Rafe Mair, The Tyee, November 13, 2006
Rachel Carson: Spun in her grave and other PR half-truths.
Most people don’t much give a damn about the environment – at least they won’t take responsibility for it. No matter how bad the news gets, the public wants nothing to do with the story except to complain that some bad people, namely politicians, have allowed it all to happen, then get back to more pleasant things.
Here’s how we voters behave. It’s election time and a candidate comes to the door and tells how we must all make sacrifices, the national debt is too high and money must be found for saving the environment. He leaves and his principal rival appears at your door. Was that Bloggs just here? What a doom and gloom guy he is! The national debt is well within acceptable bounds, the environment questions all come from the loony left and we have great prosperity under our great party with our great leader and enough money to build that new highway you’ve all wanted. Who gets our vote?
We were shocked last week to learn that for all intents and purposes, our oceans will be fishless before mid-century. This caught our attention. But when our own UBC professor Dan Pauly, one of the foremost fisheries scientists in the world, warned about this back in 1997, we hardly gave it a thought. When the journal Science warned us in February of 2005 that already 90 per cent of the predators in the ocean were gone, we gave it a yawn. When scientist after scientist after scientist warned us about what fish farmers were doing to our wild salmon, we were momentarily discouraged but quickly lost interest.
Doubt as weapon
When we get bad news, we’re confronted by the public relations industry, which earns huge fees by turning our attention away from the matter at hand, telling falsehoods or, at best, half truths.
Many long years ago Union Carbide killed thousands of people at Bhopal, India. Here, according to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, is what happened:
On the night of Dec. 2nd and 3rd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate. None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak were operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. These ailments include blindness, extreme difficulty in breathing, and gynecological disorders. The site has never been properly cleaned up and it continues to poison the residents of Bhopal.
Did the company spend millions getting help for these people? Not a chance. They called in Hill and Knowlton, the world’s largest PR firm, to almost make it appear as if Union Carbide did everyone a favour. I urge readers to Google this subject and find out what precisely happened by way of compensation. It is perhaps the worst catastrophe in modern history except, perhaps, Chernobyl.
PR firms have a formula for bad news and it’s simple. Deny the story or at least your client’s involvement and raise doubts. The fish farms issue is a classic example. Hire former Greenpeacer Patrick Moore and his company Greenline Strategies. Get the name, Strategies! Strategies for what? How about distracting public attention from fish farms? Deny, for example, that lice from fish farms attack and kill migrating wild salmon. In fact, start out denying that fish farms have any lice.
What about the conclusive evidence from Norway, Scotland and Ireland? That doesn’t count, they say. Different fish, different louse. That this is nonsense doesn’t matter.
Here we have fish farms with millions of lice, right smack-dab in the path of tiny migrating Pacific salmon, which are getting slaughtered by sea lice, and the farmers would have you believe that it’s not their lice that are causing the damage – damage, for good measure, they deny. On and on Moore and his ilk go. Shoot them down and they rise Phoenix-like from the ashes with some other blatant nonsense.
Targets: Carson, Caldicott
Moore doesn’t just dream up strategies in the fish farm area, but is engaging in a smear of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 runaway bestseller, Silent Spring, still in print, started the public around the world thinking and doing something about pesticides. Moore is all for bringing back DDT.
He also is now in favour of nuclear power in spite of once being vehemently opposed. He now bad mouths Dr. Helen Caldicott, a medical doctor, a Nobel nominee, named by the Smithsonian Institute and Ladies’ Home Journal as one of the most influential women of the 20th century, whose latest book again outlines the evils of nuclear power.
One of the ways Moore works is the half-truth. He says that nuclear power will reduce the expulsion of bad things from fossil fuels and if you simply look at the plant itself, that’s true. What Moore doesn’t tell you is that nuclear power needs a special form of uranium and that the extraction of this element uses huge quantities of hydrocarbons and will do so in increasing amounts as the nuclear facility ages. Caldicott’s 2006 book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer is a must read.
For a PR person, the half-truth and the raising of doubt where there is none is often enough to carry the day.
Why? Because we want to hear good things, not bad things. We’ve trained our minds to block out things we don’t want to hear. PR flacks are very good at their job. You’ll note again that Moore’s organization is called Greenline Strategies. “Strategy” is defined by Merriam Webster thusly:
2 a : careful plan or method : a clever stratagem b : the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal
That is something Moore does well. He, his business and his clients profit enormously — while the environment is steadily strangled for profit and campaign funds before our eyes.
Lure of laziness
But the most important reason Union Carbide can get away with Bhopal, fish farmers flourish and nuclear power will make a comeback is because we’re all lazy and have enough to worry about without thinking about the environment. PR people know this about us and so do the politicians.
As long as we combine laziness with a bad memory, the environment will continue to suffer to the point that it all doesn’t matter very much.