Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism
By Sharon Beder
Chelsea Green, 288 pp.

Review by David Edwards

This book deals with the real environmental crisis—the crisis that lies in the fact that the modern mass media system is a corporate system 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 percent 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 percent of the vote, while 16 percent of Canadians surveyed said the environment was the most important problem in Canada.

By 1991, 50 percent of those surveyed agreed that environmentalists had “gone too far,” compared with 17 percent 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.”

According to Sharon Beder, this rapid change in feeling is the result of a massive corporate response to the threat of costly environmental regulations. Corporate executives realized 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 that “You must turn the public against environmentalists or you will lose the environmental battle as surely as the U.S. timber industry has lost theirs.”

The aim was clear, the means also—money, lots of it. U.S. 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. 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.”

The average American is exposed to some 3,000 advertising sermons to this grubby corporate 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. 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.”

A goal achieved by the corporate educational materials currently flooding the U.S. education system. Corporations like Lifetime Learning Systems remind their corporate clients that “Kids spend 40 percent 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 who seek to spoil the party are subject 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 U.S. National Centre for Public Policy Research, would have it.

If environmentalists are to be prevented from generating public awareness, the public must be swamped with misleading, confusing information contradicting the scientific consensus. This is a chief task of the 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 turns 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 a protester is to sue them for defamation, injury, conspiracy, etc., not in order to win the case, but to bring victims to the point where they “are no longer able to find the financial, emotional, or mental wherewithal to sustain their defence.” 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 telemarketing 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, anything more than token media criticism of the corporate program is hardly likely. 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 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 TV, radio, and the press. According to the host of one of the United States’ Public Broadcasting Service TV programs: “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 of these issues almost impossible. The real problem is the massive corporate obstacle to the public coming to the aid of the environment.

To be an environmentalist today, must mean understanding and exposing 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 helps us to do just that, and so shows the way for environmentalism to successfully engage with, and expose, deceptions knowingly designed to forestall the threat of mass public concern.