You are here

Neoliberalism, Climate Movements, and the PR Paradigm, What’s Next?

Karel Rehor

En permettant l'homme, la nature a commis beaucoup plus qu'une erreur de calcul: un attentat contre elle-même.

By enabling humankind, nature has made more than an error in calculation: it is an attempt on her own life. Emil Cioran, De l'inconvient d'être né.

That the climate is changing and that the planet is on average warming is now more or less clear. According to the NOAA and NCDC the last five years (2014-2018) have been the warmest since 1880 when the NCDC started collecting data. And, according to their reconstructions of past climates, the last five years are most likely the warmest for the last several millennia. Since before the dawn of the twentieth century it has been known that one characteristic of carbon dioxide is its ability to retain heat, and in large amounts CO2 contributes to warming the atmosphere. More than 97% of experts who are concerned with earth systems (climatologists, geologists, oceanographers, biologists, ecologists, and the like) are convinced that the primary cause of these changes is human activity.

What activity? In the time when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776), Scottish and English mill and mine owners discovered that steam engines were a more effective propulsion system for looms, elevators and pumps than water falling over a weir. The best and cheapest fuel for these machines was coal. These early modern capitalists discovered the first means of improving their competitiveness by burning fossil fuels. Others, for example Friedrich Engels senior (father of the famous theoretician), were of course forced by the laws of market competition to follow them. A century later another generation of capitalists discovered an even more versatile fossil fuel, and that was petroleum. From its very beginnings modern capitalism has been conjoined with burning fossil fuels, and during the entire period of its existence fossil fuels have been the main source of energy. Contemporary capitalism is much more complex than the capitalism of the age of Engels senior or David Rockefeller. When we add up all of the components, the parts, the ingredients, the packaging of the goods that we consume daily, we uncover long supply chains and in every step of the chain fossil fuel is being burned.

Discussion about the relationships between climate change and capitalism gained ground in the public arena in 2014 with the publication of Naomi Klein's work This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Other less well-known authors have been writing about capitalism and the environment since the nineteenth century. For example, Derrick Jensen has long used the metaphor of the abusive marriage in which the husband (capitalist humanity) regularly abuses his wife (the planet or nature) because he believes that marriage has granted him the right to everything belonging to her, body and soul. At the start of the 1970's Donella and Dennis Meadows published their report The Limits to Growth. This report was the result of repeated computer simulations of then current economic and ecological systems. The Meadows showed that based on the assumptions of current trends the planet and humanity are heading for crisis, and that western civilization would collapse sometime in the middle part of the twenty-first century. They did not count on the rise of neoliberalism, the fall of communism, not even with the acceleration of global economic activity due to the revolution in information and telecommunication technologies. That acceleration means that collapse will likely come sooner than predicted.

During the cold war growth became for the western camp the ”objective” holy grail of measuring the efficiency and health of any economic system. Macroeconomics teaches us that the economic system is a virtuous circle, in which firms pay households for work, in which households buy goods manufactured by firms, in which households also save surplus income in banks and in which banks then loan money to firms or invest in them. More advanced models even include the government and flows in the form of taxes and government purchases of goods and services from firms. Such is the fairytale version taught in every introduction to economics. It is a version without private debt, without insufficient pay, and without even an explanation of how money is created or how value is created, maintained or destroyed. Macroeconomics erases from the scene the planet on which this entire virtuous circle must exist. Magically the flows of goods and money in the circle (GDP) must constantly grow as proof of the superiority of the ideology lying behind the system.

But we are limited humanity living on a limited planet. How can we solve the problem of natural limits and endless growth of an economic system that is causing the emission of greenhouse gases and threatening the collapse of civilization? Mathematically this problem can be translated as the integral of the function of supposed human activity. Abstractly we can imagine this function and its variables based on the common concepts of daily existence, according to what we consume (C), according to technology (T), which facilitates and accelerates consumption, according to waste (W) created through the process of consumption. Mathematically the function of the burden (B) of an individual on the planet could be written: B = T(C+W). All of this we can then integrate over the planetary population, from the first individual to the eight billionth. If we want to live in balance with the planet the value of this integral cannot be larger than the value of the integral of planetary resources generated over the same time period.

