9 May 2019 — Media Lens
The feeling is often there at night, of course, in the wee small hours. But it can arise at almost any time – looking at someone we care about, listening to birdsong on an unusually warm spring morning, shopping.
It is like being trapped on a sinking ship, with the captain and crew refusing to admit that anything is wrong. The passengers are mostly oblivious, planning their journeys and lives ahead. Everything seems ‘normal’, but we know that everything will soon be at the bottom of the sea. Everything seems ordinary, familiar, permanent, but will soon be gone. It feels as if our happiness, our every moment spent with the people and places we love, is irradiated by the fear of impending climate collapse.
Last month, the Extinction Rebellion protests in London (and globally) finally challenged some aspects of this waking nightmare – at last, a sense that human beings are not completely insane, that we are capable of responding with some rationality and dignity. In the end, 1,100 people allowed themselves to be arrested, with 70 charged, for all our sakes.
While many people thrill to the prospect of pouring milkshake over political opponents, Extinction Rebellion proved, conclusively, once and for all, that non-violent protest is the superpower of democratic change. And this was not just non-violent protest; it was non-hating, rooted in love of the planet, love of people, love of life. The mystic Lao-Tzu wrote:
‘Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
‘The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.’
The special forces in this compassionate revolution are the 83-year-old grandfather who spoke so eloquently atop a blocked train in Canary Wharf. They are the little children sitting quietly in the middle of Oxford Street, the mums with toddlers, and of course the extraordinary Greta Thunberg whose insight and intelligence have stunned many veteran climate activists. Where the adults have been cautioning for years that we should not be too ‘alarmist’, too ‘pessimistic’ for fear of upsetting a lily-livered public, Thunberg has said simply:
‘I want you to panic. I want you to act as if the house was on fire… To panic, unless you have to, is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’
She is exactly right. In his recent BBC documentary, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, 91-year-old David Attenborough missed 16-year-old Thunberg’s point. The first half of Attenborough’s film did an excellent job of drawing attention to the threats, but the second half was much too positive on the prospects for individual and collective action. It ended on a hopeful, reassuring note. It should have ended on a note of deep alarm and, yes, panic.
When governments seek to mobilise the public for action, they terrify us with tales of Huns bayonetting babies, of weapons of mass destruction ready to destroy us within 45 minutes. They do this because it works – people are willing to kill and be killed, if they think their own lives and those of the people they love are at stake.
We have always argued that climate scientists and activists should also emphasise the terrifying prospects – not in the dishonest, hyped way of state cynics, but honestly, sticking to the facts. When the science is punching great holes in the blind conceit of industrial ‘progress’ we should not pull our punches. Again, the Extinction Rebellion protests – the name makes the point – have powerfully vindicated this strategy. An opinion poll after the protests found:
‘Two-thirds of people in the UK recognise there is a climate emergency and 76% say that they would cast their vote differently to protect the planet.’
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said the debate around environmentalism had been fundamentally altered:
‘Climate activists, young and old, have put the UK government under enormous pressure to officially recognise the climate emergency we are facing. There is a real feeling of hope in the air that after several decades of climate campaigning the message is beginning to sink in. What we need now is to translate that feeling into action.’
As a result of this pressure, the UK last week became the first parliament to declare a climate emergency – previously unthinkable. Leading climate scientist, Professor Michael Mann, tweeted of the declaration:
‘Yeah, there’s a lot going on in the current news cycle. But this is undoubtedly the most important development of all’
Light-years beyond his Conservative opponents on this issue, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn commented:
‘We have no time to waste. We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now.
‘This is no longer about a distant future we’re talking about nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the environment within our lifetimes of members of this house. Young people know this. They have the most to lose.’
By contrast, the voting record of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, indicates that he ‘Generally voted against measures to prevent climate change.’ Prime Minister Theresa May has maintained a studied, shameful silence, clearly hoping the issue and the protests will go away. Action is clearly not on her agenda.
