Anti-Environmentalism/ Green Backlash

Sharon Beder

Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Anti-Environmentalism' in International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics, edited by John Barry and E. Gene Frankland, Routledge, 2001.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Anti-environmentalism refers to the way that corporations and conservative groups in society have sought to counter the gains made by environmentalists, to redirect and diminish public concern about the environment, to attack environmentalists, and to persuade politicians against increased environmental regulation.

Anti-environmentalism has been a response to the rise of environmental consciousness and awareness first in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is a backlash against the success of environmentalists in raising public concern and pressuring governments to protect the environment.

Between 1965 and 1970 environmental groups proliferated and environmental protection, especially pollution control, rose dramatically as a public priority in many countries. As environmental concern grew, so did distrust of business institutions, which were seen to be the cause of environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Governments worldwide responded with new forms of comprehensive environmental legislation aimed at regulating and constraining environmentally damaging business activities.

Businesses found that their past ways of dealing with government no longer sufficed. The scope of political conflict widened. Throughout the 1970s corporations became politically active, particularly in the US. In response to government regulations, brought on by the activities of environmentalists and public interest groups, businesses began to cooperate in a way that was unprecedented, building coalitions and alliances and putting aside competitive rivalries.

Corporations adopted strategies that public-interest activists had used so effectively against them—grassroots organising and coalition building, telephone and letter-writing campaigns, using the media, research reports and testifying at hearings. To these strategies corporations added huge financial resources and professional advice.

Corporations also put large amounts of money into advertising and sponsorships aimed at improving the corporate image and putting forward corporate views. Much of this advertising and public relations activity was on environmental issues (see Greenwashing).

Corporations managed to achieve a virtual moratorium on new environmental legislation in many countries throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. However, towards the end of the 1980s public concern about the environment rose again, reinforced by scientific discoveries regarding phenomena such as ozone depletion and weather patterns that seemed to indicate that global warming had already begun. Local pollution events, such as medical waste washing up on New York beaches and sewage pollution on Sydney beaches, also contributed to the public perception of an environment in decline.

Amidst all this public concern, regulatory agencies in various countries got tougher and new laws were enacted. This induced a new wave of corporate political activity. This time corporations were able to take advantage of the new PR techniques and information technologies available for raising money, building coalitions, manipulating public opinion and lobbying politicians.

It was during the 1990s that the application of public relations to environmental concerns really came into its own. The coalition building which began in the 1970s continued to grow. Some corporations went beyond their corporate allies in their organising efforts, hiring specialised public relations firms to set up front groups and create the impression of grass roots support for corporate causes so as to convince politicians to oppose environmental reforms.

Environmental public relations or greenwashing has become big business for PR firms. US firms now spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on greenwash and strategic counselling—shaping public and government perceptions of environmental problems and finding ways to counter environmentalists and environmental regulations.

The use of front groups enable corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern. These front groups lobby governments to legislate in the corporate interest; to oppose environmental regulations; and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability. Front groups also campaign to change public opinion so that the markets for corporate goods are not threatened and the efforts of environmental groups are defused. The names of corporate front groups are carefully chosen to mask the real interests behind them.

Apart from helping corporations form front groups and manufacture astroturf, public relations firms help them to gather information on environmentalists and journalists. Techniques for dealing with environmental activists and the media depend on knowing who they are and how they operate. Several public relations firms specialise in supplying this sort of information and this is sometimes done by infiltrating environmental groups and spying on them.

Public relations firms also help corporations to deal with environmentalists by getting the more moderate and mainstream ones on side, through donations and job offers and working out deals with them. Those unwilling to cooperate are subject to marginalisation and alienation. Such environmentalists are branded as extremists and terrorists and been subject to dirty tricks campaigns that have attempted to falsely pin violent actions on them.

Public relations firms have also become proficient at helping their corporate clients convince key politicians that there is wide public support for their environmentally damaging activities or their demands for looser environmental regulations. Using specially tailored mailing lists, field officers, telephone banks and the latest in information technology, these firms are able to generate hundreds of telephone calls and/or thousands of pieces of mail to key politicians, creating the impression that there is wide public support for their client’s position. Artificial grass roots coalitions created by public relations firms for this purpose are referred to in the industry as ‘astroturf’ (after a synthetic grass product).

Industry interests have been able to turn the disaffection of rural and resource industry workers, farmers and small business people into anti-environmental sentiment. Nowhere was this been more spectacularly achieved as in the US with its *Wise Use Movement. The Wise Use Movement attained grass roots support through enrolling thousands of people in the US who are worried about their future and feel individually powerless to do anything about it. A similar coalition in Canada was formed called the Share Movement.

The Wise Use Movement is a broad ranging, loose-knit, coalition of hundreds of groups in the United States which promote a conservative agenda. Many groups within the movement receive substantial industry funding and support but the movement prefers to portray itself as a mainstream citizens movement. Indeed its extended membership includes farmers, miners, loggers, hunters and land-owners as well as corporate front groups.

Opposition to environmentalists is the glue that holds the disparate elements of the Wise Use Movement together. Wise use groups have successfully attracted rural workers and landowners to their groups by arguing that environmental protection costs jobs, threatens their land, and that environmentalists care more about animals and plants than people. Some Wise Use groups actively sabotage environmentalists.

The movement draws membership from people who are pro-development, anti-big government, opposed to environmentalists, or just plain worried about their future economic prospects. It has been an influential political force in the American landscape. It’s ability to turn out a couple of hundred vocal protesters for key meetings and hearings has a significant impact on decision-makers.

Conservative think tanks have also turned their attention to environmental issues and the defeat of environmental regulations. They sought to cast doubt on the very features of the environmental crisis that had heightened public concerns at the end of the 1980s including ozone depletion, greenhouse warming and industrial pollution.

Think tanks opposed environmental legislation in a variety of ways. In the US they attempted to hamstring the regulatory process by advocating legislation that would ensure regulatory efforts became too expensive and difficult to implement, through insisting on *Cost-Benefit Analyses and *Risk Assessments of proposed legislation and compensation to state governments and property owners for the costs of complying with the legislation (See Takings). Worldwide these think tanks promoted free market techniques, such as tradeable property and pollution rights, pricing mechanisms, tax incentives, and voluntary agreements, for dealing with environmental degradation.

Whilst corporations amplified their own voice through the use of front groups, think tanks and public relations firms, they intimidated their opponents with the threat of law suits. Every year thousands of environmentalists and ordinary citizens are sued for groups for circulating petitions, writing to public officials, speaking at, or even just attending, public meetings, organising a boycott and engaging in peaceful demonstrations. The law suits have been labelled ‘Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation’ or SLAPPs by University of Denver academics Penelope Canan and George Pring.

Such cases seldom win in the courts. The charges often seem extremely flimsy and the damage claims outrageously large. The purpose of a SLAPP is to harass, intimidate and distract one’s opponents. They win the political battle, even when they lose the court case, if their victims and those associated with them, stop speaking out against them.

Select Bibliography

Beder, Sharon (1997) Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Devon: Green Books.
Helvarg, David (1994) The War Against the Greens: The “Wise-Use” Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Rowell, Andrew (1996) Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement, London and New York: Routledge.
Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon (1995) Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
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