Reflections on Earth Day

Every Earth Day, we’re invited to pick up litter, plant trees, be reminded to recycle, and countless other personal habits we can adopt to save the earth. Corporations pitching “green” products will bust out their “Lorax-approved” logos and encourage our “green” consumption.


Formed shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) seemed on the surface to be an innocuous litter-cleanup group. However, according to the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, KAB is actually a sophisticated greenwashing operation that is funded and governed by the waste and packaging industries, as well as the corporations most responsible for selling the disposables that become litter—companies like McDonald’s, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Nestle, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola. KAB supports trash incineration (the dirtiest way to deal with waste) and opposes bottle deposit bills, which would increase recycling.


The authors of Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry also warn that Keep America Beautiful is a slick PR effort to get consumers to think that they are responsible for the trash that KAB’s funders created. You get to pick up their trash, put it in disposable plastic bags, then have it sent to a landfill or incinerator that is probably owned by one of KAB’s founders. In fact, the trash decomposes more quickly on the side of a road than in a landfill. If brought to an incinerator, the trash is turned into highly toxic air pollution and toxic ash. While none of us want to see litter, there are better approaches to helping the environment than picking up after the corporations, such as challenging the use of disposables in the first place.


Older than Earth Day, Deeper than Litter


I once saw a pickup truck with two bumper stickers on it. One was some sort of pro-logging sticker, like “Have You Hugged a Logger Today?” The other said simply “Smokey Needs You.” I was blown away—not only by how these two stickers could be on the same truck, but by the fact that the “Smokey Needs You” sticker didn’t even have to tell me the message because the message was already in my head. The sticker was just there to trigger it. Most everyone growing up in the U.S. knows who Smokey is and what he wants from us. Of course, he wants us to prevent forest fires. It took a lot of money to put Smokey’s message in everyone’s heads.


So, who funds Smokey the Bear? Who sponsors all of these ads? Here’s a hint. The same organization that funds Smokey the Bear also funds messages that say “Don’t Drink and Drive,” “Buckle Your Seatbelt,” “Pick Up Litter,” “Wear a Condom,” “Tutor Kids After School,” “Feed the Hungry” and many similar messages. They’re the same ones who did such popular campaigns as “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” “Take a Bite Out of Crime,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” and “Just Say No to Drugs.”


These are all campaigns brought to you by the Ad Council. Most of us absorb the message without even noticing the sponsor.


Around $2 billion a year in Ad Council public service announcements reached people in the U.S. with 123.4 billion media impressions in 2010 alone. That’s 400 ads per person, per year.


Who is the Ad Council and what are they trying to tell us? There is a common thread between all of their ads, and you can find it in Smokey the Bear’s message: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” The common theme between these seemingly different messages is that individuals are the cause of social problems and that individual change is the solution. In case this isn’t obvious enough, it’s one of their five stated criteria for topics they’ll take on: “The issue must offer a solution through individual action.”


The Ad Council and its funders are a who’s who of major corporations in the United States, including at least half of the nation’s 100 largest corporations. The idea for an Ad Council was conceived in 1941 to counter criticism of corporate advertising by showing that ads could also be in the public interest. Advertisers feared that legislation might tax corporate ads or regulate their content. Several weeks later, in 1942, with U.S. entry into World War II, it was founded as the War Advertising Council to build U.S. support for the war with “Rosie the Riveter,” “Buy War Bonds,” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaigns. The Ad Council persisted in supporting corporate and government/military objectives with anti- communist ads in the 1950s, a post-9/11 “Campaign for Freedom,” and recent military recruitment ads.


Only You


The Ad Council strategy is a blame-shifting public relations tactic. These are the dominant institutions of our time saying that they are not the cause of social problems, you are. The Ad Council and Keep American Beautiful exist to prevent such things as the McToxics Campaign, where high schoolers teamed up with community anti-landfill activists in the late 1980s to mail back styrofoam clamshells to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois to get McDonald’s to stop using Styrofoam. This was a group activity to get an institution to change the packaging they use so that it didn’t end up as litter and in landfills and incinerators.


The top 1% stays in power by keeping us divided. They divide us with racism, sexism, heterosexism, immigration status, and wedge issues like guns and abortion. As to class, they must keep the middle class fighting the poor. If the middle class and poor see past the manufactured culture wars and unite to fight the wealthy, the 1% is in trouble, because we outnumber them.


Throughout the history of this country, racism has played an important role. In a book called A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of the United States, the author shows how plantation owners—when their workers started to organize for better working conditions—brought in other workers to racially divide their workforces, such as having Native Americans work alongside African Americans—and paying one group less than the other so that they resent each other and fight each other instead of their bosses. In Hawaii, the sugar plantation owners did the same, paying the Portuguese workers more than the Japanese workers, and—once that differential wage system was abolished in response to Japanese labor protests—plantation owners brought in more Filipino workers and preferred a specific ratio of Japanese to Filipino workers. This history was intentional and many divisive tactics continue to this day.


The Ad Council strategy is the scientific perfection of this divide and conquer strategy. Instead of dividing people into groups, it divides us into individuals, so that we don’t even see problems and solutions in terms of group identities. It’s designed to prevent groups organizing to make change, which is why so many environmentalists start off seeing their options as doing litter cleanups, voluntary recycling, tree planting, adopting cows, whales, etc.—tactics that don’t challenge the power structure or focus on institutional change.


Organizing for institutional change runs contrary to the American ideal of individuality and social change is usually made by movements, not individuals working alone. Our culture hides this from us when history books portray the “Rosa Parks effect”—where we learn about social change in the context of individuals who made it possible, not the organizations and movements of which these individuals were a part.


So, how can we institutionalize systemic thinking or the dismantling of PR distractions? Is fighting for media democracy enough, when Ad Council ads now appear on websites, without a counterbalance to encourage institu- tional change thinking?


Occupy has been incredibly successful at changing the narrative on group identity, putting class inequality into the mass consciousness, with mass media helping perpetuate the “99% vs. 1%” framing. Can we come up with a similar meme that tackles the pervasive wave of you-are-the-problem-and- solution advertising and get people thinking in terms of group action to change institutions?



Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network (www.energyjustice. net), a national organization to develop and strengthen grassroots networks of resistance to dirty energy and waste industry facilities.