This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Earlier this month I spoke to a group of climate activists about what I call “information pollution”—the use of various PR tactics to shape the public’s understanding of everything from how the economy works to what can be done to fight climate change. The day before, at the TED Climate Countdown event in Glasgow, Scottish climate activist Lauren MacDonald had accused Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden of being personally responsible for the deaths of thousands. A video of the standoff had gone viral, and one of the activists I was speaking to wondered if, MacDonald’s bravery aside, this was really the best tactic. “Shouldn’t we think about bringing these companies into these discussions more?” she wondered.
It was not the first or even the 100th time I’ve been asked that question. Quick answer: Companies are not people; they do not have moral compasses. But also, these nonhuman entities have had a seat at the table on environmental and climate policy for a century or more, and what they’ve done with that seat is flip the table over and throw their chair at us (see, anthropomorphizing can work both ways). But there’s a longer answer here too, and it has everything to do with the subject of the talk I was giving: information pollution.
Back in 1962, a young Alabaman, E. Bruce Harrison, had just left his job on Capitol Hill to work in communications for the chemical industry’s trade group, the Manufacturing Chemists Association (today known as the American Chemistry Council). He was just another PR person until science writer Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her book about the impact of the chemical industry on both the environment and human health.
“Rachel Carson’s book appears, and chaos ensues. And people are extremely concerned about the environment,” explained Melissa Aronczyk, coauthor of the forthcoming book A Strategic Nature about the history of environmental PR in America. “It’s at that moment that Harrison is appointed the environmental information manager and sort of given a team of other PR people who worked at companies like DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, and Shell and told, ‘You design the PR response to Rachel Carson, this is a disaster.’”
Harrison was the first-ever environmental PR guy. He and his team threw everything they could at Carson: She was a woman; she wasn’t a scientist (Carson had stopped short of finishing her degree in biology to care for various family members); she had cancer, so this was probably a personal vendetta; she might even be—gasp—a lesbian. None of it worked. Carson’s work had sounded the alarm, and multiple environmental regulations ensued. But it was a learning experience for Harrison, and he would not repeat his mistakes.