That we marked Earth Day this week is in large part due to the environmental movement that sprang out of the activist decade, the 1960s. Much of the credit for the ecological consciousness of the day came from Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring.
Today, the perils of toxic chemicals and the need for regulation are common knowledge, but at the time Carson’s findings, which focused on the harm caused by certain classes of pesticides such as DDT, was met with the same kind of corporate propaganda that exists to this very day, as witnessed in the climate change “debates.”
Carson’s research was a game-changer, revealing the dangers to public health, the untruths of industry and the lack of oversight from governments that just took the word of corporations. The movement that followed was directly responsible for the regulatory framework that emerged in the U.S., including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and, eventually, the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency. Each of those efforts to protect the public was met by corporate efforts to undermine the process.
The fight against environmentalism followed the playbook for attacking efforts to curb the tobacco industry, introduce civil rights and a host of other reforms that were hallmarks of the decade. It’s a playbook that continues to be refined today, largely by those in the pay of the wealthy, from academics to politicians instructed in how to confuse the issue or lie outright if all else fails.
The early gains made by those looking to protect the public met with a backlash from the corporate class, which took to stealth in spending massive amounts of money over many years to bend the rules in their favour. That included the likes of setting up ersatz charities, foundations and think tanks – many with ambiguous or disingenuous names and stated goals – that allowed them to secretly funnel their money into self-serving interests while gaining tax write-offs in the process.
The sordid history of such tactics, exemplified in the likes of Charles Koch and Richard Mellon Scaife, was painstakingly documented in Jane Mayer’s 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. In it, she shows the efforts of wealthy corporate owners to bypass government and the public interest in favour of their own bank accounts. It’s a decades-old battle, one that rages on today in the form of the Trump administration packed with unqualified shills who do their best to undermine their own departments, from stripping away environmental protections to weakening education and workers’ right, among a host of other malfeasances.
Mayer points to a 1971 memo written by Lewis Powell, the future Supreme Court justice, as the impetus for the corporatists counteroffensive against the progressive gains of the 1960s.
“Powell was the author of a brilliant battle plan detailing how conservative business interests could reclaim American politics. In the spirit of Hannibal, it called for a devastating surprise attack on the bloated and self-satisfied establishment, which regarded itself as nonpartisan but which the conservatives regarded as liberal. Carrying out this attack would be an alternative opinion elite that would look like the existing one, except that it would be privately funded by avowedly partisan donors intent on implementing a pro-business — and, critics would say, self-serving — political agenda,” she writes.
“Powell’s ties to corporate conservatives were manifold. In addition to a thriving corporate law practice, he held seats on the boards of over a dozen of the largest companies in the country, including the cigarette maker Philip Morris. So in the spring of 1971, Powell, who was then sixty-three, had watched with growing agitation as student radicals, antiwar demonstrators, black power militants, and much of the liberal intellectual elite turned against what they saw as the depravity of corporate America. Powell believed American capitalism was facing a crisis.”
The manipulation – bribery, lying and outright corruption – of would-be oligarchs are what should be angering citizens. Instead, fear-mongering and misdirection have created a divisive and partisan electorate, allowing the downward spiral to continue.
Sure, Americans in particular are angry and scared. But the anger is directed at the wrong targets. Supporters of the authoritarian right movement who vote for fringe candidates do so in direct opposition to their own best interests. There’s the obvious stuff – the so-called grassroots organizations created and funded by the likes of the billionaire Koch family, which has been working for decades to undermine the public good for its own benefit. Then there’s the underlying issue of corporatism and consumerism-trumps-citizenship, far more difficult to get on the agenda, let alone resolve.
The problems in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, are complex. Partisan sniping and sloganeering won’t help. Apparently, that’s the best we can do. That’s why we have pundits yelling on TV. Ersatz politicians using homey platitudes. And issues reduce to the lowest common denominator.
We can expect the polarization to continue as long as we’re kept distracted and cowed enough to avoid looking behind the curtain.