Skip directly to content

What the American Environmental Movement Can Learn from This Insulting Fossil Fuel Ad Campaign


Recently the Washington Post ran this ad from a fossil fuel industry-backed group with the Orwellian name "Energy Tomorrow":


The ad linked to a blog post (pictured to the left) promoting the Keystone XL Pipeline.


While the ad is independent of the Washington Post, the Post editorial department itself has come out in favor of the Keystone Pipeline more than once, using the argument that if we don't take the tar sands oil, China will, while suggesting that it would be more effective to fight America's sad fossil fuel addiction writ large than continue to fight the Pipeline.   This in itself is an interesting conclusion when one considers the Washington Post graphic by Alberto Cuadra explaining the controversy about the Pipeline and illustrating the considerable environmental cost of Tar Sands.  


Looking at the cartoon next to the dystopic "Imagine" ad above, it is clearly intended to insult environmental groups who claim that fossil fuels are a problem.   The picture of a man trying to fly on his own has the subtext, "Look, you can compain all you want, but oil and gas have brought us advances in technology that otherwise wouldn't exist."  It has a slight undertone of fear as well, because by extension the argument goes, "and if we eliminate fossil fuels– or even reduce our consumption– we will move backwards and no longer enjoy the comforts we have today."  Environmentalists, they appear to be saying, want a world without airplanes.


It is fair enough to bring to our attention the gains we have made thanks to fossil fuels.   What is insulting about the image is that it suggests that people who want to use less oil and gas are luddites who refuse to acknowledge just how dependent we are on fossil fuels.     What is even more disconcerting is that this group is getting out ahead of climate change activists and taking ownership of the "Imagine a Fossil Free World" slogan. 


It is clear that more and more Americans are waking up to the need to do something to confront the impact of too much carbon in the atmosphere.  Answering their concern, the President made an impassioned statement about the need to combat the adverse impacts of climate change in his State of the Union address, urging Congress to adopt a bipartisan solution to the problem, and threatening to take executive action if Congress failed to act.  Answering this call Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer introduced the Climage Protection and Renewable Energy Acts, which propose a fee for industries that generate the most carbon, an idea that has gained wide acceptance among economists but is politically difficult to sell.    Already there is speculation that Republican opposition will defeat this effort in the House of Representatives.    With Senator Marco Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) leading the charge by suggesting that government policies “can’t control the weather,Congress is gearing up for a fierce battle on the issue of climate change, particularly any measures that impose a carbon tax.


Strangely enough, at the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17th, billed as the largest rally about climate change in history, the number one issue wasn't supporting the Climage Change and Renewable Energy Acts, it was opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Granted, it would have been tough to shift the momentum so quickly given that the legislation was proposed three days before, but environmental groups missed the opportunity to rally behind the first major piece of environmental legislation to have been put forward to Congress since 2010.   If it fails, how long will we then have to wait until Congress will touch it again?


The problem isn't the President's unwillingness to discuss climate change, or even Congress' failure to act.  It is that Americans who accept the reality of climate change lack a powerful and compelling vision for what an economy less dependent upon fossil fuels would look like.    Right now many environmental activists are selling fear and anger, using climate change as a rallying cry, while they could be selling the promise of a cleaner, brighter future.   And not suprisingly the fossil fuel industry is retaliating with fear-based tactics.


Why not instead develop a coordinated campaign to familiarize a wider (and more bipartisan) American audience with the benefits of smart-grid technology, state-of-the-art batteries and resisitors, American-made solar panels, wind turbines, less expensive electric cars and improved infrastructure to support them?   Why not illustrate how these and the tremendous advances in affordable solar energy, green building, energy efficiency, and sustainable packaging can work together to free us from our heavy use of fossil fuels?   Together these ideas paint an exciting and hopeful picture.   So, why aren't climate change activists doing more to sell this entire picture to all Americans, instead of small fragments to people already inclined to support such efforts?    Why aren't they reaching out in a coordinated and bipartisan way, especially to faith leaders who support the "creation care" doctrine, to promote a world in which all of creation stands a chance of being cared for?   Why isn't there a "Contract With America" for fossil fuel independence?   Coming to a consensus about what this should include might not be easy, but presenting a unified and positive message is critical in helping Americans hurting economically to overcome the fear of the unknown.     We need a single spokesperson to say "We are not going to ditch our dependence on fossil fuels because it is easy,"  then identify the rewards for doing something so difficult.  


The Oscar-nominated movie No reveals how ad executives helped to bring down the repressive Pinochet regime in Chile not by capturing the fear and anger of the Chilean people, but by selling hope for a better future and by making such a future seem attainable for the first time to a cynical public.   Environmental groups must take a cue from this and stop fixating on what we're against.  Instead of letting the oil and gas industry own the  "Fossil Free World" image, above, let's do more to spread the vision of what a sustainable energy economy could really look like.  







Good piece Kristen! A more coordinated, united, & positive message from the environmentalists' front would be more desirable. One thought that came to my mind though as I read your piece is that a big part of this sustainable, green energy driven world is also a much lower rate of energy consumption and thereby economic activity overall. No sustainable energy solution would be viable at the current rate of energy consumption we have going on. Inevitably we must take it down a notch (or many notches). It is simply too high, and in danger of being redundant, unsustainable. We must also convince the non-believers that less economic activity is possible and a desirable scenario of existence. Modern societies have a lot less leisure time than any other periods of human civilization -- why are we working so hard? To make more money so we can buy more stuff that we don't need! We could be kicking back and read more, paint more, create works of art, or have a Salon and discuss philosophy with our friends like in the old days. The point is we don't need as much energy as we think we do. The basis for a capitalist economic model stipulates that in order to have advancement and growth we must keep on producing stuff to sell and this stuff need to be bought by someone. And if the upper limits of needs has been met, then we must create wants in one way or another to keep people spending. So we keep churning out stuff for people to buy that they don't need. This model is no longer viable in a world with limited resources and land/ocean for us to dump our trash. Furthermore we're polluting our waters and land through this excess of economic activity and energy consumption thereby putting further stress on our resources. We cannot have business as usual anymore. It's not just a matter of finding sustainable green energy to meet whatever level of energy demands the economy and the wind might take us. We need to be willing to completely change the way we live away from this consumption based economic growth model.

Post new comment