by E. Bruce Harrison
- Reviewed by John C, Stauber, syndicated from Earth First! Journal Mabon 1994
More than any other author Rachel Carson is credited with giving birth to popular ecological awareness. Silent Spring, her bombshell 1962 bestseller, gave a dramatic, prophetic and factual account of massive agrichemical poisoning. Written with the goal of shocking the public, government and industry into action, it sowed seeds of consciousness that burst forth eight years later when millions of people demonstrated in the streets on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Now PR executive E. Bruce Harrison, who led the fight to silence Silent Spring, has written his own book, a how-to guide entitled Going Green: How to Communicate Your Company's Environmental Commitment.
Harrison's 'commitment' began when, at age 30, he was appointed "manager of environmental information" for the manufacturers of agricultural pesticides and other poisons, and assigned to coordinate and conduct the industry's attack against Silent Spring. They hit back with the PR equivalent of a prolonged carpet bombing campaign. No expense was spared in defending the fledgling agrochemical industry and its 300 million dollars per year in sales of DDT and other toxins. The national Agricultural Chemical Association doubled its PR budget and distributed thousands of book reviews trashing Silent Spring.
Along the way, they pioneered environmental PR 'crisis management' techniques that have now become standard industry tactics. They used emotional appeals, scientific misinformation, front groups, extensive mailings to the media and opinion leaders, and the recruitment of doctors and scientists as 'objective' third party defenders of agrochemicals.
Rachel Carson succumbed to cancer on April 14, 1964, never seeing herself vindicated. Due in part to Harrison's PR work, the warnings of Silent Spring have never been adequately understood or heeded. Today agrochemical contamination of soil, air, water, animals and people is one of the most ubiquitous and difficult environmental health disasters we face.
Harrison, however, is alive and thriving. In 1973, he and his wife established their own PR company, drawing in clients such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical, who were among the sponsors of the campaign against Silent Spring. The PR trade publication Inside PR named him as its 1993 "PR All Star", stating that by writing Going Green he had "confirmed his status as the leading [PR] thinker on environmental issues" and as a continuing "pioneer in the field."
The E. Bruce Harrison Company has offices in Washington DC, Dallas, Austin, New York, and San Francisco, and recently opened a new office in Brussels that will, in the words of Inside PR, "help its transnational clients work through the complexity" of Europe's new environmental regulations. The company employs more than 50 staff and does six million dollars worth of business annually for about 80 of the world's largest corporations and associations, including Coors [notoriously right-wing US brewing giant], Clorox, R..J. Reynolds, the American Medical Association, and Vista Chemical.
Harrison's clients include the "Wise Use" [American term for groups campaigning for GREATER environmental destruction - often funded by industry] Global Climate Coalition (which opposes environmental action to prevent global warming), and the Coalition for Vehicle Choice (which opposes emission-control regulations for automobile manufacturers). He even receives taxpayer funding from one of his clients, the US government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In Going Green, Harrison shares some of his perspective and methods. The book includes self-promotional chapters in which he discretely brags of the PR greenwashing successes that he has arranged for clients such as Uniroyal, General Motors, Cosmair and Zoecon. Of course, he doesn't use the word "greenwashing". The text is filled with environmentally-correct sounding jargon that makes for clumsy reading. The phrase he uses to describe his PR work, for example, is "sustainable communications."
In Going Green, Harrison declares that environmental activism has "died", and that its death presents corporations with a tremendous opportunity to define and dominate the future of environmentalism in the name of "sustainable development", by which he means corporate business-as-usual, made palatable for the public through "sustainable communications".
Who or what killed environmental activism? According to Harrison, the "activist movement that began in the early 1960s, roughly when the use of pesticides was attacked in the book Silent Spring succumbed to success over a period roughly covering the last 15 years."
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, he argues, ecological activism has been transforming itself from a grassroots movement into dozens of professionally-run, competitive, non-profit businesses, epitomized by groups like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Going Green says that today's environmental groups are first and foremost business ventures, run by managers. Groups like EDF are tax-exempt, customer-based firms primarily concerned with fund-raising and maintaining a 'respectable' public image. This preoccupation with funding and respectability makes them willing to sit down with industry and cut deals in which their main concern is their own financial bottom line. In Harrison's words, to "stay in the greening business", the goal of environmental groups "is not to green, but to ensure the wherewithal that enable it to look green."