In this way some non-profit organizations have been able to calculate that if everyone lived like Americans, then we would need four planet earths to be in balance; or if everyone lived like Europeans, then we would need two and a half planet earths. One solution to the integral of the human planetary burden is of course reducing the number of people. If we were all to live like Americans then we cannot have more than a billion and a half inhabitants, and therefore six billion of us must die: if we are to all live like Europeans, then only four billion must die. We do not want to think of ourselves as monsters worse than Hitler, so from a moral standpoint reducing the population to a required level, and that in the next twenty or thirty years, is not a practical solution. On the other hand we need to change how we consume, the technologies on which we depend, and the ways in which we mindlessly create – from plastics in the ocean, to bee killing pesticides, to our collective carbon footprint – an unreal amount of damaging waste. We must change our behaviour and the basic liberal ideology, which functions as an apology for that behaviour. In short what is required is a change of the economic and social system by which we have organized ourselves and our world.

Liberalism teaches us that in an ideal world we are all free and that we can do whatever we please. This expression is significantly qualified by many ethical and ontological concerns. Imagine for a moment, what the world would look like if we were to allow eight billion chimpanzees to do during a few generations whatever they pleased. Ecology teaches us that the vision of eighteenth century liberalism should and must have limits. We must rethink the liberalism inherited from the enlightenment, which was a time when we were less than a billion on this planet, when the majority of us worked directly with the earth, when few of us were literate, and when the ideas of the enlightenment and discussions about them concerned only a small subgroup of higher society. Its main thinkers wanted to overthrow the monarchistic and ecclesiastic order and, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, above all to replace the myth of faith with a myth of reason. The triumph of liberalism has resulted in important and lasting changes to human psychology, social relations and the environment. The conduct of the last ten generations of humanity has left and is leaving its traces in the geologic record. It concerns more than just the burning of fossil fuels, the melting of the cryosphere, and the traces of nuclear tests. For example, future archaeologists may wonder why all of a sudden there existed so many chickens and why they were killed to be so precisely cut into the same uniform pieces. For these reasons geologists not long ago began to call our time the anthropocene[1].

Of course, many of us have a special interest in this social economic system and in its continuation. Investors, owners of firms, other business people; consumers who believe that an automobile and a vacation on the other side of the planet are a given; politicians and the directors of state funds, who for example oversee national pension plans; in other words, capitalists are counting on the long term future of the current economic and social order. For many years they have come up with various ways of protecting their interests.

They have hired PR firms to instill in the public, as regards climate change, fear, uncertainty and doubt. Fear that the solutions to the problem of emissions mean a loss of freedom and a return to totalitarianism. Uncertainty that between experts any consensus exists. Doubt that the phenomenon is real, that it is even connected with carbon dioxide emissions, that it is caused by something other than human activity; for example, variability in solar radiation, natural climatic cycles or heat emanating from somewhere else in the galaxy.

The defenders of capitalism have proposed solutions based directly on the principles of neoliberalism. In the nineties they came up with a market for contracts derived from our collective future, in the form of emissions permits, and thus began doing business with them. It works like this: government agencies establish the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted in a given time period; they then break this amount down into permits which are then allocated to countries or firms; these can then sell them on if they will not be generating emissions, or buy more, if they need to generate more emissions. International trade in emissions permits was formalized in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was roughly 360 parts per million (ppm). The European Union opened its market for trading emissions permits (EU ETS) in 2005, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was 375 ppm. Across the planet various emissions trading markets have been in operation for fifteen years, however today atmospheric carbon dioxide is at 415 ppm. From the very outset the system was riddled with corruption. It has worked so well that current emissions are accelerating and since the Kyoto Protocol the base amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 15%, or, if we take into consideration that the growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide began with the first industrial revolution (1750-1850), because before this time atmospheric carbon dioxide had been relatively stable for thousands of years at roughly 270 ppm, the significant change in the amount of atmospheric CO2 since Kyoto is 60% (((415 – 360)/(360 – 270)) * 100). That is 60% in twenty years, or in a single generation.

