To Lie or Not To Lie: Thoughts on Strategy For Environmentalists

So it seems that since the release of the film The Day After Tomorrow, everything in the literati media (such as what you find on Arts & Letters Daily) is saying the film is alarmist… and yet, other environment-related pieces are also showing up in somewhat higher proportions. I’m not sure what I think about “alarmism” as a political strategy. As with everything, there are pros and cons that are difficult to weigh.

I guess the thing we need to do is think about what’s at stake, and what are the probable (and possible) consequences of our strategies.

For instance, and for starters, take the film that has stirred up this controversy, The Day After Tomorrow. Most of the reviews out there depend pretty heavily on what scientists have to say about it, which is that the message is roughly right but the science involved is bogus, and claims that it isn’t are misleading.

Doom and gloom for a purpose, even when it’s not realistic? Well, yes. Doom and gloom is sometimes simply a strategy. Look at SF novels about nuclear holocausts; look at George Orwell’s—let’s tell it like it is—political cautionary tale, 1984. Look even at something like Bruce Sterling’s novel Distraction, in which he depicts a collapsing America that is, as a matter of fact, based in part on the collapsing USSR he’d previously visited.

And look at Paul Ehrlich; he’s got a new book out. It’s funny that a futurist and environmental watchdog like Ehrlich still has credibility, actually, because he has been predicting the end of the world as we know it for something approaching thirty-five years now (a career longer, for example, than my whole lifespan).

And, as the reviewer at the link I just included mentions, Ehrlich’s been wrong. Consistently. So why do I mention him as an example?

To understand that, you need to look at the competition.

Look at George Bush, whose environmental policy is either frightening, angering, or laughable—depending on how jaded you are.

Or look at the rest of the competition. Here’s an exercise for the reader. Search any major company in, say, the petrochemical industry. Go to their website, check out their side of the story. Then search with a nasty word, the kind of word you see nowhere on their website, like “fines” or “pollution” or “disaster”, and see what you come up with. I did so with a few companies, most notably Shell Oil, and the result was even more saddening than I thought. Check this out. Now, you might look at the headlines and say, “Hey, half of those aren’t bad!” Yes, but half of them are really bad, and what’s worse, the not-bad ones are minimally not-bad, while the bad ones are quite bad. Flooding five Nigerian villages with crude oil; giving 18 fishing boats to Nigerian families. Horrid mess, and counterspin.

You have to remember that every good deed in the news, on the website, is there to gain your trust. This isn’t to say we should discourage such projects as, say, those we see listed on Shell’s main website in the US. Clean energy sources are a great thing. New technologies are a good idea. But we have to remember why those projects are being engaged; where the money that funds the projects is coming from; why they are being pursued. Now look at one of Shell Oil’s critics.

We can see more clearly now why Shell engages in so many good projects. It’s P.R.: Public Relations. It’s just good business sense. Shell Oil doesn’t care much what happens to you and I and this planet. It’s a corporation, which makes it first and foremost a machine for making money, and anything it does must be understood primarily in the light that money is its prime objective. Not a cleaner world. Not our welfare. Not its own reputation. Not the good of its workers. All those things are secondary to making money.

And it’s in the light of this that I have qualms about which side to come down on. Sure, environmental alarmists must, to some degree, know that they’re uttering falsehoods when they tell us the end of the world is a few short decades away. They must know that they’re exaggerating. But they’re facing competition—a whole network of competitors, called corporations—which can dodge almost every punch that’s thrown their way; they can sue into silence most of (but not all) of their critics. They can provide guns to oppressive governments; they can lobby for whatever laws benefit them, in the countries that don’t simply take bribes.

Companies lie to us routinely; by building images of themselves that make them look friendly, kind, well-disposed towards us as human beings, by manipulating our predilections and our laziness, by expressing no public remorse for their most unsavoury actions, and hiding them or burying them beneath piles of PR. Governments (especially those, like the current American administration) who are connected directly to oil and weapons-manufacture industries) lie by sneaking their legislation through, by shaping policies that benefit corporations and industries and hurt consumers and life on earth.

Is it hard to understand, then, why environmentalists feel sometimes that resorting to lying, or creative misinformation, is an excusable offense? When they are trying to oppose the massive, everpresent juggernaut of the corporation, what other strategies can they rely upon?

But there are problems with this strategy. It can backfire. As the review of the film “>The Day After Tomorrow pointed out in the first link in this post, a public trained to expect rapid, shocking disasters will find a one-degree-celcius rise in global temperature over the next century none too alarming. People who live through ten years of propaganda against corporations will eventually lose trust for those who are fighting this battle, and that’s something we cannot afford, because it is going to be an extremely long-term battle. It will span generations, and if those who teach their children that corporations are good outnumber those of us who have misgivings, then all our efforts will be for nothing; we’ll be back at square one, 1950, Better-Living-Through-Chemicals.

The bottleneck for trust is the educational gap; education is a long-term process, and education depends on not on alarmist polemic but on the truth. There are enough shocking facts to make an environmentalist out of anyone, once that person is educated enough to understand what the facts mean. They will not be raving, screaming, dangerous environmentalists, but people who make decisions based on what is most detrimental, or most beneficial. They will teach their children to distrust what companies and governments tell them about what is good for them, and teach their kids to demand that companies and governments act responsibly and pay a severe price when they fail to do so.

So environmentalists should take a lesson not from the media-gaming companies they oppose, but instead from institutions that have existed for ages, such as Buddhist schools, the churches, the knowledge guilds of academia, and the like. What we want is what we find among poets and theologians and philosophers; a chain of messages and of knowledge that, while it adapts and changes over time, is continuous over generations. We want not to have to start from scratch each generation. We want something of what we discover, and of what we learn to demand, passed on to those who come after us.

That is the course environmentalists must follow if they are ever to impact on the power of the corporation.

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