Wizardwords 7.0 Greenwashing is more than Brainwashing but so is Blackmail
Someone once said: ”I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way”.. (Linda Creed “the greatest love of all” 1977).
Today’s school assignments cover many more consequential topics than when this song was written. Even so, these words are no less relevant than they were then. Our youth have a unique view of this world which isn’t always obvious to adults. In this edition of Wizard words, we look in on a leaving-year student who has been given a particular topic to study.
“Dad, I’ve got this homework for the holidays, it says that I have to ‘explain the difference between Greenwashing and Propaganda’ … my Prof is taking the mickey?”
“Son, that is really a big ask… well, just do your best, and tell me what you find out because I’d also like to know.”
(Later at the end of summer)
“Son, are you finished your assignment?”
"I think so Dad, I’ll show it to you but you’ve got to promise not to make ‘observations’ like usual because it’s due tomorrow and I can’t change anything now.”
“0K Son, I promise, go ahead and tell me”.
Well, it’s like this,
The idea behind propaganda and greenwashing are as old as civilization to say things that favor one idea or another. Both words are common in today’s political speech to ‘normalize’ difficult situations. It’s often when one party or group wants others to believe that what they say is true without having to provide any evidence in support. Today we use an all-capturing term for this called ‘Messaging’.
I found that every political or commercial campaign depends on Messaging of some sort to make their point of
view acceptable to an audience without any sort of constraints of the truth coming into it. It’s what they want us to believe.
Our daily lives are filled with these messages conveying something which someone wants us all to know and believe. It could be the news of the day as one or another journalist sees it, or it could be an enticement from one company or another to prefer this service or to buy this product. It’s constant.
What do these words mean?
I made a timeline so that I could remember it;
Doctrine →Propaganda→ brainwashing → Slogans → Greenwashing → data mining and manipulation →?
The term ‘Propaganda’ comes after ‘Doctrine’ and is a 17th-century word from Latin and began as a religious argument. Whereas, ‘brainwashing’ came in the 1950s and refers to the coercion and persuasion exerted by the Chinese government to make its population compliant. ‘Slogans’ are more modern and associated with advertising but also in politics to simplify a message. ‘Greenwashing’ seems to be a mix of all of them to make people believe that a product is good for the environment when perhaps, it’s not.
I went on to look at what is happening now and I found that there is also mass manipulation of people with individual messaging, which has been built using ‘Data mining’ from our phones and online activity. That’s the new way, the most recent indoctrination.
Based on what I’ve found, I think that there is no real difference between Greenwashing and propaganda, so I think that the Prof is asking the wrong question. The real question should be ‘is there some difference between what is going on now and ‘Data mining and political coercion’. So, I’m going to show the question to be yesterday’s problem and look at it through today’s real situation. First, some recent history shows what each term really means.
Messaging is not a dirty word - it’s just ‘business’.
Messaging is and has been, a feature of modern-day life and there is no fixed or predetermined form it could take. Nearly all activities engage in some form of messaging; to sell, to persuade, to deter, and so on. There has been in the past, insidious, or disingenuous messaging (propaganda) by whole industries to cover up wrongdoing, to sell more of their products.
The first case concerns the Tobacco industry where, in 1996, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a research scientist for the US-based Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp, was interviewed about the addiction of nicotine in cigarettes. He stated that the CEO of his Company, Thomas Sandefur, and the 7 other Big Tobacco Execs had perjured themselves before a US Congressional committee in 1994. They all said emphatically “I believe that nicotine is not addictive”, when according to Dr. Wigand, he knew without any ambiguity, that nicotine was addictive. Furthermore, the company took significant steps to add chemicals such as ammonia which enhanced the addictive nature of Nicotine. Thomas Sandefur was not alone in the Congressional committee nor in his denials, he was flanked by top executives from all of the major American tobacco companies who repeated the same denial under oath; They were;
William Campbell, President & CEO, Philip Morris, USA James W. Johnston, Chairman and CEO, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company Joseph Taddeo, President, U.S. Tobacco Company Andrew H. Tisch, Chairman and CEO, Lorillard Tobacco Company Edward A. Horrigan, Chairman and CEO, Liggett Group Inc. Thomas E. Sandefur, Chairman and CEO, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp.