As if the climate crisis was not bad enough, a new UN report reveals that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. The world is experiencing a rate of destruction tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. Dr Kate Brauman, from the University of Minnesota, a lead author of the assessment, commented:
‘We have documented a really unprecedented decline in biodiversity and nature, this is completely different than anything we’ve seen in human history in terms of the rate of decline and the scale of the threat.’
The following day, only two UK newspapers, (Guardian and i) led with the UN report on species extinction, most preferring to focus on a royal birth. The BBC News website featured no less than six stories about the royal baby before the headline, ‘Humans “threaten 1m species with extinction”.’ This was a classic example of why Erich Fromm warned in his book ‘The Sane Society’, that it truly is possible for an entire society to be, in effect, insane.
Without a sense of alarm, we will likely continue to be stifled by the huge campaign of corporate disinformation and outright lies designed to prevent profit-unfriendly actions. The key to the strategy to maintain public indifference was explained by Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations:
‘People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut “victory”. … Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.’ (Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups’, Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)
Given the need for a very clear alarm to counter this propaganda, it is disturbing, but not surprising, that critics on the left have joined with the likes of Lesly to attack the messengers trying to raise the alarm (unsurprising because the left has an extremely poor record on climate change. See our Cogitation.)
In her article, ‘The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg – for Consent: The Political Economy of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’ – which is intended to remind of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s classic work, ‘Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ – independent investigative journalist and environmental activist Cory Morningstar headlines a key claim at the top of the piece and throughout the very long, almost impenetrable mixture of text and screenshots that follows:
‘In ACT I, I disclose that Greta Thunberg, the current child prodigy and face of the youth movement to combat climate change, serves as special youth advisor and trustee to the burgeoning mainstream tech start-up We Don’t Have Time.’
The claim is that Thunberg was involved in launching new business opportunities to capitalise on green concerns. Morningstar mentions the ‘We Don’t Have Time’ organisation involved in ‘tech start-up’ dozens of times in Act I of her piece alone. And yet, as Thunberg responded on Facebook in February:
‘I was briefly a youth advisor for the board of the non profit foundation “We don’t have time”. It turns out they used my name as part of another branch of their organisation that is a start up business. They have admitted clearly that they did so without the knowledge of me or my family [Our emphasis]. I no longer have any connection to “We don’t have time”. Nor does anyone in my family. They have deeply apologised for what has happened and I have accepted their apology.’
Thunberg did not, in fact, ‘serve as a trustee’ for the start-up business branch; her name was added without her knowledge or permission and she no longer has any links to the organisation. Three months after they were published on Facebook, Morningstar has still not added an addendum to her article responding and linking to Thunberg’s comments.
‘Greta Thunberg and [teenage climate activist] Jamie Margolin who both have lucrative futures in the branding of “sustainable” industries and products, if they wish to pursue this path in utilizing their present celebrity for personal gain (a hallmark of the “grassroots” NGO movement).’
‘I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself. And I do what I do completely for free, I have not received any money or any promise of future payments in any form at all. And nor has anyone linked to me or my family done so.
‘And of course it will stay this way. I have not met one single climate activist who is fighting for the climate for money. That idea is completely absurd.
‘Furthermore I only travel with permission from my school and my parents pay for tickets and accommodations.’
Everything we have seen suggests that Thunberg is completely sincere and not at all minded to exploit her celebrity for money. Considering her age, the suggestion, in the absence of evidence, is ugly indeed.
Morningstar’s basic theme is that climate activists are being exploited by the same old cynical interests who will decide who and what will ‘save the planet’ in a way that makes them rich. And who will these people be?
‘we know full well the answer: the same Western white male saviours and the capitalist economic system they have implemented globally that has been the cause of our planetary ecological nightmare. This crisis continues unabated as they appoint themselves (yet again) as the saviours for all humanity – a recurring problem for centuries’.
