Last week, I wrote a short history of the greenwashing campaign being waged by tar sands promoters, including (and especially) the Canadian and Alberta governments. It’s clear that as the battle over the future of tar sands development has intensified, so has the greenwashing necessary to promote it in the age of climate change and increasing environmental literacy. The more people know about the dangerous costs and risks associated with tar sands development, the more time, effort and money its promoters must invest in the alchemy of disingenuous propaganda.
The frustrating part for Canadians concerned with this egregious abuse and misuse of language is that there doesn’t appear to be any recourse. Tar sands supporters seem to disseminate their little black lies with impunity, and there is no way, in a democracy where free speech is sacrosanct, to stop the flood of tar sands bullshit sullying the airwaves.
This is Part One of a three-part series on the political greenwashing of the tar sands in Canada.
When I hatched the idea to write a book about the use of spin and propaganda in the battle over the tar sands, a close friend of mine suggested I avoid the term “tar sands.” His logic was simple: using this term, which has become a pejorative, would turn some people off, people who might benefit, he said, from reading my book.
His recommendation was meant to be helpful, but it speaks to the power of manipulating language to make people believe something appears to be something that it is not. “Greenwashing” refers to the strategy of intentionally exaggerating a product’s environmental credentials in order to sell it, and nowhere has greenwashing been more generously used than in the promotion of the tar sands and the new and bigger pipelines that proponents hope will carry it around the world.
Greenwashing is fairly recent phenomenon—it was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999—but it has become commonplace as public concern has grown over the spate of environmental problems we now face, and as consumers demand “greener” products as a means of solving them. The most recent analysis by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that although the number of green products is growing, the marketing of more than 95 per cent of them still commits one the seven sins of greenwashing.
Every communications expert knows that truth is rarely self-evident. Indeed, no matter how hare-brained or incredulous an idea is, if it serves the interests of a particular group of people who want it to be true, they’ll ignore any and all evidence to make it so.
Paul Krugman, an influential economist and columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote about this problematic phenomenon in the American military, where it is known as “incestuous amplification.” “Highly dubious ideas become certainties,” he wrote, “when a closed group of people repeat the the same things to each other – and when accepting the group’s preconceptions itself becomes a necessary ticket to being in the in-group.”
He refers, as an example, to the early days of what he calls the Iraq debacle, “where perfectly obvious propositions – the case for invading is very weak, the occupation may well be a nightmare – weren’t so much rejected as ruled out of discussion altogether; if you even considered those possibilities, you weren’t a serious person, no matter what your credentials.”
If this sounds eerily familiar, you might be thinking of the protracted campaign by Big Oil and the Alberta and Canadian governments to brand tar sands oil as a “clean, responsible and sustainable” source of energy. Earlier this week, I visited the Alberta government’s oil sands website to read about “Alberta’s clean energy story,” where we learn that Albertans “are doing our part to move the world towards a clean energy future.”
"Like any other tool, language can be abused, used not to build but to destroy, not to communicate but to confuse, not to clarify but to obscure, not to lead but to mislead." - William Lutz
Retired American linguist Dr. William Lutz spent much of his career at Rutgers University studying how language is abused in public conversations. He pointed to government and industry as the worst offenders in a practice known as Doublespeak, which Lutz described as “language designed to evade responsibility, to make the unpleasant appear pleasant … language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. Language designed to mislead while pretending it doesn’t.”
Dr. Lutz worried that doublespeak has invaded public discourse about important issues. When killing innocent men, women and children is called 'collateral damage', torture becomes 'enhanced interrogation' and the dirtiest fossil fuel becomes 'Clean Coal', public conversations lose meaning. We struggle to make sense of things. These euphemisms sanitize language and steer important issues below the public’s radar.