Donald S. Johnston, President and CEO, American Tobacco Company
These seven men clearly cared only about the profits their corporations were making and care nothing for the tens or hundreds of millions of people they were harming or killing with their products. Their messaging was that their product was ‘safe’ and in fact ‘a necessary part of any stressful life’ – they knew that this was false.
Their denials in Congress were merely extensions of multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns using the most sophisticated research to find the best delivery techniques for the message that ‘smoking is a necessary and beneficial part of any modern lifestyle’, when the truth is the opposite. That was propaganda.
Oils ain’t oils Sol – it’s actually mountains of money
Slogans are usually short phrases that are intended to keep a larger message in the mind of the audience.
Slogans are condensing complicated and sometimes technical issues into easy, simple ideas so that people believe the messaging and don’t look to far beyond to find out the whole truth about a product or issue.
Slogans are not the whole story and usually do not convince the audience but merely aid recall, whereas what they represent can be a story of deceit and destruction. In (October 2021), big oil in the US has been before the US Congress. The hearing asked Executives from Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., BP America Inc., Shell Oil Co., the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to comment on the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change and pollution. The Committee noted the previous example where most of the participants in the hearing on Tobacco were facing perjury charges arriving from their false under-oath testimony.
However, these Executives face no such repercussion and, as expected, all of the participants obfuscated in defense of the fossil fuels industry as ‘an essential component of everyday life’. They made light work of the condemnation of the effects on the climate which they claimed were ‘minimal when compared to natural events.
Like before, these Corporations have made an industry out of messaging, proclaiming that oil and gas are essential for the lives we lead and that there is currently, no realistic alternative. Their messaging is permeating through the minds of consumers- that the consumption of fossil fuel products is ‘all right, at least for now’.
That is all that the industry needs to maintain its margins for profit even at the expense of the irreversible damage their products are doing to our climate worldwide. This is also propaganda but it’s more precisely termed ‘Greenwashing’ because there is a specific additional ‘victim’ of the deceit - the environment. That is the real difference between greenwashing and just propaganda where the victims are confined to groups of people.
Where would we be without plastic – it’s fantastic.
https://youtu.be/hiXGiCaBxtM in 1953 this commercial for Saran Wrap’ ‘claims that LLDP film makes our lives easier.
Recent studies are labeling this film wrap along with thousands of other plastic products, as ‘unrecyclable’ and therefore a threat to life on earth from pollution caused by this waste.
This charge represents a specific threat to the bottom line of Fossil fuel Corps and is called: the plastic waste crisis. These same Big Oil corporations along with a bunch of others are at the center of the effort to deflect any notion that plastic is harmful in any way to either humans or to the environment. This is false and is greenwashing.
For the big Oil Companies, protecting the plastic industry and the extraordinary profits it makes for these corporations is their highest priority, the environment was never considered.
Just like big tobacco previously, the Plastic industry had a preferred solution to the problem of plastic waste: ‘recycling’. It also knew that it was dismissed as an impossible dream back in the 60s. Nonetheless, throughout the decades since, ‘recycling’ became the solution to the crisis according to the industry messaging. They continued to promote this as a solution even though they all knew perfectly well that it does not and will never amount to a solution beyond a trivial percentage of total waste tonnage (9%). It’s a scandal and it’s still going on.
Despite this obvious fact, all industry-centric reports, studies, interviews, seminars, and committee hearings, cite that ‘more Recycling’ is all that needs to happen to solve the proliferation of this toxic waste. This is cited despite knowing that there has never been a successful business model which makes recycling a viable enterprise much less an attractive investment.
https://youtu.be/LELvVUIz5pY here is a mini-documentary explaining the history of this argument.
