This Earth Day, like so many others, we’ll be invited to pick up litter, plant trees, be reminded to recycle, and countless other personal habits we can adopt to save the earth. Corporations pitching “green” products will bust out their “Lorax-approved” logos and encourage our “green” consumption.
This will be the first Earth Day since the Occupy Wall Street movement took form. How can we Occupy Earth Day – or as our Indigenous colleagues have urged us all to rename Occupy... how can we Decolonize Earth Day? To get to the root of this (in other words, take a “radical” approach), we need to look deeper into how Earth Day, and our broader culture, got colonized.
Part of this story starts with Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Formed shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970, KAB seems on the surface to be an innocuous litter-cleanup group. However, according to the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, KAB is actually a sophisticated greenwashing operation that is funded and governed by the waste and packaging industries as well as the corporations most responsible for selling the disposables that become litter – companies like McDonald’s, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Nestle, Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola. KAB supports trash incineration (the dirtiest way to deal with waste) and opposes bottle deposit bills, which would increase recycling.
The authors of Toxic Sludge is Good for You! – Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry also warn that Keep America Beautiful is a slick PR effort to get consumers to think that they are responsible for the trash that KAB’s funders created. You get to pick up their trash, put it in disposable plastic bags, then have it sent to a landfill or incinerator that is probably owned by one of KAB’s founders. In fact, the trash decomposes more quickly on the side of a road than in a landfill. If brought to an incinerator, the trash is turned into highly toxic air pollution and toxic ash. While none of us want to see litter, there are better approaches to helping the environment than picking up after the corporations who make disposables – such as challenging the use of disposables in the first place.
Denis Hayes, a national student coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970, spoke passionately at the Washington, D.C. rally, shouting, “political and business leaders once hoped that they could turn the environmental movement into a massive anti-litter campaign.” He stated that “we’re tired of being told we are to blame for corporate depredations… institutions have no conscience. If we want them to do what is right, we must make them do what is right.” These words still ring true today, yet corporations have been a little too successful at shifting the message and getting people to focus on picking up after corporate messes.
Older than Earth Day, Deeper than Litter
I once saw a pickup truck with two bumper stickers on it. One was some sort of pro-logging sticker, like “have you hugged a logger today?” The other said simply “Smokey Needs You.” I was blown away – not only by how these two stickers could be on the same truck – but by the fact that the “Smokey Needs You” sticker didn’t even have to tell me the message. The message was already in my head! The sticker was just there to trigger it. The advertising was so pervasive and effective that they no longer even need to say the message. Most anyone growing up in the U.S. knows who Smokey is and what he wants from us. Who is Smokey and what does he want? Of course, he’s Smokey the Bear… and he wants us to prevent forest fires. Very good, boys and girls.
Obviously, it took a lot of money to put Smokey’s message in everyone’s heads. So, who funds Smokey the Bear? Who sponsors all of these ads? Here’s a hint. The same organization that funds Smokey the Bear also funds messages that say “don’t drink and drive,” “buckle your seatbelt,” “pick up litter,” “wear a condom,” “tutor kids after school,” “feed the hungry” and many similar messages. They’re the same ones who did such popular campaigns as “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” “take a bite out of crime,” “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” and “just say no” to drugs. You’ve seen and heard these ads in newspapers and magazines, on TV, radio, billboards, buses and bus stops.
These are all campaigns brought to you by the Ad Council. Most of us absorb the message without even noticing the sponsor. It’s almost subliminal.
Around $2 billion a year in Ad Council public service announcements reach people in the United States with 123.4 billion media impressions in 2010 alone. That amounts to 400 ads per person for the year – more than one a day on average.
Who is the Ad Council and what are they trying to tell us? There is a common thread between all of their ads, and you can find it in Smokey the Bear’s exact message: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” The most important word in that message is the one they themselves capitalize: you. The common theme between all of these seemingly different messages is that individuals are the cause of social problems and that individual change is the solution. In case this isn’t obvious enough, it’s one of their five stated criteria for topics they’ll take on: “the issue must offer a solution through an individual action.”
