Is Grand Rapids Becoming Green: Part II

Grand Rapids Greenwashing

“Industrial civilization is incompatible with life. It is systematically destroying life on this planet, undercutting its very basis. This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it’s stopped – whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means – it will kill every living being. We need to stop it.”

– From What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen & Aric McBay

So, last year in my Earth Day-edition of this monthly column I raised some questions about whether or not Grand Rapids was really becoming a “Green City.” I discussed the notion of corporate green-washing and how the current fashion of calling something green was mostly a PR scam to get us to either buy more stuff we don’t need or to lull us into thinking that all we needed to do to avoid ecological catastrophe was to make some minor adjustments to the system.

I mentioned how in 2006 there was a Step It Up Campaign with the goal of reducing our levels of carbon humanity produces 80% by 2050. If we don’t reduce it that might much 2050 we might not be able to reverse the disastrous consequences of climate catastrophe. Well, it is a year later and I want to again raise questions about whether or not there are any serious efforts to structurally change how we live in West Michigan that would truly promote sustainability.

First, it seems like we simply have to stop consuming more and significantly reduce our levels of consumption. I have been to hearings in recent months in Holland over the proposed coal power plant and I rarely heard anyone talking about reducing the community’s electricity needs. There was some discussion of creating alternative and renewable energy, but not much was said about the need to reduce how much energy was being consumed and how much our system is built around “growth.”

The idea that you can have sustainability with growth generally seems to be accepted even though I have yet to come across any solid arguments on how this is possible. But it’s as if that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we call whatever we do green and all is well.

I read a story in the Grand Rapids Press in late February with the headline, “Green cell phones.” I thought this was probably going to be a PR created article touting some new solar powered cell phones, which are problematic in and of themselves. What the story was really about was that one company was now offering a new program on the cell phone, which would allow you to track your own carbon footprint. So, while you are stuck in traffic you can figure out how much of an impact you are personally having on the planet. How nice.

What is troubling about this green marketing scheme is that it not only doesn’t do anything to address the severity of the current ecological crisis we face, it takes our attention away from the corporations that produce this stuff and what these systems of communication are doing to us and the planet. It means you don’t have to discuss how the minerals are extracted from the earth that are used to make the phones, how far these materials are transported, and what pollution is produced in the process. It means you don’t have to think about the amount of water and chemicals that are used in the process of treating the electronic components used manufacturing the phones. It means you don’t have to think about the millions of cell phone towers that are erected all over the planet so that you can talk to people anytime you want. Cell phone towers mean that trees will come down and we don’t fully know what the consequences will be on our health from the electronic waves that cell phone towers and cell phone emit. This is what is dangerous about the production of “green products.”

In March, there was an announcement in the Grand Rapids Press about a joint business venture with a company from Spain and Rockford Construction Company to manufacture wind turbines for electricity production. Again, the story is presented as a wonderful thing, because after all don’t we need viable alternative energy sources? We do, but the problem with this uncritical approach is that it again avoids any discussion on how energy is currently being consumed and how it would be distributed.

Part of the problem of energy consumption is not just that the current system uses too much, but the production and distribution of energy is not done democratically. The power companies are private entities so you and I have no say in how energy is produced, distributed, nor what they charge for it. If energy sources in West Michigan were public utilities, then the public could have a say in how energy is produced and distributed. We could also have a say in creating community standards so that the current big consumers of energy, industry, could not continue to pollute at the current levels. It means that we would all have to become invested in the process, but it also means that there is some mechanism for accountability.

These are not the kind of questions that are being raised about our future, even from the organizations that claim to be leaders on issues of sustainability. In March, Congressman Ehlers and Hoekstra responded negatively to the Obama administration’s energy proposal, which in part promotes the idea of carbon trading. The Press interviewed the director of a local environmental organization who supported the idea of carbon trading. The story is framed to make you believe that the Republican Congressmen are not environmentally down with the government plan, but the eco-organization is. What are omitted are any third voices that might be critical of the idea of carbon credits because they don’t believe that the market should play a role in averting climate catastrophe. This is the basic critique of Indian activist and author Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Soil, Not Oil: Environmental Justice in the Age of Climate Crisis.

At the end of April, the Grand Rapids-based group Local First is hosting a conference called “Designing Sustainable Communities Through Business.” In looking at the website I can’t find anything about what Local First means by sustainability other than the green business mantra of the “Triple Bottom Line,” which means economic growth, social responsibility and sustainable environmental practices. However, there are no standards or guidelines for the triple bottom line.

