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Planet Greenwash

With the debate on glabal warming all but lost, corporations change their strategy and co-opt the environmental movement

By David S. Bernstein

Eco-living is the new opiate of the masses. The captains of industry have duped you: Like master magicians, they have used simple tricks and toys to divert your attention from the real source of global catastrophe, tucked securely up their sleeves. They could not be more pleased that you and your fellow self-satisfied saps expend your righteous Earth-saving efforts in pursuit not of environmental preservation, but of your own lighting fixtures and water bottles—while they merrily maintain an unfettered raping of the planet.

Do you really think that the colossal effects of global warming will be staved off by household habits? Understand this: Right now, global mega-giants are bankrolling the development of emerging economies in Macao, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere. Because of our country’s policy and outreach failures, they are charging forward in ways that will maximize the return on their investments, not minimize the greenhouse-gas impact for the next century or so. The difference will be measurable in tens of thousands of teragrams of greenhouse gases a year.

Developing countries are where it’s at for controlling the problem in the long term. China probably will surpass the United States in total CO2 emissions this year, according to the U.S. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Its output is growing at roughly 10 percent per year, largely due to the staggering pace of new coal-burning plants being built there to support manufacturing facilities, which are needed to meet the frenzied demand of its trading partners, like us. Kazakhstan—driven by oil and natural-gas reserves—increased its per-capita CO2 emissions by a stunning 60 percent from 1999 to 2004, according to United Nations data. India, with a sixth of the world’s people, is on an upward emissions curve, as are South Africa, Malaysia, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand, Yemen, Namibia, Oman, and many other Third World nations.

Supposedly squeaky-green Europe doesn’t exactly have clean hands, either, as it accounts for some 11 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions—with numbers rising in several member nations.

Have you mentioned to your congressperson recently that you’d like the United States to get on the ball with that? Or have you been too busy riding your bicycle to the store that sells food grown within the right eco-distance of your house—or changing your lightbulbs, perhaps? As you’ve probably heard, if one million American households each changed four standard lightbulbs to eco-friendly fluorescent, we would eliminate 900,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. That’s less than one teragram, or about one-seventh of the emissions of just the U.S. rice-cultivation industry.

Surely the directed efforts of one million households could accomplish more.

They could, for instance, join the recent call of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). That 19-year-old nonprofit is trying to jump-start the drastically needed effort to coordinate ecological-maintenance and restoration programs worldwide, to mitigate the effects of the climate change that is already coming upon us. SER is asking governments, international-development banks, and private institutions to provide financial support, technology, and expertise.

You haven’t heard much debate about that SER plea in your corporate-owned major media. It’s exactly the kind of serious, massive, and costly effort that corporate titans desperately don’t want anybody talking about. That’s because getting serious about stopping the looming catastrophe will, absolutely, hurt the profits of many businesses, increase the spending of governments (and thus require more taxation), and slow, at least to some extent, the growth of the global economy.

While you won’t hear about these serious solutions on network television, you will hear plenty about climate change these days. That’s because we are in a new phase of obstructionism: We have moved from denial to co-option.

Global-warming denial faces its inevitable last days. Like tobacco-industry chairmen before them, the climate-change naysayers have hidden their greed-driven practices behind the phony pretense of scientific doubt until now, when the very last human finds their pseudo-claims laughable. So corporate titans have chosen the obvious next strategy: Neuter the opposition by incorporating it. They now embrace environmentalism, and in doing so have taken control of its marketing. And the marketing has one goal in mind: to convince you that saving the Earth has nothing to do with regulation or government action or corporate behavior, but is purely a consumer choice. Saving the Earth, you are told by everyone from Nike to Esurance, is something that you do, at home, by buying clothes and car insurance.

Perhaps you watched the unofficial worldwide launch of the new, corporate-subsidiary environmentalism movement: Live Earth.

An estimated 2 billion people witnessed this gelding of Al Gore, who, with the attention of all those people, said not a word to them about the global regulatory efforts he well knows are necessary. Instead, he and the corporate sponsors doled out self-directed, consumer-spending advice such as: Pay your bills online, replace your laptop with a PC, buy a bicycle, buy new energy-efficient appliances.

And, of course, buy energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. The market for those bulbs is led by Live Earth corporate sponsor Philips. Its interests are hardly pure: In its most recent annual report, Philips crowed to investors of its plans to dominate “the largely untapped potential of energy-saving lighting systems,” which Philips plans to tap “in our pursuit of sustained profitable growth.”

This is what you are buying into when you fall for eco-marketing. Instead of making these companies more money, try making a real difference. Throw down your fluorescent lamps, leave your computer on at night, and do something about the actual problem that is destroying your children’s hopes: Call your congressperson, join an activist group, write to board members of ExxonMobil—something.

The results of the eco-friendly crowd’s wasted, misdirected effort can be seen very clearly in the grotesque, ongoing inaction of the United States government, which through citizen apathy has been allowed to fall under the control of the most shortsighted, greedy, corporate leaders imaginable.

Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency held its annual meeting for the Natural Gas STAR Program—the United States’ primary effort to get oil and natural-gas producers, who are responsible for 2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions—to reduce their output of methane, a gas 20 times more potent than carbon in trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

This 14-year-old STAR program is a big knee-slapping hoot for the industry. Participation is voluntary, and those companies that do sign up—roughly 110 of them, including BP and Chevron, representing less than two-thirds of the industry’s emissions—agree only to implement programs they deem “cost-effective” for their company. That is, they graciously agree to do things that will demonstrably make them more money.

The downsides to this commitment are nonexistent: The EPA promises these mega-emitters that they can “participate at a level that best suits your company,” that “implement[ation] of specific practices is not mandatory,” “implementation plans are not binding,” and “you can terminate your partnership at any time with no penalties, further obligation, or publicity.”

No publicity for walking out on STAR—but big publicity for joining. These companies receive the aggressive marketing of a grateful EPA, which, at the annual meeting, presents awards to roughly 10 percent of the participating companies, and then runs public-service announcements touting their accomplishments in national media. This year’s “Continuing Excellence” award, for instance, went to Consumers Energy. Just two weeks before that announcement, Consumers was facing criticism from a gathering of environmental groups in Lansing, Mich. Those groups suggest that some—any—regulations should be placed on Consumers, which currently releases more than 10 million tons of CO2 each year from a coal-firing plant near Lake Michigan, and is building another $2 billion plant in the state.

In a local article about the controversy, a Consumers official was quoted saying that people wanted the coal-firing plants: “The public has voted with its light switches.”

That’s what the corporate Earth-killers think of you. Who’s willing to do something about it?

David S. Bernstein is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared.


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