Save Our Minds to Save Our Civilizations, Advocate, 12/01/2015

I read an article last week that made me think further about the demonization of environmentalism and environmentalists in contemporary politics. Donald Gutstein’s Harperism analyzes how Canada’s Harper government has demonized anyone who even mildly supports environmentalist politicians, activists, or ideals as a dangerous radical. 

The Prime Minister of Canada, though I hope for not
much longer.
Similar messaging happens in the United States, but it has a special resonance here, since Harper’s government has actually shuttered scientific research stations and removed almost all environmental restrictions on industrial activity in sensitive regions. What few scientists the Canadian government still employs must never speak publicly without having every word they say approved with the PMO’s communications staff, so that they conform to the proper messaging.

We discussed this messaging policy of the Harper government in our ethics course at Sheridan, and the discussion left me a little cold. Only later was I really able to put my finger on why: there are some situations and institutions where sticking to a message is actually counter-productive. 

Message design and control in communications is about maintaining the public image of an organization. You want people to respond in a particular way to your organization and what it does, so you craft its public statements to encourage those responses. This is at the core of justifications for demanding that all government scientists craft their public addresses in conjunction with the PMO. As a wing of the government, the state’s scientific research divisions should work to advance government policy. So its statements should conform to the messaging that the governments wants to advance.

But the state is a public institution, and so government policy isn’t actually the top priority of all a state’s organizations. A well-run state includes organizations whose purpose is to criticize government policy, offering disconfirmations and alternative perspectives and voices. A very well-run state includes organizations to funnel popular discontent and opposition to government policy-makers. Keeping every element of a powerful public institution on a single message permits the population no respite from state power.

Canada faces a special environmental problem, since the Harper government has put such emphasis on petroleum bitumen development for growing the national economy. It’s the closest that a government of a country as large and diverse as Canada can come to a genuine all-eggs-in-one-basket energy policy. 

But bitumen development is so resource intensive that it requires a very high price of oil per barrel to be economically sustainable. Hydraulic fracturing faces the same problem, and the American energy economy has become far more dependent on shale fracking over the last twenty years. Both of these forms of petroleum harvesting are incredibly environmentally destructive, even by the standards of the natural resources industries.

Contrary to the Harper government's messaging, I
continue to call them the tar sands.
Here’s the TL,DR version of Ben Ptashnik’s article. Basically, because of geo-political shenanigans between the United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia (and probably complicated by Russian, American, Iranian, and Saudi interests in the ongoing multi-sided war in Syria and Iraq), OPEC is drastically lowering the global price of oil. This is throwing all the industries that depend on high oil (Alberta’s tar sands bitumen, American fracking, the petro-economy of Venezuela) into a catastrophe of unsustainability because they can’t make enough money on sales to cover their costs. Plus, there’s a huge derivatives market that includes bundled oil industry futures, which means that another multi-billion dollar investment banking bubble is about to explode.

Russia and Venezuela are in similar boats thanks to the falling price of oil. Their economies are powered almost entirely on their oil exports, and falling global prices means that their national revenues are cratering. Simultaneously, environmental activists are protesting plans to begin fracking in continental Europe. 

But senior officials with the US government and other right-wing organizations like Mont Pelerin Society affiliated think tanks are beginning to allege that the Russian government is funding, propping up, and in some cases outright fabricating grassroots environmentalist movements to maintain its natural gas monopoly in Europe. I’m still skeptical about whether this is a genuine conspiracy (because humans are largely too incompetent for actual conspiracies), and truth-out isn’t exactly the most trustworthy organization to avoid jumping to paranoid conclusions.

Yet Harper has long dismissed environmentalists as dangerous radicals. His record in the press over the last four years demonstrates this more clearly than anything else. I would definitely not be surprised if he eventually begins linking opposition to the oil sands and fracking as seditious activity to prop up a hostile and imperialistic Russia. 

He has already tarnished environmentalists as supporters of anti-democratic regimes in the Gulf states for their opposition to the tar sands, as part of Ezra Levant’s “ethical oil” campaign. This could simply be another element of his government’s ongoing program to paint environmentalism of all stripes as anti-democratic and in league with enemies of Canada.

As much as techniques like message control and seeding ideas across multiple platforms of media is considered distasteful by many on the global left, harnessing the power of modern communications arts is necessary if the environmentalist movement wants to survive the coming decades. Activists and their organizations must develop clear messages to make people understand that heavy pollution in the name of conventional energy development is not in our interests. 

Your enemies use the tools they do because they are effective. Progressive political movements must adapt these tools to their own programs if they want to end a long record of struggle after continuing defeat. Messaging is a means that can be applied to any end. Let’s make it a good one.

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