Defenders of the current order have further lobbied for a policy that holds economic growth as more essential than the climate because with economic growth we will invent new technologies, new goods and new services, thereby solving the problem of unemployment and financing public and private debts. Some supporters have argued that with growth we can invest more into research and development and therefore come upon technical solutions to the problem of climate change much faster. The fact is that economic growth since 2008 has been above all in the financial sector and even if solar and wind energy is growing through the world as a whole, these “renewables” still have not replaced coal, which even in green Germany, which these last twenty years has been the European country with the fastest growth in green energy, is still being burned.

Defenders of the liberal order have meddled in the international processes of climate change research and of clarifying international policies, so that one conference after another has failed. In Paris four years ago they celebrated a non-binding agreement of empty promises as the second coming of the messiah. Up to now only a small handful of signatories have lived up to their Paris promises. To distract public attention, they have come up with other infotainment programs such as the presidency of Donald Trump, the evil machinations of “Darth” Putin or the phenomenon of “fake news”.

Gradually some have come to the conclusion that change is inevitable, but that it need not mean overthrowing the entire post-enlightenment liberal order. A technological change and the replacement of fossil-fuel based technologies with technologies based on renewable energy will suffice. The theory behind this move has the oxymoronic label “sustainable development”. To sustain means to keep something in a desired state. To develop means to move to another state. The public policy in support of such a change was recently dubbed the “Green New Deal.” The expression “New Deal” refers back to the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the face of the Great Depression and implies a massive social effort organized by the national or an international government. Roosevelt said, concerning the New Deal, that it was his greatest achievement, because through it, in a time of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, he managed to save capitalism and in a wider sense the liberal world order.

Many specialists have their doubts about this policy. In his book The Low Tech Age (l'Âge des low-tech – 2014), French engineer Philippe Bihouix has written about the coming conflict between the planned age of high tech and the limits of planetary resources. He has shown that without fossil fuels Green New Deal technologies are not sustainable over the long-term. As a solution they are a chimera. Many, like lithium batteries, are in their manufacture just as polluting as existing technologies. The manufacture of solar panels implies a number of components with long supply chains, components made from rare earth metals, where every component must be delivered by vehicles dependent on fossil fuels to factories for final assembly and then eventually delivered from the factory and connected to a network of metal wires. Mass production of rare earth metals and even common ones requires sustained high heat, in other words a type of energy generated by burning coal. Because of resource limits we are not capable of manufacturing enough batteries to replace a tenth of the vans and trucks currently required to service the world economy. And just as in the case of solar panels the manufacture of batteries is dependent on a transportation infrastructure dependent on fossil fuels. Furthermore batteries have their lifespan. So once they will no longer work, once they are burnt out and once we will no longer be able to burn and manufacture cheap gasoline and diesel, how can we manufacture solar panels and batteries so that the current economic order of mass consumption can continue?

In the last ten years awareness of such issues has been spreading in France. They refer to the study of the breakdown of modern civilization as “Collapsologie” (Collapsology). Researchers are “collapsologues” (collpasologists) like Pablo Servigne, who in 2015 published his book How Everything Can Fall Apart: A Collapsology Manual for the Use of Current Generations (Comment tout peut s’effondrer : petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes). He was invited by then-president Holland to present his findings to government ministers. Bihouix, Servigne and others maintain that collapse is unavoidable. However, we have time to rationally plan pre-emptive strategies and tactics so that we do not end in chaos. Otherwise we will continue like Little Red Riding Hood in the woods, not thinking about wolves and may end up in a post-apocalyptic world like Mad Max ruled by armed gangs and warlords -- not unlike countries such as El Salvador, already suffering from climate-induced drought inland and flooding from the sea along the coast.

