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Green Spin Out of Control

Forests and seas healing! Oil aplenty! And more eco-baloney.

Rex Weyler 15 Dec

Rex Weyler is a Vancouver journalist and author.

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Tesla Roadster: $100,000 planet saver?

When Stephen Harper proposed his “Green Agenda” and “Clean Air” bill, he likely expected these marketing slogans to rally enough middle-ground voters to win a reelection. This may appear absurd, but it also may work.

Those who look closely know that the Clean Air legislation abandons Canada’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions, proposes more consultations with industry, and sets carbon reduction targets for the year 2050, when today’s newborns will be scratching their balding heads in dismay. A key talking point of the “green agenda” is the “target to set a target” for reducing smog. Harper’s brain trust suggests that Canada wait until 2020 to contemplate when to start thinking about air pollution.

Shall you put your hope in the Liberals? They did nothing to meet Canada’s Kyoto commitments while in power and their current “greener than the greens” campaign comes straight from the image consultants.

We live in a world of spin. Marketing managers not only dominate the news and publishing industries, they’ve captured politics. These are the masterminds who got their start tutoring people in slow suicide with tobacco. These are the geniuses that convince millions of men that they’ll get laid if they use the correct razor and persuade women that they need the right colour of dress for their holiday party this year. White’s out. Red’s in. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Politically, green is in. The chemical and oil industries stayed with denial as long as it worked, but now, their marketing managers are learning greenspeak. Just to dress it up, they don’t call it “public relations” anymore. The new corporate inside lingo: “Reputation management.”

How successful are today’s green spinmeisters? Consider these gems that made their way into our news media:

Convalescing forests: A story circulated recently that the “world's forests are recovering.” Several industrial countries in Europe and North America, having destroyed most of their forests, now show an increase in forest acreage, not the more important number of standing timber volume. Meanwhile, global forestry and agriculture companies do their slash and burn logging in developing countries such as Brazil, Burma, and Indonesia. The planet loses about 32 million acres of forest each year. Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University in New York, a credible scientist, origninally reported the forest recovery data as a few isolated cases that included monoculture tree farms. Corporate forestry interests ran with the story, proclaiming the planet’s forest recovery, classic “cherry picking” of data, topped off with pure salesmanship in headline writing.

Plenty of Oil! This good news landed on editors’ desks in November. Business sections reported that according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates in the U.S., there could be 3.7 trillion barrels of oil reserves left, over three-times the reserves reported by Petroleum Institute data. The report extrapolates current reserves, counting on technology improvements to discover and retrieve hard-to-reach oil. This they call “exploration potential,” a fancy phrase for pie in the sky. They counted all the Canadian tar sands, including deep sources yet to be confirmed and the Colorado oil shale, which would require taking out major sections of the Rocky Mountains and superheating the rock with nuclear reactors, not likely able to produce any net energy. The report’s numbers for authentic known reserves came to 1.2 trillion barrels, slightly higher than the Petroleum Institute. The industry knows it cannot profitably recover more than 85% of this oil, so we're back to one trillion barrels, as everyone in the industry knows. The rest is wishful thinking, but the hype made great headlines and a long lunch for harried editors.

Aral Sea returns: More good news flashed across news wires this year: “the Aral sea is recovering.” The truth: The sea has been shrinking for decades as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan divert water flow for cotton farming. Over three million people have suffered economic devastation, a health crisis, and ecological disaster. Once-active fish boats sit on dry land 100 km from the water. But recently, Kazakhstan built a dam to keep water from flowing from the “North Aral Sea,” a fragment of the original Aral Sea, into the “South Sea.” The dam preserves the little puddle in the north, which is actually rising. Presto: The renaissance of the Aral Sea, neatly packaged for the world media.

