Corporate America’s Green Masquerade

Jeffrey St. Clair on the Latest in Big Business PR

Jeffrey St. Clair is co-editor with Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch, and the author of numerous books, including Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature and A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys (with James Ridgeway).

Here, he answers Socialist Worker’s questions about a new wave of corporate “greenwashing” — public relations campaigns designed to portray the biggest polluters and those most responsible for global warming as environmentally conscientious.

Socialist Worker: The latest trend for corporations is to show off green credentials — BP has a series of commercials with a guy standing in a field talking about alternative fuels, and Rupert Murdoch is vowing to make his international operations carbon neutral. What kind of impact do corporate green solutions have on curbing global warming?

Jeffrey St. Clair: None. That’s the short answer.

I remember being up in Alaska with the Inupiat, looking at Prudhoe Bay. BP wants to expand in every direction up there, into ANWR [the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge] on one side of Prudhoe Bay, and then into the Alaska Petroleum Reserve on the other side. And one of the Inupiat tribesman said to me, “They want it all.”

If they can’t get into ANWR now, they’ll go into the Alaskan Petroleum Reserve and drain that. Then they’ll come back and get ANWR, and they’ll drain that. And meanwhile, they’re investing in solar and biofuels, too. They want it all.

To pretend that this green enlightenment on behalf of BP or ARCO or any of the others has to do with anything other than maximizing their profits is a serious delusion.

Oil and coal are almost free assets for corporations. They’re not going to stop coal mining and burning coal until they’re out of it — unless you regulate them out of that business. The free market is going to encourage them to dig up every last coal vein in Appalachia, using the most cost-efficient method, which is mountaintop removal.

This is the most noxious, environmentally destructive form of mining imaginable, but they’re even using a kind of global warming defense for engaging in this kind of activity — because the coal that they’re going after is low-sulfur coal.

SW: When a company like BP talks about developing alternative fuels, is this real, or is it a PR sham?

JSC: There’s movement toward alternative fuels that they can profit from.

This is nothing new. I remember talking to Enron executives back in the early 1990s, as they were making their first forays into Oregon and California, and they were saying that they were the good guys–that they were going to combat global warming and reduce toxic emissions, because they were promoting natural gas instead of nukes or coal-fired power plants.

What they saw were tremendous opportunities for profit. That’s what motivates them.

In BP’s case, it’s not a matter of developing biofuels at the expense of extracting oil from the north slope of Alaska. It’s developing biofuels and extracting oil. For the other integrated companies, it’s strip mines, oil, gas, biofuels and nukes–the whole gamut.

There’s another aspect of this, which is that biofuels are providing a new excuse for genetically engineered crops.

So you have Third World countries where there’s indigenous resistance to Monsanto’s saturation bombing of Frankenfoods — whether it’s cotton, corn, soybeans. There’s been resistance — in some cases, relatively successful.

But now, the new excuse for genetically engineered crops is to save the world from global warming. So we’ve seen deals struck with Lula’s government in Brazil and elsewhere.

This isn’t just a back-door way to force GM crops down the Third World’s throat. If you look in the U.S. at ethanol and other biofuels, which are promoted as the salvation of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, they’re essentially running on topsoil. These are not sustainable solutions to these problems.

SW: Among a number of politicians, including Democrats, the concerns about global warming seem to have become an excuse for talk about resurrecting nuclear power.

JSC: That comes out of the Gore shop. Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with Gore’s political biography will know that he’s his father’s son, and his father was one of the prime movers behind the Tennessee Valley Authority, behind nuclear power in Appalachia, and the Oak Ridge nuclear lab. Gore Junior was their congressional protector as a congressman and as a senator.

If you go back to Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, behind the scenes of that book is a cooling tower. That’s Gore’s solution to the global warming crisis — a world that is clotted with nuclear power plants. If you look at his advisers on global warming while he was vice president, that was their message, too.

Those had been lean times for the nuclear power industry. I think that the Clinton administration could have sealed the nuclear power industry’s fate in the U.S. if it had wanted to. But of course, it didn’t. They sort of kept them on life support, with a lot of research funding and renewing all the protections.

So is there a renewed faith in nuclear power from the Democrats? Yes. And they now have a justification for it. If you scare yourself into believing that we’re going to be having a runaway greenhouse effect, and the only way to stop it is to take immediate action in reducing the burning of fossil fuels, then you’re going to be confronted with the argument that a proliferation of nuclear power plants is the fastest way to do that.

SW: With Core, it’s also a question of who gets the blame for global warming.

JSC: It’s all about personal responsibility; it’s like listening to Jerry Falwell or something. There’s no critique of capitalism, there’s no political critique, there’s no critique of large corporations.

There never has been. Earth in the Balance wasn’t a critique. Back then, in the late 1980s, Gore was already talking about this as the dividing moral issue of our time. But there was never a critique of the transgressors — except the individual responsibility of the American consumer of electrical power and gasoline.

SW: Can you talk about the attitude of the environmental movement toward this corporate greenwashing?

JSC: The environmental movement made its deal with the devil at least a decade ago, when they essentially became neoliberal lobby shops. The idea was that if we can’t defeat capitalism, if we can’t change capitalism, then let’s just give in and see if we can use some of the mechanics of the free market in order to tweak the damage done to the environment.

These kinds of seeds were sown in green groups in the early 1980s, but really reached an apogee in Clinton times.

I don’t even think the term greenwashing even applies any more. That was the industry response to the great environmental tragedies of the 1970s, and ’80s–Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez. But they don’t have to do that any more, because essentially, corporations like BP and environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund share the same basic mindset.