While philosophers of the current western order claim that such a collapse is improbable, collapsologists like Americanorus Dimiti Orlov have shown that the citizens of the former Soviet Union in the mid-1980s could not foresee the end of that social-economic order in a mere five years. According to Orlov, the states of the former Soviet Union experienced only the first two and a half phases of civilization collapse[2]: financial, economic and partially political. There remained social collapse (loss of faith in other people) and cultural collapse (loss of faith in fundamental values, beyond which we find ourselves in a Mad Max world.)

Planning, according to French collapsologists, means carefully taking apart the existing system and step by step putting into place a new social and economic order. In general it means living life as it was lived by our great grandparents, with primarily short local economic circuits; with standardized practices; with local or regional manufacture of components; and with more rational relations between agriculture and the cycles of nature, without the aid of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. In France there already exist organizations like La Suite du Monde (The Flow of the World – This organization buys up abandoned farms and farmland, educates city people in permacultural agriculture and then organizes them into rural collectives as Pablo Servigne describes in his writings. Of course, this new order will make use of green and information technologies, however not on a large scale, as defenders of the Green New Deal believe it should be. They still have their fingers in the profits and the balance sheets of large multinationals and in maintaining the characteristics of the current order.

In regards to climate change and the mid- to long-term shortage of resources, the golden days of Team A capitalism are numbered. Team A are the traditional firms of the energy sector (Exxon, Shell, BP, Total, etc.) or the manufacturing sector (Ford, Audi, General Electric, Boeing, etc.) and of the sector of high finance (Société General, Citigroup, Barclays, etc.), who finance the first two mentioned. However, finance corporations have an emergency exit. This does not mean that Team A companies will disappear all together. It means that if the social-economic order will change, or if the order collapses, they will no longer be capable of producing, distributing and selling their goods at the current scale. For capitalism to continue, for the finance companies to protect a respectable amount of the value they have gathered over the last two centuries, they need a new Team B of personalities and corporations, who will manufacture the goods of the worldwide green economy. These are people like Richard Branson and Elon Musk and corporations like Virgin and Tesla. Fifteen years ago, Branson announced that he was financing research into carbon neutral fuels for his aeroplanes. After a few years he realized that such a technology is pixie dust. Today he is an investor in the exploitation of the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta. In protecting capitalism and the interests of worldwide finance Team B has no reason to abandon the strategies and tactics used in the past by Team A.

In the first half of the twentieth century, after the appearance of the labour movement on the scene and in light of the Russian (1917) and the German (1919) revolutions, the nascent liberal economic order faced a long crisis. In this regard capitalists came up with a number of means of protecting their interests. In the United States they used first of all violence (for example the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs and Bill Haywood, the deportation of Emma Goldman, the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti and Joe Hill, or the Battle of Blair Mountain[3] where more than 100 miners were killed, or the Ludlow Massacre[4]). They then pacified the working class with consumerism, with the manufacture of social and political consent through the new culture industries (film, radio, popular music and later, with the youth, through comic books and superheroes) and mainly with “PR.” In the Soviet Union the Bolsheviks also used these new industries to indoctrinate the masses with the superiority and logic of their ideology. Today we consider the crude Soviet indoctrination “Propaganda”. PR (relations with the public) has its roots in the Anglo-American propaganda campaign of the First World War. This program persuaded a country in which a clear majority in 1916 was against entering the war to massively support entering the war in 1917. American banks financed French and British war industries, so as the war dragged on longer than anticipated and while the German U-Boat attacks on shipping increased, and with the February Revolution (1917) in Russia making it apparent that that country would no longer be able to continue to fight, banks feared that France and Great Britain could lose the war with the effect that they would not be able to pay off American loans. So these same banks invested in Hollywood producers to produce pro-war and anti-German films and in New York music producers to compose patriotic and pro-war songs like “Over There”[5].

