journal

20190212: We Need the World

Derrick Jensen, Endgame:

It would be a mistake to think this culture clearcuts only forests. It clearcuts our psyches as well. It would be a mistake to think it dams only rivers. We ourselves are dammed (and damned) by it as well. It would be a mistake to think it creates dead zones only in the ocean. It creates dead zones in our hearts and minds. It would be a mistake to think it fragments only habitat. We, too, are fragmented, split off, shredded, rent, torn.

Just last night I saw a television commercial put out by BP, the corporation formerly known as British Petroleum. The corporation now claims that BP stands for Beyond Petroleum, and runs public relations campaigns extolling its renewable energy research. For example, BP has made a lot of noise about the fact that in 1999 it paid $45 million to buy Solarex, a corporation specializing in renewable energy. This may seem like a lot of money until we realize that BP paid $26.5 billion to buy Arco in order to expand its petroleum production base, and until we realize further that BP will spend $5 billion over five years to explore for oil just in Alaska,and until we realize even further that BP spent more in 2000 on a new "eco-friendly" logo than on renewable energy. As Cait Murphy wrote in Fortune, "Here's a novel advertising strategy—pitch your least important product and ignore your most important one. . . . If the world's second-largest oil company is beyond petroleum, Fortune is beyond words."

BP's regional president Bob Murphy acknowledges that BP is "decades away" from moving beyond petroleum, which means that the whole Beyond Petroleum name change is meaningless: by that time we'll all be beyond petroleum,since the accessible oil will all be gone. Further exemplifying the meaninglessness of the name change,a resolution calling for BP to do more to slow global warming was opposed by the board and defeated. BP's chair Peter Sutherland told shareholders that "there have been calls for BP to phase out the sale of fossil fuels. We cannot accept this, and there's no point pretending we can." In other words, BP's name change is a "statement of priorities" and not a legally binding commitment. Or more to the point, it's another one of those smokescreens.

This particular type of smokescreen has been most fully developed by a public relations consultant with the appropriately named Peter Sandman. He has been nicknamed the High Priest of Outrage because corporations hire him to dissipate public anger, to put people back to sleep. Sandman has explicitly stated his self-perceived role: "I get hired to help a company to 'explain to these confused people that the refinery isn't going to blow up, so they will leave us alone.'"

He developed a five point program for corporations to disable public rage. First, convince the public that they are participating in the destructive processes themselves, that the risks are not externally imposed. You asked for it by wearing those clothes, says the rapist. You drive a car, too, says the PR guru. Second, convince them that the benefits of the processes outweigh the harm. You could never support yourself without me, says the abuser. How would you survive without fossil fuels?" repeats the PR guru. Third, undercut the fear by making the risk feel familiar. Explain your response and people will relax (whether or not your response is meaningful or effective). Don't you worry about it, I'll take care of everything. Things will change, you'll see, says the abuser. We are moving beyond petroleum and toward sustainability, says the PR guru. Fourth, emphasize again that the public has control over the risk (whether or not they do).You could leave anytime you want, but I know you won't,says the abuser. If we all just pull together, we'll find our way through, says the PR guru. Fifth, acknowledge your mistakes, and say (even if untrue) that you are trying to do better. I promise I will never hit you again, the abuser repeats. It is time to stop living in the past, and move together into the future, drones the PR guru.

Speaking to a group of mining executives, Sandman, who also consults for BP, stated,"There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine." His solution is not actually to change how the industry works,of course, but instead to find an appropriate "persona" for the industry. "Reformed sinner," he says,"works quite well if you can sell it….'Reformed sinner,'by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization. It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar. Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves,'Everyone thinks we are bad guys….We can't just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realised we were bad guys and we are going to be better.'. .. It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory."

In the ad I saw last night, an off-camera interviewer asks a woman,"What would you rather have: a car or a cleaner environment?" The woman pauses, seemingly thoughtfully, before at last saying,"I can't imagine me without my car. Of course I'd rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are." The ad ends with a voiceover saying what BP is doing to make the world a better place.

Look what just happened here. What are the premises of this advertisement? The first is that the advertisement is presented in the form of an interview, and it can be easy to forget that it's a paid advertisement. A BP website devoted to the ads stresses that the ads were culled from hundreds of interviews with "random strangers." I'm sure they did interview hundreds: that gave them a larger sample from which to draw the responses that most closely fit their needs. Consider, had the directors of the advertisement happened to ask me this question, I doubt they would have wasted film on my answer, and certainly they would not have paid to put it on television. Instead the "interviews" the director decided to use were chosen precisely because they brilliantly and succinctly put in place Sandman's five points: we participate willingly, the benefits outweigh the harm, the risk is somehow familiar, we have control over the risk, and BP is working to solve the problems.

But there is more going on here. First, the ad pretends that the "environment" is something "out there" that is separate from ourselves. Consider if the "interviewer" had asked, "Given that our own well-being is inextricably linked to the health of our landbase, would you rather have a healthy landbase or an entire culture based on the 'comforts and elegancies' that come from destroying this landbase?" And then consider if he would have followed up by asking,"If you choose the latter, what does it say about you as a person?" Or what if instead the "interviewer" had commented that just in the United States about 30,000 people die each year from respiratory illnesses caused by auto-related airborne toxins, and that 65 percent of all carbon monoxide emitted into the environment is from road vehicles, then asked, "What would you rather have, car culture or your life?"

Second, what are the implications of the "interviewer" using the adjective cleaner to describe "the environment" this woman would allegedly gain were she to stop driving. This presumes that "the environment" is already clean, and that the current situation is the default. How would the ad run if we change the question to,"What would you rather have: a planet that is not being made filthy and in fact destroyed by automobiles and other effects of civilization, or your car?" A deeper, more invisible unstated premise of this ad is that a non-clean planet is her fault (and by extension ours, insofar as the director of the ad is able to get us to identify with this woman). "What would you rather have: a car or a cleaner environment?" It's her choice. It's her car. If only she would sell her old Honda Civic, the implication goes, everything would be okay. But she can't do that. As she says, "I can't imagine me without my car." She, and once again by extension each of us, is supposed to identify more with the artifacts of civilization, with machines, than with a landbase. This is what we are trained to do.

We are also trained to lack imagination. If our imaginations had not already been clearcut we could not—would not—live the way we do. And further, we are also trained to be narcissistic enough to believe that if we personally cannot imagine something that it must not be possible. This identification with the artifacts of civilization is precisely what each of us must break. If she cannot imagine herself without her car, I wish her luck in imagining herself without her planet. And another premise. She states, "Of course I'd rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are." This "compromise" would only be difficult for those who have already had their sanity effectively destroyed. The world does not need us or our cars. We need the world.