Managing the outrage is more important than managing the hazard.
- Tom Buckmaster, (former chairman of Hill & Knowlton)
We live in a society in which nearly every moment of human attention is exposed to the game plans of spin doctors, image managers, pitchmen, communications consultants, public information officers and public relations specialists...
 - Stuart Ewen

Edward L. Bernays, œthe "father of public relations," was someone who believed that œthe "herd" was too stupid and dangerous to make decisions about important matters and must be "guided from above." He was someone who managed to increase the percentage of women purchasing cigarettes from 5% in 1923 to 18% in 1935 using "scientific techniques" like paying women to smoke their œ"Torches of Freedom" in the Easter Sunday Parade in NY in 1929. He was someone hired by the Eisenhower administration and United Fruit Company to brand the (1954) overthrow of President Arbenz of Guatemala as "liberation from œcommunist tyranny" in "œAmerica™s back yard" rather than an engineered coup by the U.S. government done solely for the benefit of a major corporation - creating a "Banana Republic." (American consumers love them bananas!) And he was someone whose books were read, reread and deeply admired by Joseph Goebbels, Germany's premiere PR flack, who liked to cite Jesus Christ as a consummate salesman while noting, "the propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of souls.”

Bernays was able to move seamlessly between the corporate world and government. He began his work on the Committee on Public Information - Woodrow Wilson's successful propaganda campaign to get an apathetic American public energized and outraged enough to support going to war. (Sound familiar?) Its chairman, George Creel, outlined its purpose as

not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the 'propagation of faith'.

But Bernays also was "counsel on public relations" to large corporations; to him, there was very little difference between government and the corptocracy. "Engineering consent" was the same whether you were trying to manipulate the "herd" into voting for your guy or into buying your cigarette. This seamless blending between corporate advertising and government “propagation of faith” has been with us for a long time, but it was Bernays who refined it into a “science” in which he considered himself not a PR flack but a “practicing social scientist” who used techniques from his uncle Sigmund Freud, “crowd psychology” techniques developed by Gustav LeBron and other social sciences as a specialist in “the engineering of consent.”

This seamless blending between government and the corptocracy:  the revolving door, the regulatory capture, the narcissistic power-seeking, is vitally important in understanding why we live in a natural world under vicious attack from resource extraction, manufacturing, consumption and disposal. It's also why we don't have the nice things we deserve,  like a representative government.

This seamless blending is quite clear in examining the client lists of prominent PR firms, like Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest PR firm. Here is just a sample of its enormous client list:

NBC, Philip Morris, Trump Enterprises, Occidental Petroleum, the state of Alaska, Coca-Cola, the British Columbia timber industry, Dow Corning, General Electric, Hydro-Quebec, Monsanto, Campbell's Soup, the Olympics and the governments of Kenya, Indonesia, Argentina, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Italy, Mexico, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

Public relations is now inseparable from the business of lobbying, creating public policy, and getting candidates elected to public office. The PR industry just might be the single most powerful political institution in the world. It expropriates and exploits the democratic rights of millions on behalf of big business by fooling the public about the issues...

... public relations has become a huge, powerful, hidden medium available only to wealthy individuals, big corporations, governments, and government agencies because of its high cost. And the purpose of these campaigns is not to facilitate democracy or promote social good, but to increase power and profitability for the clients paying the bills. This overall management of public opinion and policy by the few is completely contrary to and destructive of democracy.

In Washington, D.C., issues are no longer simply lobbied. They are "managed" by a triad composed of (1) public-relations experts from firms like Burson-Marsteller; (2) business lobbyists, who bankroll politicians, write legislation, and are often former politicians themselves; and (3) phony grass-roots organizations - I call them "astroturf groups" - that the PR industry has created on behalf of its corporate clients to give the appearance of public support for their agendas.
- John Stauber

So, let's say you're an ambitious and greedy person seeking a way to gain entry into the glittering world of wealth and power - or, let's say, you're a passionate well-meaning person out to save the world from the power-hungry elite - the process works the same in both cases. The first thing you have to do is that you must raise lots of money. Money that can hire the best PR firms, buy TV air time, etc. You're going nowhere without lots of money. Lots and lots of money. This money can buy you power. And, once you have power, you have access to more money. You can ride this cycle, like a vulture riding warm air currents, straight to the top. And we are all familiar with Baron Acton's words
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
It's the Village phenomena; the pontifications of Very Serious People emanating from our nation's capitol who maintain that, for example, protesting Keystone XL is something done by silly people who don't understand the deep deliberations of the powerful. It's the meshing between raising money, campaigning and that minor side effect of those great undertakings we call "governing."

So, in trying to understand these phenomena, we need to first ask:  where are large pools of money to be found?

The answer is obvious. They reside in the grasp of very large multi-national corporations. If you want to soar like that vulture you have to be "well-connected" with the owners of those pools of money. One of these pools of money owned by the largest whales of corporations is supported by the value of fossilized deposits of ancient swamp goo. The value of these deposits depend upon their availability for use; they are worth nothing if they can't be burned. But, if they are burned, life as we know it will fall into a nasty and brutal collapse.

Once again, Very Serious People, will tut-tut about hyperbolic phrases like "nasty and brutal collapse" and work hard at discrediting the silly screeching of dirty hippies about the unanimous conclusions of atmospheric scientists regarding the catastrophic consequences of burning fossil fuels.