The Ad Council and its funders are a Who’s Who of major corporations in the United States, including at least half of the nation’s 100 largest corporations. The idea for an Ad Council was conceived in 1941 to counter criticism of corporate advertising by showing that ads could also be in the public interest. Advertisers feared that legislation might tax corporate ads or regulate their content. Several weeks later, in 1942, with U.S. entry into World War II, it was founded as the War Advertising Council, to build U.S. support for involvement in the war, with “Rosie the Riveter,” “Buy War Bonds” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaigns. The Ad Council has persisted in supporting corporate and government / military objectives, even with anti-communist ads in the 1950s, a post-9/11 “Campaign for Freedom” and military recruitment ads in more recent years. Aside from these military ad campaigns, most of the Ad Council’s history has been to use corporate funding to promote campaigns that distract from the corporate causes of social problems.
The Ad Council strategy is a blame-shifting public relations tactic. These are the dominant institutions of our time saying that they are not the cause of social problems – you are… that they don’t need to change to solve the problems – you do. The Ad Council and Keep American Beautiful exist to prevent such things as the McToxics Campaign, where high schoolers teamed up with community anti-landfill activists in the late 1980s to mail back the Styrofoam clamshells to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois to get McDonald’s to stop using Styrofoam. This is a group activity getting an institution to change the packaging they use so that it doesn’t end up as litter and in landfills and incinerators.
The top 1% stays in power by keeping us divided. They divide us with racism, sexism, heterosexism, immigration status and wedge issues like guns and abortion. They’ll divide us along every line except for class, for which they must keep the middle class fighting the poor. If the middle class and poor see past the manufactured culture wars and unite to fight the wealthy, the 1% is in trouble, because we outnumber them. Throughout the history of this country, racism has played an important role. In a book called A Different Mirror – A Multicultural History of the United States, the author spells out this history, showing how plantation owners, when their workers started to organize for better working conditions, would bring in other workers in order to racially divide their workforces, such as having Native Americans work along-side African Americans and paying one group less than the other so that they resent each other and fight each other instead of their bosses. In Hawaii, the sugar plantation owners did the same, paying the Portuguese more than the Japanese workers, and – once that differential wage system was abolished in response to Japanese labor protests – plantation owners brought in more Filipino workers and preferred a specific ratio of Japanese to Filipino workers. The expression “the shit rolls downhill” came from there, where the managers’ houses would be on top of the hill, with sewage systems flowing down past the Japanese and Portuguese laborers housing to the Filipino workers’ shanty houses at the base of the hill, reflecting the labor hierarchy. This history was very intentional and many sorts of division tactics continue to this day.
The Ad Council strategy is the scientific perfection of this divide and conquer strategy. Instead of dividing people into groups, it divides us into individuals, so that we don’t even see problems and solutions in terms of group identities. It’s designed to prevent organizing into groups to make change, which is why so many environmentalists start off seeing their options as doing litter cleanups, voluntary recycling, tree planting, adopting acres / cows / whales, etc. – tactics that don’t challenge the power structure and which focus on individual changes, not institutional change.
Organizing for institutional change runs contrary to the American ideal of individuality, but social change is usually made by movements, not individuals working alone. Our culture hides this from us when our history books portray the “Rosa Parks effect” – where we learn about social change in the context of individuals who made it possible, not the organizations and entire movements of which these individuals were a part.
There is a paradox in the fact that we need to find bigger (institutional) ways to reach large numbers of individuals to get them thinking that individual changes aren’t enough to solve social problems, and that their participation in movements to make change is vital (and not just voting for “change” every four years).
We need to wake people up to the public relations distractions around them and decolonize our minds. However, we don’t have the reach to counter hundreds of billions of media impressions a year by trying to wake up one person at a time. This is the very weakness of individual change. So, how can we institutionalize systemic thinking, or the dismantling of PR distractions? Is fighting for media democracy enough, when Ad Council ads now appear on websites, without a counterbalance to encourage institutional change thinking?
Occupy has been incredibly successful at changing the narrative on group identity – putting class inequality into the mass consciousness, with the mass media helping perpetuate the simple “99% vs. 1%” framing. Can we come up with a similar meme that tackles the pervasive wave of you-are-the-problem-and-solution advertising and get people thinking in terms of group action to change institutions?