Forests overrated: Another loony forestry study claimed that some Canadian forests were actually losing carbon. Forestry hacks fired up the headline machine across the land, reporting “Forests not necessarily a carbon sink,” a completely spurious idea. Mature forests don't capture more carbon and can even lose carbon, but growing forests always capture carbon and shrinking forests always emit carbon. Perhaps that’s too complicated for the public, and besides, we need some uplifting ecology news.

Jolly green giants: Corporate retail giants are learning to “go green.” Wal-Mart discovered that by letting in some natural light and stocking “green” products, sales increased. Throw on some solar collectors, add an organic food section, pot some green plants, and bingo: take over another city, destroy another neighbourhood, wipe out another 100 local businesses, and capture market share!

Eco-greed is good: The green consumer is the new buzz. At the Green Festival in San Francisco a gleeful promoter introduced me to The Tesla Roadster. This hot $100,000 electric sports car goes from 0-60 in 4.2 seconds. The company sold 100 cars in its opening three weeks. Otherwise intelligent people believe they're saving the planet by buying a $100,000 electric sports car. “Green” is the new “value proposition” for salesmen on the prowl.

Learn from the master

The king of reputation management is Frank Luntz, U.S. Republican Party pollster and wordsmith for Pfizer health services and McDonalds nutrition experts. In 2003, Luntz turned his gargantuan expertise on the new green spin movement, with a clientele memo, “The Environment: a cleaner, safer, healthier America.” The letter helps beleaguered spokespersons win “the environmental communications battle.” Luntz’s first rule of greenspeak: “Convince them of your sincerity and concern for the environment.”

“Them,” is us.

Make use of broad, unassailable principles, Luntz advises his clients. Promote “common sense,” policies and “shared beliefs.” Don’t ever say, “global warming” as this “connotes catastrophic consequences.” Rather, if you have to address the bloody issue, say “climate change.” Hey, the weather is always changing. Luntz assures us this is “less of an emotional challenge.”

Say things such as, “We all want to move towards a healthier, safer future.” Or: “We all want and deserve clean air.” Other gems include portraying “the scientific community as divided.” And never say “privatization.” That scares people. “The better choice is ‘personalization.’ This sounds like ‘We The People’ have more control.”

‘Astroturfing’ and ‘ventriloquism’

Astroturfing, making your industry voices and think tanks look wholesome and green, remains a favorite tactic of Luntz’s ilk. Global spin-doctors at Burston-Marsteller pioneered this back in the 1980s. Recall the “Forestry Alliance” and the “Share Groups.” Recently, Stephen Harper’s friends in the Alberta oil industry financed Dr. Barry Cooper at the University of Calgary, creating the “Friends of Science,” to sell the “common sense” behind tar sands development. When exposed by the Globe and Mail, they changed their name to the “Natural Resources Stewardship Project.” Their single focus remains to discredit the idea that humans contribute to global warming. These earth stewards report, coolly, “CO2 is very unlikely to be a substantial driver of climate change.” Not “global warming,” mind you.

Tricks of the spin trade include “ventriloquism,” exemplified by the “dentists” in toothpaste commercials, paying people who appear credible to deliver the talking points. “Cherry-picking the data,” makes you sound scientific while promoting a single point of view. The “echo chamber” technique bounces a foregone conclusion through front organizations like “Friends of Science” or the “Clean Air Club,” until the ideas gain public “traction.”

Classic techniques that the elite have used throughout history to cling to power include demonizing rival voices, co-opting the opposition’s rhetoric, and concealing the arguments in swarms of red herrings from which objective facts never return. When a corporation screws up beyond repair, as Union Carbide did in Bhopal or Arthur Anderson caught with their hand in the Enron cookie jar, the simple tactic is to simply change your name to Dow Chemical or Accenture Consulting and never miss a beat.

Of late, maybe the best green hype belongs to Starbucks, who recently announced that within five years it might be able to include “up to” ten percent recycled material in its coffee cups. For this, they took their bows at the New York corporate responsibility awards. Stop the presses! The world is saved!

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