Such burning is inevitable they say. If the pipeline is blocked the tar will be transported to market and burned by other means. There is too much money buried  beneath those magnificently beautiful boreal forests for them to be left untouched and unravaged. And that's how it works. Concern for such non-monetary values like "beauty" or "wilderness" is discredited as the silly natterings of people who don't understand the economic necessities of running large, powerful societies - or corporations.

Jacques Ellul in Propaganda speaks to the idea of inevitability - a powerful force that saps the energies of those who oppose that inevitability. Saying something is "inevitable" casts the opposition into a hopeless position of taking on an impossible task. Might as well give up and let the burning continue. Let the world warm. Ellul speaks about the "Myth of Progress" which depends upon this dynamic of mass psychology:

All propaganda must play on the fact that the nation will be industrialized, more will be produced, greater progress is imminent, and so on.
Only silly people stand in the way of progress; silly, hopeless hippies who should not ever be taken seriously. (They work most assiduously and desperately to ignore the bit about unanimous conclusions of atmospheric scientists.)

Do you call them "tar sands" or do you call them "oil sands?"

This is an interesting window into how public opinion is being manipulated over these deposits of hundreds of square miles of nasty, greasy sludge buried under some of the most (formerly) beautiful tracts of untouched boreal wilderness. This sludge is being mined in the largest industrial project in the world, whose wounds upon the earth can be seen from space. This project, in Northern Alberta, is being "managed" like crazy. PR flacks are swarming around the possible $17,000,000,000,000 represented by these reserves like flies on shit.

What is interesting about all this activity is that the government and the corptocracy are virtually indistinguishable. To take just one, of very many, egregious example: Shell's Jackpine Tar Sands Mine (by the way, when you google "Jackpine Tar Sands Mine" you get "Jackpine Oil Sands Mine" in the results) is planning on rerouting the Muskeg river - among other things. And the Stephen Harper (the Stephen Harper of the Alberta based Alliance party) government's most recent rewrite of Canada's Navigable Waters Protection Act - which changed the definition of "navigable" from any water than could float a canoe to a list of protected waters - doesn't have the Muskeg River on the list anywhere.

So the government of the sovereign nation of Canada abandoned this pristine boreal river to help a corporation make more money. But I'm just an irresponsible, mean, radical to point that out. Because, of course, this all is just a coincidence in the tremendously complex and difficult process of running a large, ethical democracy. (Add in your favorite PR blabbity-blah here about the highly ethical Canadian government. Just google "oil sands" and you'll find plenty.)

Now, let's say I mistakenly cut a stud one inch too short and hand it to a framer building the wall. "Engineering consent" gets me nowhere. When he hands it back to me with a WTF expression it's not going to work to try and convince him that this fine board is a high-quality, special, pre-lengthened board and all he needs to do is just nail it in and he will see what a fine-quality piece of wood I have made for him. Not going to work.

The reason I bring this up is that this whole manipulative vulture-soaring money-power-money cycle is fundamentally disconnected from the physical realities of the planet it depends upon. It's about public opinion and raising money and power - it's not about the realities of our one and only and very precious planet. The game becomes so all encompassing, the kabuki power struggles so engrossing that they become ends in themselves. They come to believe the planet is just another prop in their kabuki power play.

These sorts of social manipulations don't work with physical realities like boards... or the Laws of Nature. It's difficult to spin the outrage when the hazard is an in-your-face physical reality. And this is what, I hope in a darkly fierce sort of way, is going to bring the whole edifice toppling down.

Mining the Tar Sludge Deadzone (see what I did there?) and its role in climate chaos has been the target of immense amounts of very expensive public relations efforts. Those efforts depend upon the disconnect between the consumer and the physical realities of the consequences of their consumption. But when those consumers are standing in several feet of water after Sandy, the hypnotic effects of that very expensive "engineering of consent" begin to wear off.

The reason that so much money is being poured into "managing the outrage" over climate change is that there is far more money at risk if the outrage is not managed and people stop buying the toxic sludge they are selling. If these pools of greasy ooze were valued the way we would value (if our economic system was not totally insane) "assets" whose use will destroy life as we know it, then those largest whales of the large corporate owners of the pools of money supporting innumerable soaring vultures would no longer have the wealth and power they enjoy today. (And they do enjoy it.)

Some people, who could go toe to toe in Seriousness with the Very Serious People who say burning these pools of toxic sludge is "inevitable," are saying some very scary not-nice-to-whales sorts of things:  

The huge reserves of coal, oil and gas held by companies listed in the City of London are "sub-prime" assets posing a systemic risk to economic stability, a high-profile coalition of investors, politicians and scientists has warned Bank of England's governor, Sir Mervyn King.
I'd like to turn the "inevitability" back upon them. It is inevitable that continuing to burn the pools of goo that are the foundations of the economic value of our largest corporations will lead to a general collapse of the infrastructure of civilization those whales of corporations depend upon. If risk is a word that means anything at all, those "assets" are among the riskiest on the planet. If "value" is a word that is to have a meaning connected to physical reality, those assets are worthless.

It is therefore inevitable that those fossil fuel corporations are dangerous, predatory dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. The question is whether they will go quietly into their extinction or fight to the bitter end - and it will be a bitter end for vast numbers of people, vast numbers of species and vast tracts of our precious planet.

It's a race between survival and kabuki, between hypnosis and outrage - ultimately between money and the Laws of Nature. And in a race between money and the Laws of Nature the Laws of Nature will always win. It is not possible to purchase exemptions from the chemical results of burning carbon - like that reservoir found in the Athabascan Tar Sludge Deadzone of Northern Alberta.

Originally posted to grains of sand on Tue Apr 16, 2013 at 12:21 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks and Community Spotlight.

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