The messaging from the Plastic industry has been so persuasive that even governments across the globe still push these ideas which don’t harm the commercial interests of the plastics industry but do not have any effect on the Crisis, vis;
OECD ENVIRONMENT MINISTERS’ COMMITMENTS ON PLASTICS Note from the Secretariat In the Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All, adopted at the Environment Ministerial meeting on 30-31 March 2022, Ministers committed to: “Strive to announce at the 2022 OECD Council at the Ministerial Level (MCM) national-level visions, actions, or plans, that could include:
a. strengthening domestic policies and fostering international cooperation, working towards the prevention, reduction and elimination of all plastic pollution in the environment;
b. encouraging the sustainable design of plastic products that are reusable, repairable, recyclable or, where viable alternatives do not exist, recoverable and, where feasible, do not contain substances that are harmful to human health and the environment;
c. promoting sustainable production and consumption, and circularity of plastics, stimulating research, technological and social innovation in materials science, finance, business models and behavioural change among citizens;
d. enhancing financing and circularity including, as appropriate, by strengthening extended producer responsibility;
e. enhancing plastic waste prevention, environmentally sound waste management and clean-up activities.”
These Ministers fail to redirect responsibility for the plastic waste crisis – the proliferation of their products into the environment, from big Oil or big Plastic corporations– their messaging is working. Not only are these Corporations not being held responsible, but they are not even mentioned. Whereas, the manifest specifies that it’s still up to society at large to clean up and account for the toxic consequences of plastic when it has served its purpose. Is it propaganda? Yes, certainly it is. Is it Greenwashing? Yes, it’s that too. Is it also manipulation? Yes, it’s also complicity from governments in a bad act, against the interests of future generations. It must be all of those things, as nothing else can explain why there is no effective and direct pushback from our government leaders for the lack of progress on this worldwide problem.
Your money or your life!
The effects of industry messaging are, to usefully divert any responsibility from the ‘misuse’ or ‘poor disposal’ of their products onto consumers. They claim that there is some obligation inherent in the ‘how to use’ notes to ‘dispose of their product responsibly’, whatever that means. So, for Big Oil and Big Plastic, this crisis is our fault. Its Greenwashing.
The truth is that there is no effective regulation of the industry and unlike tobacco because plastic exists in many thousands of forms and products and lasts for hundreds of years which means that there can be no legislation or investigation which can catch all or even a part of the problem. It’s a global ‘whack a mole’ game where producers are far ahead of legislators and activists in every way.
Do me a favour though….
The power of messaging is always with the producer and not with the audience. Marketers are skilled in the manipulation of the audience in ways that are so sophisticated that virtually anything can be presented as fact without evidence even if there is even more evidence that will prove the contrary.
Producers hold virtually unlimited resources to message about the ‘new and improved’ benefits of their product knowing that it will take years if not decades of research to catch up and prove otherwise. Their message is ‘you’ll be lost without us, so don’t ask us to change anything’. This isn’t just propaganda, or just greenwashing – it’s more like ‘blackmail’.
We know you better than you know yourself – it’s very modern.
What could possibly be our response to these powerful forces who are holding our lives in such an unyielding grip?
The recent documentary covering the collapse of the Big Data Bureau, Cambridge Analytica “the Great Hack” (Netflix 2019) exposes the depth and breadth of a true internet age phenomenon. Messaging was designed to persuade each individual in the UK to support the Brexit referendum (2014). Latterly, voters in the US were tricked into supporting the Republican candidates for congress and the Presidential election (2016). This approach was deployed on a truly massive scale.
This window into the modern age is alarming, it’s a warning, a cautionary tale, and far more of a problem than the seemingly old-fashioned, mass marketing, or congressional testimony we talked about before. The examination of discrete sectors of the audience at large and their individual trends is a new thing. The audience is literally as numerous as there are people on the planet. In this age of information technology and big data, the ultimate study group number for today’s market researcher is 1 person. That is that each person is unique and so should the message delivered to them. That is what is happening now.
This trend of individual manipulation through social media channels seems to have been used for questionable purposes. It could also be the best chance we have to solve some of the most pressing problems which oppress the planet. This power to persuade people using a comprehensive understanding of each individual can be a device for both good as well as evil. It need not only be the sword of power wielded by corrupt politicians whose offer is solely for their own enrichment or aggrandizement.
