Review: Global Spin

Anna Johnson, Department of Geography, Otago University

Enval Perspectives, Volume #18 April 1998.

Global Spin is a compelling, clearly written overview of the corporate ‘anti-environmental movement’. Sharon Beder considers a large number of books and reports from the US, Great Britain and Australia on corporate tactics of fighting environmental protection in order to present the reader with a well organised summary of the these threats to the environmental movement. The book overviews the tactics of corporations within the US, Great Britain, and Australia who try and influence government policy and public opinion on environmental issues and discourage environmental activists through lawsuits.

Beder discusses how corporate bodies who have a vested interest in fighting environmental protection legislation, have formed large, wealthy and powerful lobbying conglomerates. For example, the ‘Wise Use’ movement in the United States includes: timber, mining, off-road vehicle, petroleum, manufacturing and farming industries which lobby collectively against environmental legislation through representatives in Washington DC and through grass-roots campaigns. Other corporate interests have tried to hide themselves behind ‘front groups’ with names like the Sea-Lion Defence Fund, the legal arm of the Alaskan Fishing Industry or the National Wetlands Coalition, set up to fight wetlands protection legislation in the United States. In addition to fighting environmental protection policy initiatives, they are very active in creating their own ‘conservative’ policy initiatives by supporting conservative think-tanks. This has been a popular means of getting pro-business ideas into government policy-making in Australia, Great Britain and the United States. This was very important at the end of the Reagan and Thatcher Governments where individuals associated with these governments found employment in these think-tanks because of their ‘access’ to elected representatives.

The ‘anti-environmental’ movement does not stop with trying to influence governments. They realise that in order to be successful they must undermine the large level of public support for environmental protection by trying to beat the environmentalists at their own game. This involves organising at the ‘grass-roots’ level. With the money to hire professional organisers to drum up substantial amounts of ‘grass-roots’ support through employees and share holders, distribute packets of information to the public and even infiltrate the school curriculum, corporate interests have proven themselves to be very effective grass-roots organisers. For example, timber interests in Oregon have organised ‘lobby days’ where employees, while they are being paid, have driven to the state capital in their logging trucks to protest measures to protect virgin forests from being cleared. In the United States, corporations spent $381 million on school curriculums, Lifetime Learning Systems a company that services 350 corporations in the US alone advertises that:

"Kids spend forty per cent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can’t reach them... Now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind (Beder, 166)."

The move to sway public opinion in favour of corporate interests has become a multi-billion dollar account for the public relations industry. Beder presents compelling evidence that the information we receive from the media is heavily tainted by these public relations (PR) organisations The tactics of the PR organisations include casting doubt on the legitimacy of claims of environmentalists by discrediting them as ‘NIMBY’ or ‘eco-terrorist’. They provide ‘independent’ experts to cast doubt on environmental problems like the harmfulness of Dioxin or the threat of Global Warming. They also use ‘green washing’ to make their company appear pro-environmental by offering up superficial suggestions or gestures that do not threaten their industry or profits.

Corporations under pressure from environmentalists exposing their practices will try to defuse the threat by either discrediting their opposition or by offering up compromises which are often unsatisfactory. If ‘stubborn’ environmentalists can not be brought into line by these means they may resort to expensive and drawn out litigation, well beyond the means of most individuals or groups. This issue was brought to light recently with the McLibel case in Britain and Beder informs us that ever year thousands of Americans are sued for speaking out against governments and corporation and many others are dropping their campaigns for fears of multi-million dollar lawsuits against individuals.

Beder concludes that democracy is declining because, despite surveys that show the majority of people in most countries think that environmental protection should be regulated by governments and given priority over economic growth, this is not happening due to corporate efforts to subvert or manipulate popular will.

Global Spin is basically a summary of other research and so may not present any ‘new’ material to the expert in corporate tactics against the environment. It is also limited to primarily discussing the US, Great Britain and Australia. However, from my experience it seems a very good summary of the mainstream as well as some obscure literature in this area. I think it would be a very interesting read for anyone fighting for environmental protection or anyone just interested in understanding how corporate interests influence environmental decision-making and reporting.

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