The best known pioneer of PR was Sigmund Freud's nephew Edouard Bernays. He used his uncle's insights into the subconscious to manufacture wider public opinion[6]. Bernays' most influential book concerning PR has as its original English title “Propaganda” (1927). Even though Bernays was Jewish, Joseph Goebbels collected and carefully studied his writings and put to use his techniques to manufacture not a consumer society, but a national identity and will. Later in his career Bernays went to work for the CIA. In America, through popular films, songs and radio programs, PR developed in the minds of immigrants and the underclass the impression that they had no reason to fear, that the future will always be better, that freedom means happiness and happiness means consuming and that they are taking part in the first great experiment in freedom and democracy in human history, and all of that even if the majority were trapped in a cycle of manual and similar labour at low pay.

PR targets American citizens in their subconscious so that they will have positive feelings about the country, its rituals, about its government, firms and electoral system limited to two political parties. To explain specific policies and the foundations of the ideology, which does not name its name, business magnates finance various think tanks, to which are named professors and other public intellectuals of the dominant culture, to discuss and justify logically and rationally this or that problem or this solution and that policy.

The counter cultural revolution of the sixties was another new challenge for the capitalist liberal order. Movements of students and common people protested for civil rights for minorities and then against the war in Vietnam. Such movements were considered “Grass Roots”, because the first of these types of movement began before the First World War with the Progressive party, about whose members politicians said that they had pushed up from the soil like “grass roots”. The progressives were for the most part farmers. In the sixties and seventies some of these movements wanted to continue their protests against the basic causes of war, as they saw it, against capitalism.

Political leaders reacted once again with police and military violence. In California Governor Ronald Reagan wanted to shoot students in the streets, as actually happened in 1970 at Kent State University, where four students died, and Jackson State University, where two died. The FBI came up with the COINTELPRO project directed against the most successful leaders and movements. This project not only put movements under surveillance, but spread disinformation, framed them for crimes, and worked in tandem with local police agencies that at times shot and killed activists. Those counter cultural activists who did not end up in prison (or worse) eventually abandoned the political struggle and turned to psychology, self-help, eastern religions, the New Age, or a new style of capitalism, from which we now have brands like Nike and Starbucks. Business leaders and marketing experts reacted with a revolution in consumerism. Instead of selling products based on practical daily needs, a new era began of selling products based on life style choices and self-image. PR firms, marketing divisions and think tanks worked toward a shining future, where young people will think more about their self-image and less about politics, when they will accept approved political movements out-of-hand, and when they will fit the approved political movements into the image of themselves. Think tanks came up with strategies to fight against political and culture movements that continue to challenge the dominant culture of capitalism.

Most successful in the fight against these “extremists” was a PR guru, who began his career as an intelligence officer in the service of the US Army and who followed in Bernays' footsteps. His name was Rafael Pagan[7]. After twenty years in the military he worked in the private sector for Chevron, Nestle, Shell and others. He successfully suppressed a boycott against Nestle, which was organized because Nestle convinced third world health ministers that mothers should not breastfeed, but should instead use Nestle baby formula. This policy lead to millions of cases of diarrhea and the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. In the third world potable water sources are not as certain as in the developed world. For his campaign of suppressing the Nestle boycott Pagan received the prestigious Silver Anvil award of the Public Relations Society of America. He organized around himself a group of similar former intelligence agents, who after his death founded the think tank and PR firm Stratfor. This agency offers its service to the largest corporations in the world, and developed a strategy to fight against anti-capitalist and environmentalist movements[8].

Firstly they study for their clients the members of a selected movement and then classify them into four groups: radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists. Radicals are those who want justice and political emancipation at any cost. Idealists are those who want a perfect world. Realists are those who are capable of understanding complexities and other perspectives and who can be satisfied with compromises. Opportunists always claim to be realists. Taking control of a target movement following the Stratfor strategy happens in three phases. First the radicals are isolated from the rest of the movement. Second the idealists are unconsciously cultivated. They have a weakness in that they want something perfect. If they can be convinced that the movement can lead to a form of injustice, they can be brought around to becoming realists. Third the realists are co-opted or an acceptable amount of them are brought around to campaign more in the interests of Stratfor's client or at least not against them.

