Greenwashing the News: What media does to the environment

“I will purge my mind of the airy claims

of church and state, and observe the ancient wisdom

of tribesman and peasant, who understood

they labored on the earth only to lie down in it

in peace, and were content. I will serve the earth

and not pretend my life could be better served.

My life is only the earth risen up

a little way into the light, among the leaves.

Another morning comes with its strange cure.

The earth is news.”

Wendell Berry – Farming: A Handbook

According to the tourism industry summer has already begun. Indeed, you may have already made trips to Lake Michigan or gone camping in one of the many wonderful wilderness areas throughout the state. Whether you watch a sunset, go hiking, or canoe one of the many tributaries to the Great Lakes, all of us continue to enjoy the beauty and wonderment that is Michigan. Billboards in West Michigan refer to the area as Michigan’s West Coast and the government promoted tourism industry’s mantra is “Great Lakes, Great Times.” But what is our knowledge of and relationship to the Great Lakes region?

In April, we celebrated Earth Day and saw the usual news coverage of events like tree planting, festivities at Meijer garden, and ads imploring consumers to consider buying “energy efficient” light bulbs in order to “save the planet.” While I think that installing energy efficient light bulbs is not a bad idea, in and of itself will do little more than make you feel good about yourself and make the companies that sell them and their shareholders pretty damn happy. Earth Day, like most holidays, should be seen as the corporate world see it, another opportunity to manipulate the public. Many businesses now take out ads imploring us to buy more products that are “environmentally friendly.” Well what the hell does that mean? Let’s examine this form of corporate hucksterism by looking at the auto industry.

Honda has been running an ad for their new Civic Hybrid with the tag line “The stylish Civic Hybrid is definitely green.” The TV commercials have the car riding down the road with beautiful green scenery and, surprise, surprise, no other cars on the road. What these ads try to tap into is not only our sense of alienation from modern, urban life, but also our desire to be more environmentally responsible. What the ads don’t tell you is that just buying more energy efficient cars does not necessarily reduce our energy consumption. What George Monbiot has shown in his new book on global warming is that fuel efficiency in cars has most of the time translated into people willing to drive more and longer distances because they get more miles to the gallon. More importantly, cars that get better gas mileage only prolong the inevitable fuel shortages and maintain current traffic congestion, more land use for parking, more air contamination, and more use of resources for the production and maintenance of cars. In other words, having an environmentally friendly car is like having a non-violent bomb.

There is another aspect to the corporate appropriation of Earth Day… it’s called greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a company goes out of its way to convince you that they care about the environment. These campaigns are mostly about advertising, but sometimes the companies provide funding to environmental organizations or join their boards. The Shell Oil Company is a notorious greenwasher and has received numerous awards from CorpWatch, a non-profit group, which monitors corporate activity. Shell began greenwashing campaigns in the 1980s, but the campaigns of the 1990s were the most outlandish. They ran ads in the Hong Kong Friends of the Earth Journal depicting an adorable Asian girl leaning on a globe, with the tagline, “Protected by Shell.” The “protected” include the girl and the planet, of course. The copy discusses the company’s support for the Tree Project and says, “In fact, as long as the earth needs someone to care for it, you can be sure of Shell.” At the very same time these ads were running in environmental journals around the world Shell was engaged in oil exploration and extraction in Nigeria. The Ogoni people, native to Nigeria, were opposed to oil drilling on their lands. Frustrated with this opposition, Shell worked with the Nigeria government and got their military to occupy the Ogoni lands. The communities continued to resist Shell Oil’s plans and that resistance resulted in the military murdering several Ogoni activists, the best known was poet Ken Saro Wiwa. A more accurate ad campaign for Shell at the time would be “Protected by Shell – we know you want to drive your car whenever you want, so Shell will protect that right even if it means fucking up the planet and murdering poor people in third world countries.”

I raise these issues because with all the current hype around global warming, we should be critical in what is being proposed and what is being done in order to “save the planet.” Take the case of Al Gore’s current notoriety with his film “An Inconvenient Truth.” While I believe it is a good thing that there is more awareness surrounding climate change, the film doesn’t offer any serious strategy that will actually result in combating global warming. The action suggestions are centered around changing the light bulbs in your house or creating a carbon credits system and provide tax incentives for big business. Sorry to say folks but this will not do much other than keep attention away from the real causes of climate change – unaccountable corporations and the policies that they pay governments to pass. A closer look at Gore’s own history as a Senator and Vice President reveal that he was never really a “defender of the earth.”

Gore pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been devastating for the environment in North America. During the Clinton/Gore 1992 campaign trail, they promised the people of East Liverpool, Ohio that they would fight a hazardous waste incinerator…it never happened. In the Northwest, Clinton/Gore gave the logging and paper companies a huge gift by signing the salvage logging rider in 1995, a spending bill that consigned millions of acres of National forest lands across the country to chainsaws. Huge tax breaks were given to big oil for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Gore/Clinton put the brakes on a proposal for the worst kind of mining, known as the mountain-top removal method. Gore personally did a great deal of lobbying to push a bill through Congress that repealed a ban on the import of tuna caught with nets that also killed dolphins. Despite this track record the administration was touted as an environmentally friendly bunch. This PR dynamic, coupled with an awful environmental track record led the National Wildlife Federation’s Jay Hair to say that dealing with the Clinton/Gore administration was like “date rape.”

Even while Gore ran for President in 2000, he continued to ignore the concerns of international activists, particularly the Uwa tribe from Colombia. The Uwa were the victims of oil drilling in their native lands by the petroleum giant Occidental Petroleum. Al Gore was a major shareholder in the company at the time of his 2000 Presidential race. The Uwa sent a delegation to the US the last few months before the election with the intent of asking Gore to divest from Occidental and get him to make a statement against the practices of the oil company in Colombia. Not only does Gore not make such a statement, he refused to even meet with the Uwa delegates. No surprise that “An Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t challenge corporate policy and practices.

On the local level it was interesting to see a front page Earth Day story that the Grand Rapids Press ran entitled “Are legislators as green as they think?” The article consisted of asking West Michigan lawmakers if they recycle, compost or belong to environmental groups – all questions surrounding personal behavior. No where in the article is there a summary of the legislators voting records on environmental issues such as water diversion, oil drilling in the Great Lakes, sulfide mining in the UP, or a whole slew of issues that really mean something. To add insult to injury the Press sought out 3 local environmental spokespersons to response to the legislator questionnaire. None of the spokespersons addressed policy, instead they all played along with the charade and endorsing hard journalistic inquiry such as “when you go to the store, do you ask for paper or plastic?” I shit you not!

I began with an excerpt from one of Wendell Berry’s poems. Berry is a farmer, essayist and poet extraordinaire. Much of his writing focuses on the natural world and our responsibility to respect it. When he says, “the earth is news” I take that to mean that the earth is newsworthy. Think about how little coverage environmental issues get and then think about how much coverage crime gets. Imagine if environmental stories received the same attention as crime, or sports, or weather. I mean, the TV stations spend thousands of dollars on doppler radar and fancy electronic maps and green screens to tell us if it is going to rain or not. Couldn’t that money be better spent reporting on issues relating to the environment, particularly what people are doing locally to address those issues? Maybe it is time that news agencies created an environmental beat, where a pool of reporters were dedicated to investigating and reporting on issues surrounding agriculture, transportation, pollution, environmental health, economic policy and wildlife issues that impact all of us in West Michigan. All of us should push for that to happen, but in the mean time more of us need to become citizen journalists and begin to present the earth as news.

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org