The lack of clear standards about being a sustainable business is reflected in which businesses are members of Local First. With a quick look at some of the names I was confused as to how a company that sells RVs, a Lincoln car dealership, the Whitecaps Baseball Team Corporation, an asphalt company, Monte’s Bar, advertising agencies, The Grand Rapids Business Journal, real estate companies, and a fur company in East Grand Rapids practice sustainability.

These are questions that need to be asked and we just can’t give organizations and businesses a free pass because they put a green or local label on themselves. And since we can’t rely on the corporate media to ask these kinds of questions, we are going to have to figure out ways to ask them so that there is a more honest forum for confronting the challenges that we face in creating a more sustainable world.

Jeff Smith does media education work with the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. jsmith AT

Supporting State Terrorism: The US Media on Israel & Palestine

The US Media Reports on Israel/Palestine from a Perspective that never Questions Israel

As I sit down to write my monthly column, it is now the third week of intensive Israeli bombing of the Gaza. A United Nations compound was recently hit, as have been a hospital, the Islamic University of Gaza and several neighborhoods. The civilian death toll in the Gaza had reached 700 by mid-January with no end in sight, as the Israeli bombing continues and Israeli tanks and troops have entered the Gaza.

Unfortunately, this is not the general picture that one would receive from the US news media. Probably more than any other foreign policy issue, the US media’s reporting on Israel/Palestine is extremely biased in favor of Israel. There are numerous reasons for this bias–reasons that I want to explore.

First, it is important to acknowledge the US government relations with Israel. Israel has been the number one recipient of US aid for nearly 30 years. On average, the US provides $3 billion annually to Israel in general aid and billions more in military aid. According to Frieda Berrigan with the New America Foundation’s Arms and Security Project, in 2008 the US provided $22 billion in arms sales to Israel. According to the DC-based End the Occupation Campaign, many of the weapons that Israel is currently using to bomb Gaza were provided by the US. Some of those weapons are F 16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and TOW, Hellfire, and Bunker Buster missiles. However, if one looks at the print and broadcast media they would be hard pressed to see a single word about US weapons going to Israel.

Second, the US diplomatic relationship with Israel is such that the US has been the only country in the world to consistently stand with Israel when the rest of the world condemns Israeli policy in Palestine. Whenever the United Nations passes a resolution condemning the Israeli occupation the US and maybe one other country will vote with Israel, so it is usually a vote of like 180 to 3 in the General Assembly and only the US blocks a vote against Israel in the UN Security Council. When was the last time you saw the US news media report on UN resolutions against Israel?

The US diplomatic support for Israel is so strong that is consistently receives bipartisan support. Very few politicians are willing to challenge the US support of Israel and those who have were targeted and lost re-election campaigns. Author and former Congressman Paul Findley has documented how politicians in the US are attacked for any criticism of Israel in his book They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby. Every US administration since Richard Nixon has been a staunch supporter of Israel and the new administration are not likely to change that trend. One of the first things Obama did once he sealed the Democratic nomination in June was to go to the largest Israel lobby group in the US (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC) and assure them that he is committed to maintaining US support of Israel.

In early January, while the international community was overwhelmingly condemning the Israeli attacks against the Gaza, US politicians were voting to support Israel. The US Senate voted 80-0 in favor of “Israel’s right to defend itself” and the US House followed suit by voting 390 – 5. Even Liberal Democrats like Senator Carl Levin voted for the resolution, which is no surprise since he has been one of the largest recipients of Israel lobby money over the past twenty years.

Since the military and diplomatic policy is aligned with Israel, it is no surprise that US media coverage of Israel/Palestine overwhelmingly favors Israel. This favorable coverage is due to the fact that most US news agencies depend upon government officials as primary sources and is not inclined to challenge those positions for fear of losing access to these same sources.

Another major reason for the news bias in favor of Israel is that many reporters and news editors know that if they take a critical position against Israel that they will be pressured and possibly attacked by the US-based Israel lobby groups. These attacks will often include accusations of anti-Semitism and possibly even being labeled as Holocaust deniers. The claims of anti-Semitism against those that are critical of Israel are generally not well founded, but who in the journalistic field wants to risk being called anti-Semitic?

This fear of being labeled anti-Semitic even impacts the general public, which is one of the reasons for people to not participate in campaigns that challenge US policy towards Israel. When activists organized rallies against the Israeli bombing of the Gaza in early January some of those activists received hate mail. I also read the comment sections of the Grand Rapids Press and WZZM 13 after they posted stories about the rallies and most of the comments were not only pro-Israel, they accused the Arabs who organized the demonstrations of being supporters of terrorism. One commentator on the WZZM 13 site compared those who condemned Israel’s bombing on Gaza to supporters of Hitler and Pol Pot. The same person said that they hoped that the organizers of the rallies would be put on the US government terrorist watch list.