On Twitter, ‘polirealm’ commented on Morningstar’s piece:
‘It looks at the establishment bodies, NGOs, their main characters, their connections, their main influences, networks, but it doesn’t look at the actual people on the ground at all, except as defenseless victims of social engineering.’
‘The truth is, many of the activists are 100% aware of the goal of their usurpation, they’re aware that capitalism has nothing to lose and will take no prisoners in this fight, in fact, many are remarkably well informed.’
Indeed, the protests are being joined and supported by literally millions of intelligent, motivated, frightened people around the world, who will absolutely not be content with yet more corporate dissembling, profiteering and greenwash. Not only that, as evidence continues to mount of approaching disaster – and it will increase, dramatically – corporate executives, journalists and political executives will themselves increasingly reject these cynical machinations. ‘Polirealm’s’ concluding point:
‘So whoever believes the agenda and outcome of the climate movement are predetermined today simply has no idea what they’re talking about. The organizational structures are still quite chaotic, but there are many very motivated people with very good ideas, who’ve only just started.’
Morningstar is clearly sincere and well-intentioned, and her argument of course has some merit. We have been documenting for decades, in media alerts, articles and books, how corporate interests have been working all-out to co-opt Green concern. The problem with Morningstar’s focus is that it plays into the hands of corporate climate deniers and delayers whose strategy we have already described:
‘The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action.’
After thirty years of mortifying indifference and inaction, now is not the time to promote the belief that the crucial alarm that is at last being raised by Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion has been cynically ‘manufactured’. It is our job to ring the alarm and ensure that something is done. But first we must ring the alarm!
Even if corporate interests were crazed enough to think they could promote mass public dissent on this scale in the cause of profit, they would have no way of controlling the outcome. In the spring of 1968, with more than half a million troops in Vietnam, with military leaders asking for 200,000 more, President Johnson was advised by a Pentagon study group not to escalate the war, making this comment:
‘The growing disaffection accompanied, as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.’ (Quoted, Howard Zinn, ‘The Zinn Reader’, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.401)
If that was true of mere anti-war sentiment based on concern for human rights, how much more is it true of sentiment based on concern for literal human survival – the prospect that we, and every last person we love, may soon be dead?
The Propaganda Model – Going Extinct?
Herman and Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ describes how state-corporate priorities – power and profit – tend to shape media performance in a way that supports the status quo. During the Extinction Rebellion protests, there was a clear sense that fewer and fewer commentators could think of good reasons for opposing what was happening. Even ‘mainstream’ politicians lined up to give their support; even ‘centrist’ liberal journalists, reflexively opposed to all progressive politics, applauded. Guardian columnist George Monbiot went much further than he ever has before in scorning the media:
‘If you asked me: “which industry presents the greatest environmental threat, oil or media?”, I would say “the media”. Every day it misdirects us. Every day it tells us that issues of mind-numbing irrelevance are more important than the collapse of our life support systems.’
If we like, we can interpret all of this as a sign that the protests are viewed as harmless, or as evidence that they have been captured by corporate interests pulling the strings behind the scenes. But there is an alternative interpretation, which we favour.
When famously sober, conservative, anti-alarmist climate scientists are warning that human beings will become extinct unless drastic action is taken within the next decade, so that even prime-time BBC TV features the venerable David Attenborough warning that ‘the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon’, then we have entered unknown territory. As Attenborough said:
‘The world’s people have spoken, their message is clear – time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.’
Herman and Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ was not designed for this scenario. When individual corporate media editors, journalists, advertising and political executives realise that they and their families are genuinely facing death, it is not at all certain that they will continue to support the subordination of people and planet to profit to no purpose. At this point – the point where the mortally-threatened corporate lions lie down with the mortally-threatened activist lambs – the propaganda model may start to break down. Either way, it is our job to continue pressuring corporate media and, more importantly, replacing them with honest, non-corporate alternatives pushing for real change.
The protests must continue, must escalate, and governments must be made to adopt a kind of war-footing subordinating everything – especially profit – to the survival of our own and all other species.
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