From the sale of products in a supermarket to political campaigns and social change, from diet regimes to lifestyle choices, messaging might no longer be in the hands of the bad actors. Looking at statistical trends, group dynamics demographic distribution and messaging pathways, associations, influencers, iconography, and relational and cultural variation- it’s now down to discrete and tailored messages crafted to match the preference of each of us, individually. Is it propaganda or greenwashing, or is it something else entirely?
The power to persuade the individual is possibly the ultimate weapon in the messaging toolbox, what defines it is the message itself. The fight to save us from some of the worst excesses of our modern existence; such as climate change or the plastic waste crisis, could be said to be ‘truth’. Whether this is propaganda, greenwashing or our salvation, and whether they are the same or different is perhaps only in the judgment of the audience.
Big Data as a force for good (enough)
The proposition is that the collection of vast amounts of information on each of us has already taken place. Most of us instinctively rail against this scourge of modern society, but what if it can actually serve a
noble purpose? Consider for a moment the possibility that this data in the hands of well-meaning actors can become a pathway to salvation from our most destructive excesses. A force for good. What then?
Successive international meetings on climate, plastic and other critical topics have common barriers to any sort of meaningful progress. Their ambitions lack the universal endorsement of the entire population, most of whom, regard such displays as a sideshow to the everyday trials of living our preferred life and very much ‘somebody else’s problem’. So nothing much changes.
What if for example, remedial measures to each of our greater problems were explained in messages tempered and adjusted to suit each person’s individual life preferences and pathways, just like the propagandists do? A sort of survival kit individually made for each of us.
This could be both miraculous and terrifying in equal measure. Invariably there would be the suspicion if not the opportunity for manipulation of outcomes to suit some agenda or interest. But equally possible, is the paradigm shift we need on important environmental issues which are impossibly distant at this time.
It's risky to even think such a thing at this late stage, but some degree of risk must surely be worth weathering to find progress. No One could disagree that there has been too little progress on the problems where the consequences are sufficiently dire. Do the ends justify the means?
Clearly, we are in a race and a fight against ourselves, and the winners will always be those who can access and therein control the minds of the audience. Why should there not be a well-funded and sophisticated effort to make the truth about plastic waste and what to do about it appear as large in our daily lives? Why should Producers control the message to suppress any reduction in plastic production or other measures which are not part of their plan?
The reasons that there are not already effective counter-messaging are mostly, that those who understand the problem are by and large, Scientists and activists. These are skilled professionals but are not typically as skilled at messaging as those on the producer’s payroll, and nor do they have the funds.
So in summation, greenwashing is propaganda but not all propaganda is greenwashing. The difference is very much beside the point considering the crisis facing us now. More important is what’s happening now is individual messaging generated by big data. Whether it’s for good or evil depends on the outcome and who stands to benefit.
“Dad, that is pretty much what I’ve done on the topic”;
“I’m treating this topic as the challenge of our age. It’s a classic good versus evil struggle and the battle lines are long and the conditions are tough.”
“As I see it, the best possible solution is that consumers everywhere must understand the issues and be convinced that their participation in the solution is vital to our survival. “
“Greenwashing cannot be allowed to dominate our information pathways and the pushback should be direct and even more persuasive. The effects of greenwashing are no less but perhaps even more damaging to us all than big tobacco which has directly caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, far more than any war or disease in history. This could happen again because of plastic waste. “
“Son, I’m impressed with this, you’ve done enough to make me think about it.”
“The problem is massive and your points are powerful, pervasive, and also mind-bendingly difficult to understand much less to come up with solutions to address it.” What can be our most effective response do you think?”
“Dad. First up is the make everyone everywhere aware that: there is a problem, and to give it a name. That message is the first part that needs to be broadcast as far, wide, and often as possible. People should start talking about it”
“The message could be as stark and as simple as “discarded Plastic packaging Kills”.
“Son, isn’t that the same as they (Big Corps) are doing?”
“Perhaps Dad, but right is on my side and that is the difference”
“Ok Son. We’ll see what your Prof thinks …. Good luck”