One additional area of US support for Israel comes from sectors of the Christian evangelical community. Many fundamentalist churches see unconditional US support for Israel as a biblical mandate and even necessary for the Second Coming of Jesus. One of the biggest proponents of this theological interpretation is Rev. John Hagee who is based in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee calls himself a Christian Zionist and devotes a weeklong revival every year to encourage people to support Israel no matter what. Hagee even thinks that Israel should go further with its military policy and advocated in 2006, when Israel was bombing Lebanon, that Israel should have just “dropped a nuclear bomb on that country.” An excellent book that chronicles the history of Christian Zionism is Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism.

Lastly, the near unanimous media support for Israel is part of a larger cultural hatred of Arabs and Muslims. I highly recommend that people read the work of the late Edward Said (particularly Orientalism) and Culture and Imperialism and Jack Sheehan’s important book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. The reality is that it is the norm in the US to see Arabs and Muslims in popular culture as terrorists. Whenever you see someone in the popular media wearing a kafia, a traditional scarf for Arabs, it is usually someone who is wielding a gun or burning a flag. These types of gross stereotypes and how the US news media reports on Israel/Palestine are part of what needs to be changed if the public perception of what is happening in the Middle East is ever to change.

Jeff Smith is a regular contributor to and does workshops on media bias & racial stereotyping in the media.

Commentary: Death and Taxes at 11pm tonight — how the news media limits debate

In Media Mouse contributor Jeff Smith’s latest column for Recoil Magazine, Smith looks at how the media covers “tax season” each year and the questions that they fail to ask about tax policy. Among the questions that go unexamined are why corporations get such large tax breaks or why municipalities receive a smaller percentage of tax revenue than the military. Smith writes:

Over the next few weeks the news media, as if does every year at this time, produce stories of how so many Americans are procrastinators when it comes to doing their taxes. The TV stations will run footage of cars lined up in front of the post office waiting to drop off their tax documents or maybe they’ll even have a “certified tax specialist” who tells people that it’s always best to have a professional do your taxes. Generally that is the extent to “Tax Day” coverage. So what is missing for the news about taxes and tax policy in the US?

Read Smith’s “Death and Taxes at 11pm tonight — how the news media limits debate”

Commentary: The Lies Continue – US Media and the War in Iraq…and Iran?

Jeff Smith’s latest column for Recoil, a satire and music magazine distributed around West Michigan, has been published in the commentary section of the site. The column, titled “The Lies Continue: US Media and the War in Iraq…and Iran?” looks at the role of the corporate media in the United States in supporting the United States’ occupation of Iraq. It also promotes a campaign by Media Mouse to bring Democracy Now to the public airwaves in Grand Rapids. In the column, Smith writes:

Let’s face it folks the media has played a major role in letting the current administration get away with brutalizing the people of Iraq. The major news media in this country instead of just reporting on the latest area soldier who has been killed in Iraq, should get on their fucking knees and ask forgiveness to these military families for contributing to the lie of this war. I mean, I wanna see Lee Van Amyde and Suzanne Geha and the rest of these local media people publicly apologize for not doing their job and holding the government accountable for the reasons they gave in starting a war. Well this isn’t likely to happen. Instead the news media now is not only not questioning the ongoing occupation of Iraq and Bush call for a “surge” in US troops, they are going right along with the administration in beating the drums of war against Iran.

Read the entire column.

Commentary: Popcorn and Propaganda: Movies, Militarism and Mad Mel

Jeff Smith’s column for the February issue of Recoil, “Popcorn and Propaganda: Movies, Militarism and Mad Mel” has been posted in the commentary section of the site. In it, Smith explores how the movie industry promotes militarism:

In the past month like many good Americans I went to the movie theater. I love film…the power it can have in telling stories. Movies also have a tremendous capacity to influence the public and shape our individuals perceive themselves and the world around them. Global empires certainly understand this, which is why the Nazi’s used film as a major propaganda tool.

The US has also produced it’s own films, especially during wartime, with the intent of shaping public opinion. The “Why We Fight” series was a very successful campaign by the Department of War, which is now called the Department of Defense. Hollywood has also played a significant role in promoting the “righteousness of America.” While Hollywood is independent of the US government it has had a special relationship with the US military and State Department, both to have access to the military hardware in film production and to support the US global image by allowing the Pentagon to approve scripts with military themes. This symbiotic relationship is well documented in Carl Boggs’ new book The Hollywood War Machine: US Militarism and Popular Culture.