Everywhere he looks, Harrison sees the rise of pro-corporate environmentalism and the demise of grassroots eco-activism. Especially since the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, "corporate environmentalism is now more lively than external activist environmentalism, and this trend will continue to grow." [On the subject of the Earth Summit, the larger green groups were cleverly co-opted by according them some sort of insider status - access to the hallowed portals of power at last! - designating them as "NGOs" and allotting them a place at the conference table with the big boys. They were even allowed to stay up late! This sort of thing is the illusion of influence - a joke now doing the rounds amongst the more cynical activists in the US states that corporate boardrooms now feature nine white men, a woman (suitably 'power dressed', no doubt), a black person and an environmentalist.]
This opens the door to tremendous opportunities for Harrison's corporate and government clients, whom he assists in building issue coalitions and alliances with carefully chosen environmentalists ready to reap mutual business benefits.
As an example, Harrison points to the partnership between McDonald's and the Environmental Defense Fund. "In the late 1980s, the company slipped into its worst sales slump ever - and the anti-McDonald's drive of the green movement was at least partly blamed. [EDF's Executive Director Fred] Krupp saw the golden arches of McDonald's, the nation's fast food marketing king, as a sign of opportunity ... Krupp was ready to deal, and so was McDonald's."
Harrison is quite happy that the professional environmental establishment is rejecting the tactics of community organising, street demonstrations and noisy conflicts with industry. Ironically the unseemly confrontational tactics that the eco-professionals scorn are acknowledged by Harrison to be the main impetus for any real ecological reform.
In Going Green, Harrison observes that "Greening and the public policy impact of greenism are being propelled by what I refer to as the 'AMP syndrome' - a synergy of Activists + Media + Politicians. Activists stir up conflict, naming 'victims' (various people or public sectors) and 'villains' (very often, business interests). The news media respond to conflict and publicise it. Politicians respond to media and issues, moving to protect 'victims' and punish 'villains' with legislative and regulatory actions."
Some environmentalists haven't yet accepted the message that protest tactics are dead. In one chapter Harrison advises businesses "what to do when you're attacked by an activist group." He first suggests hiring a private detective to investigate the activists [Bray's, McLibel, anyone?] - making sure, of course, not to get caught. But strategic co-optation remains his primary strategy for achieving "sustainable communications". What are the new Department of Transport 'conflict resolution' roundtables if not a device for "strategic co-optation"?]
"Remember that your organisation and the green action group are quite similar when it comes to management goals," Harrison advises. "You're both trying to create customers ... The [activist] group must be publicly observed in action, on behalf of a cause that has appeal to potential customer-publics. Offer to meet with them... Your task is to try and deflate their balloon and to get direct information about what's motivating them, how serious they are, who they are, what they will consider 'success' ... Be friendly. Politely put off giving more direct information. Offer to meet with them again. As long as you are talking, you may not be fighting. [And as has been said, it is the 'fighting' they really dislike - e.g. Brian Mawhinney's plaintive requests for a 'ceasefire'.] Maybe you can come up with multiple options for mutual benefit that will satisfy their needs."
Going Green is a book that activists should read to identity and counter the sophisticated tactics of the greenwashers, and to understand industry's co-optation of the environmental movement. As for E. Bruce Harrison, the godfather of greenwashing is "going green" all the way to the bank.
The syndrome so cynically described by E. Bruce Harrison is nothing new. A strong historical parallel to it appears in John Nicholson's book on the Gordon Riots (The Great Liberty Riot of 1780, Bozo Press, 1985.) The following excerpt shows that the attitude of the green groups described by Harrison is but the latest manifestation of an age old process - presenting us with the cosy illusion of dissent:
[On the subject of the wide-spread corruption in government around 1780]: "Before the administration is cast as the villain it should be realised that these cynics [those in power] were not fools. They were not in the habit of offering bribes for nothing. On the contrary, the offer was merely half the bargain. These administrators were accomplices in the creation of such corruption but they were only recognising what had become standard practice. Someone had to be open to the bribery to make such a practice into a system. Not only was it acceptable to make oneself a nuisance to provoke an offer to be bought off, but some persons rivalled the administration in cynicism. A few actually made careers out of manipulating popular causes in order to sell out to the highest bidder. The most famous example in recent times had been John Wilkes, yet he was far from alone. As late as 1802 Burdett would cause a stir by arousing popular hopes and then never raising the cause in Parliament."
These standard bearers, these power brokers, dash our hopes time and time again, as they use pressing popular concerns as a passport to membership of the elite. They are our enemies as much - perhaps more so, since they are contemptible traitors - as the authority figures that they appeal to. In the horse trading game of politics, they have a pivotal role to play - it is their connivance that keeps the whole sorry show on the road, lending it a spurious air of credibility. Those who agree to some, without demanding it all, fritter away the possibility of real, substantive change. Or have they lost sight of the true magnitude of the ecological crisis that we face in the reams of (recycled) press releases that they put out?
"Those who make revolution by half dig their own graves"
- St. Just