You can’t distinguish between, for example, Ikea, one of the world’s great predators of rain forests, and the World Wildlife Fund, which is in a joint venture with Ikea — so Ikea gets a little panda stamp on the lumber cut from primary forests in Indonesia. So greenwashing seems to me to be very passé.

Environmental politics are largely controlled by the foundations — they control what’s discussed and what the major issues are. The foundations are shackled at the hip to the Democratic Party, and the dominant ones are all children of big oil companies. Pew, the Rockefeller Family Fund, W. Alton Jones; their endowments were the fortunes of big oil.

I was talking to an environmentalist who said that if you want a grant from any of those foundations, you have to have global warming in your agenda.

Now, let’s say you’re working on fighting chemical companies in Cancer Alley. How do you work global warming into your agenda? Or if you’re fighting factory trawlers, which are creating dead zones off the Pacific coast, how do you work global warming into that? But if you can’t, then the money dries up.

What it creates is a kind of inchoate state of environmental politics, because I don’t think you can build a mass political movement around global warming.

This is one of the ways where Alex Cockburn and I differ. Alex doesn’t believe that humans can affect the environment. I know we can screw things up royally; I just don’t think we can fix it.

In some ways, to me, global warming ought to be a kind of liberating experience. Yes, this is bad, but you really can’t build a movement to fight it or correct it, so let’s go fight things that we can defeat — whether it’s strip mines, or the mismanagement of the Colorado River, or the Bush administration removing the grizzly bear in Yellowstone from listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Those are battles that you can fight and win. But if you’re cowering under the shadow of global warming, then you’re not going to be able to wage those battles successfully.

I think that’s one of the many reasons why the environmental movement is as impotent as the antiwar movement. It’s shackled to a political party that has no vision, no spine and no guts. And it’s economically dependent on a tiny network of foundations that it allows to control its political agenda.

These foundations frown on any kind of militancy, and they really want you to dance to their tune.

See Jeffrey St. Clair, speaking on “Hot Climate, Cold Cash: Making a Killing from Global Warming,” at Socialism 2007, June 14-17 in Chicago (see Socialism 2007 for more information).

Socialist Worker is published weekly by the International Socialist Organization. The ISO has branches and members in about 40 cities across the U.S. Read other articles by Socialist, or visit Socialist's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bob olsen said on May 30th, 2007 at 3:32pm #

    I think Mr. St. Clair is getting close to the point but he’s not quite willing to say it.Nothing about humans in the 21st century is sustainable.Six and a half billion people-no matter what we do-can not be sustained by the resources on this planet.The only thing we can do is radically and quickly reduce our numbers.How we can do that ethically is the question of the age(if it’s even possible).But not to worry-if we don’t do it then the planet will.Remember,this is the sixth great extinction that we know of and life has bounced back every time.Start being nice to the cockroaches in your kitchen-their next.

  2. atheo said on May 30th, 2007 at 5:57pm #

    In case anyone would like to be aware of Cockburn’s stance:

    …The greenhousers endlessly propose that the consensus of “scientists” on anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming. By scientists they actually mean computer modelers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their computer-modeling coterie include very few real climatologists or atmospheric physicists. Among qualified climatologists, meteorologists and atmospheric physicists, there are plenty who do not accept the greenhousers’ propositions. Many others have been intimidated into silence by the pressures of grants, tenure and kindred academic garottes.

    Peer review, heavily overworked in the rebuttals I have been reading, is actually a topic on which the greenhousers would do well to keep their mouths shut, since, as the University of Virginia’s Pat Michaels has shown, the most notorious sentence in the IPCC’s 1996 report (“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”) was inserted at the last minute by a small faction on the IPCC panel after the scientific peer-review process was complete…

    full article:

  3. David Alan Smith said on May 30th, 2007 at 6:19pm #

    One aspect of the formulation of the problem as “global warming” is that the resultant solutions tend to be global and technocratic as well. We hear of ocean seeding projects, ecosystem management plans and other “global responses” like the Kyoto Protocols. As if it weren’t our over dependence on technological solutions and (mis)management of ecosystems we don’t and can’t understand in all their complexity that got us into this trouble in the first place.
    The only path out is to end our infatuation with growth and give up the values that put accumulation, wealth and profit ahead of all else.

  4. atheo said on May 30th, 2007 at 8:17pm #

    Good points David, it’s ironic that we are attempting to releive environmental problems with nuclear power, ethanol, and mercury laden CFL light bulbs. The suggestion for aforestation has already been questioned as counterproductive. I don’t see renewables getting much farther along from this climate of crisis.

  5. Katie McKenna said on June 3rd, 2007 at 3:17pm #

    What Mr. St. Clair points out here resonates so deeply with me. As of late, I’ve been so frustrated by the green movement’s emphasis on individual responsibility without pointing out the necessity of governmental regulations. There is absolutely no way that individual efforts will make an impact without the coupling of an environmentally-minded citizenry with an equally supportive, environmentally-minded government. While certainly grassroots revolutions can be and have been successful, the most successful of those in recent history have shared the element of eventual governmental commitment to cause. While we have congresspersons and senators here and there paying lip service to genuinely positive environmental goals, a very small number of these members of our political machine are willing to go out on a limb for the interest groups they work to appease.
    While the drive for individuals to be more green-minded is certainly a worthy goal, these efforts are marginalized and perhaps even thwarted by the larger institutions at work in this country. And while I’m glad to do my part in being a global eco-citizen, I didn’t know you had to be told to turn off the light when you are done with it, or to avoid using plastic bags when not necessary. Individual intervention is a band-aid for a cancer that only government can cure.