Read “Popcorn and Propaganda: Movies, Militarism and Mad Mel”

Commentary: You're not really watching the news: VNRs and the future of media

Media Mouse has posted Jeff Smith’s latest column for Recoil magazine in the commentary section of the site. In it, Smith dicusses video news releases (VNRs) and their use by media corporations:

So I’m watching the news — go figure — and this story comes on about how former President Clinton is helping to reduce childhood obesity. He’s standing in a school in Harlem and is joined by the CEO of Pepsico to announce that certain companies are going to put limits on what products they provide for school vending machines. The story says that “Kraft, Mars, Dannon, Campbells and Pepsi have all signed on.” While the reporter says this there are tight camera shots of products bearing of these brand names. Question: did the reporter ask the camera person to video tape products laid out nicely? These products weren’t at the press conference with Bill Clinton and his corporate buddies, so when did they get that footage? Maybe they did a little table display in the staff break room back at the TV station…hmmmm. What happened most likely, was the story included part of what the industry calls a VNR…a video news release.

Read “You’re not really watching the news: VNRs and the future of media”

Commentary: What to do now that the elections are over?

Media Mouse has posted Jeff Smith’s latest Recoil commentary, titled “What to do now that the elections are over?” Assuming that most people will be reading it after the elections are done on November 7, Smith asks what are we going to do now that all the political advertisements are no longer on the air in Grand Rapids. Smith argues that the ads have done nothing to educate voters and have only benefited broadcasters through increased profits:

Here’s an idea, how about we use all the money raised in political campaigns to pay people currently unemployed. Or maybe we could put that money into public education or health care for those who have none. Silly me, then the radio and TV broadcasters wouldn’t make a shit load of money off of the democratic process. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network TV broadcasters in West Michigan had made a combined $5.3 million. So what’s the incentive to actually inform voters? No matter what the broadcasters tell us, it is hard for me to see informing the public is what TV news has done.

Read “What to do now that the elections are over?”

Commentary: What's in a Name?

In his October column for Recoil, titled “What’s in a Name?,” Jeff Smith explores how advertisers develop name recognition, how the the media follows the advertisers in creating “brand recognition” for their news “products,” and how we remember wealthy people right here in Grand Rapids:

When people come to Grand Rapids for a convention or for tourism, quite often they see information provided by the Grand Rapids Visitor’s Bureau. People are generally director to all the sites and attractions that Grand Rapids has to offer, the Van Andel this, the DeVos that, the Meijer something or another. Wouldn’t it be fun to make our own little visitors booklet, or even a video tour guide? Sounds like a project in the making. Anyone interested? We could call it…..Grand Rapids – What’s in a Name.

Read: “What’s in a Name?”

Commentary: My 24 hours with an ex-CIA Analyst

Media Mouse has posted Jeff Smith’s June column for Recoil Magazine, “My 24 hours with an ex-CIA Analyst” in which Smith discusses Ray McGovern’s visit to Grand Rapids last month:

Little did we know that when we booked Ray McGovern to speak in March that he would make such a roar the week before coming to Grand Rapids. This is a promoter’s wet dream and it paid off well for us. Ray was a guest presenter in the Community Media Center’s Media & Democracy lecture series. For weeks we had been promoting the event and trying to get the local news interested in covering his visit, not only because he has an important message, but also because he had targeted Rep. Pete Hoekstra from Holland, who is the head of the House Intelligence Committee. In March, McGovern, in an attempt to draw attention to the appalling record of torture committee by the US military in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, went to Hoekstra’s DC office in an orange jump suit and returned his CIA medal. You’d think that might be reason enough to get the media’s attention for his impending visit, but no. It wasn’t until the Atlanta incident that eyes would open. We invited Hoekstra to debate Ray, but his DC staffer told me that “we wouldn’t want to submit the representative to that sort of environment.”

Additional commentary is available in the commentary section of the site.

Commentary: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… just kidding

Jeff Smith’s latest column for Recoil magazine, titled “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… just kidding” has been posted in the commentary section of the site. In it, Jeff looks at the media’s coverage of the immigrant rights protests that have swept across the country:

It has been hard to ignore the news reports on all the organized opposition to immigration legislation that would criminalize in the US who are undocumented and anyone who associates with them. Los Angeles and Dallas each had half a million marchers, Chicago 300,000, even little old Grand Rapids had roughly 10,000 people in the streets demanding their rights. The news media has certainly responded to what some are calling the “new civil rights movement,” but the coverage has been limited to reporting only the visible actions with no substantive investigation into the complexities of the issue.

Read “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… just kidding”