PR, think tanks and violence are the basic means used by the defense forces of capitalism against the movements that have threatened it in the past. They are still being used, especially against climate movements. They have a high rate of success. They will be used again. In 2018 in the entire world 321 environmental activists were murdered[9]. In France among the yellow vests 2200 have been injured, 24 have lost an eye, 5 have lost a hand, and one has been killed [10]. Many have received sentences of up to a year in prison. Among their slogans is “the end of the month – the end of the world – it's the same fight!” As Nicholas Cassaux has demonstrated in his article, the spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion, Farhana Yamin, has connections with Chatham House, the most influential British think tank[11]*. The way in which the Greta Thunberg phenomenon[12] and Fridays for Future protests have developed bears all the hallmarks of a PR campaign: an event with almost mythological significance occurs (Greta's original school strike), select journalists spread the narrative of the new myth; average citizens are encouraged to emulate the myth; however the concrete sense of this action is not elucidated. Do they want a Green New Deal or structural changes and a dismantling of the capitalist system in the sense of Pablo Servigne? So followers wait for the original actors and journalists for a clarification, meanwhile they are further encouraged to continue with the quickly codified behaviour and actions. A comparison between the mainstream press treatment of Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion protests and the Yellow Vest movement demonstrates the differences between an at least partial product of a PR campaign and a real grass roots movement. On the one hand journalists are sympathetic from the outset and are encouraging citizens to take part in the protests; on the other, for weeks on end they fail to inform the public about the movement, or when they do they falsely characterize participants as fascists and extremists, or as egotists unwilling to accept their responsibilities in the fight against climate change.

In this fight there is no problem to recognize among environmental activists who are the radicals (Derrick Jensen, Pablo Servigne), who are the idealists (Greta Thurnberg, Roger Hallam), who are the realists (Bill McKibben, Nicolas Hulot, perhaps Farhana Yamin) and who are the opportunists (Emanuel Macron, Barak Obama). The problem is first and foremost to define what does it mean to be a realist. In the context of the Stratfor analysis, to be a realist does NOT mean to see clearly the scientific reality of the situation. According to Stratfor, a realist understands the nuances of social and political relationships; a realist understands where the nodes of power lay; a realist is prepared to make compromises and through them to define a more useful “reality” from which can be obtained a fraction of whatever the situation calls for. It is the “quid pro quo” of business negotiations. It is the fundamental logic of the market and of capitalism. However, nature, or rather the universe writ large, makes no compromises. Climate change implies a fundamental change in the earth systems on which we are all dependent, and probably our extinction, and certainly the extinction of more than a million plant and animal species. In this context reality is something other than a social, political or economic convention over which we can conduct negotiations. Therefore climate movements cannot be and should not allow themselves to be like anti-capitalist movements of the past.

To summarize: Climate change means for humanity an existential threat. Common people and experts are organizing themselves into different currents of climate movements. A growing number of experts and movement leaders see capitalism as the primary cause of climate change and other ecological crises. So climate movements have become a new challenge for capitalism. Green capitalism understands the challenge of climate change, but wants to protect the current social-economic order and economic growth, so it has proposed a Green New Deal, which for many ecologists solves nothing and may even be a trap. Capitalism has its strategies and tactics that it has used in the past to suppress similar movements. The mortar of these strategies is PR, which attempts to draw into its machinations various protest currents and leaders to defend capitalism or to deflect attacks. So within climate movements there arises a conflict over who is authentically defending the planet and who is defending rather the capitalist-liberal order, which is fundamentally the source of the crisis.

We are allowed to imagine the end of the world, yet we are not allowed to imagine the end of capitalism. – French philosopher, Jean-Claude Michéa

* Even if Farhana Yamin is a member of Chatham House, this does not mean that she should be dismissed as an opportunist or as a realist on the side of global capital. She is an experienced environmental lawyer, who has been fighting since the Earth Summit in Rio(1992) in defence of the planet[13].

Based in Prague, Karel Řehoř has studied at universities in the US and France, including La Sorbonne. He has previously been published in The Prague Review.







6. (Century of the Self – Episode 1) The Century of the Self / Le siècle du moi (épisode 1 - VOSTFR) YouTube






12. (zkuste překladač Google)