude but effective, as Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations, explains:
"People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action ... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary."
An argument that perhaps accounts for Ronald Bailey's otherwise bizarre summation of the ozone-depletion question:
"The impact of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer is a complex question that turns on murky evidence, tentative conclusions, conflicting interpretations, and changing predictions ... it tums out that ozone depletion, like the other environmental dooms analysed here, is less a crisis than a nuisance." (Ronald Bailey, Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse).
Beder notes that the Cato Institute, which published Bailey's book, is supported financially by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Petroleum Institute, Coca-Cola, Exxon, the Ford Motor Company, Monsanto, Philip Morris and the Proctor & Gamble Fund, among other noted environmentalists - facts which are routinely ignored by the media, who present such propaganda as independent opinion.
The stubborn few who refuse to 'sit down and take it like a consumer' can be hit with "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation", or SLAPPS. The aim of SLAPPing protesters is to sue them for defamation, injury, conspiracy, etc., not in order to win the case, but so as to bring victims to the point where they "are no longer able to find the financial, emotional, or mental wherewithal to sustain their defence," or, indeed, their protest. If all else fails, environmentalists can be brought on board. Stauber and Rampton, who edit PR Watch, note that hiring dissenters is a "crude but effective way to derail potentially meddlesome activists."
Beder also reveals how corporations use sophisticated market research and tele-marketing techniques to identify members of the public potentially sympathetic to their position. Individuals responding positively are patched directly through to the office of the relevant politician, thereby creating the impression of a passionate public response against, say, environmental regulation - a synthetic grassroots movement known in the trade as 'astroturf'.
As Beder proves beyond reasonable doubt, anything more than token media criticism of the corporate programme is unlikely, given the media's position within the corporate system. (The media, after all, are themselves corporations.) The car industry, for example, is a major advertiser in the New York Times. No surprise, then, that Times publisher and CEO Arthur Sulzberger admitted that "he leaned on his editors to present the auto industry's position" because it "would affect advertising."
Elsewhere, Chrysler corporation made its position clear in a frank letter to over 100 magazines: "In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive."
These pressures apply throughout, and are the reason that radicalism and dissent are almost nowhere to be seen in our culture. The corporate media is a system of economic evolution that selects for business-friendly bias: business-unfriendliness loses advertising, shareholders, jobs and career opportunities. Only the subservient thrive to achieve significant public outreach. Thus, according to the host of one of the United States' Public Broadcasting Service TV shows:
"You cannot get a TV or a radio show on the air in America these days unless it targets an audience that corporations are interested in targeting and unless it carries a message that is acceptable to corporations."
In the current situation, individual environmental issues can hardly be considered the central, let alone the sole problem for environmentalists, given that corporate domination makes the raising of public awareness and concern for these issues all but impossible. After all, it hardly matters whether a person is bleeding to death, poisoned, or drowning, as long as there is some kind of obstacle preventing all medical aid from reaching the patient.
To be an environmentalist today, to do something, must mean understanding and exposing the nature of this attempt to stifle environmentalism. As Beder says:
"A new wave of environmentalism is now called for. One that will engage in the task of exposing corporate myths and methods of manipulation."
In Global Spin, Sharon Beder provides the tools for just that, and enables environmentalism to successfully engage with, and expose, deceptions knowingly designed to forestall the threat of mass public concern. As they say - if you beg, steal, borrow, or buy only one book this year, make it this one - it is the most important contribution to the environmental debate I have read.

David Edwards is the author of Free to be Human, Published by Green Books.
Review Grade: A

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