- Chelsea Green Publishing
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.07(w) x 9.11(h) x 0.77(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism
By Sharon Beder
Green Books LtdCopyright © 2002 Sharon Beder
All rights reserved.
This book examines the way that corporations have used their financial resources and power to counter gains made by environmentalists, to reshape public opinion and to persuade politicians against increased environmental regulation. Corporate activism, ignited in the 1970s and rejuvenated in the 1990s, has enabled a corporate agenda to dominate most debates about the state of the environment and what should be done about it. This situation poses grave dangers to the ability of democratic societies to respond to environmental threats.
Between 1965 and 1970 environmental groups proliferated; environmental protection, especially pollution control, rose dramatically as a public priority in many countries. Time magazine labelled it a "national obsession" in America. A "sense of urgency — even crisis — suddenly pervaded public discussion of environmental issues. The press was filled with stories of environmental trauma ..."
As environmental concern grew, so did distrust of business institutions, which were seen to be the primary cause of environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Public respect for business fell to an all-time low and "for the first time since the Great Depression, the legitimacy of big business was being called into question by large sectors of the public." Surveys showed increasing percentages of people nominated "factories and plants" as the major source of air pollution. The distrust of business and support for environmentalism was highest amongst the young and the college or university educated.
Governments worldwide responded with new forms of comprehensive environmental legislation, such as Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts and the establishment of environmental regulatory agencies. These new environmental laws were part of a general trend in legislation aimed at regulating corporate activities and constraining unwanted business activities. In the UK, new environmental legislation included a Clean Air Act in 1968, a Water Act in 1973 and the Control of Pollution Act in 1974. In the US, there was even more legislation:
From 1969 through 1972, virtually the entire American business community experienced a series of political setbacks without parallel in the post-war period. In the space of only four years, Congress enacted a significant tax-reform bill, four major environmental laws, an occupational safety and health act, and a series of additional consumer-protection statutes. The government also created a number of important new regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), investing them with broad powers over a wide range of business decisions.
Businesses found that their past ways of dealing with government no longer sufficed. The scope of political conflict widened. "For the first time since the 1930s, business found its political influence seriously challenged by a new set of interest groups." Grefe and Linsky describe the traditional business approach in their book The New Corporate Activism:
Back then, it was standard for organizations to conduct their government relations in accordance with a "fix-it" mentality. They had a problem. They hired a lobbyist. They said, "Fix-it!" What they meant was "Kill it or make it go away" ... It was 'influence peddling', quite simply — that is, finding the person who knew the legislator or regulator and getting him (it was always a 'him' in those days of the old-boy network) to bury the problem.
The First Wave of Corporate Activism in the US
In various business meetings, corporate executives lamented their decline in influence. "The truth is that we've been clobbered", the Chief Executive Officer of General Motors told chiefs from other corporations. The Chairman of the Board of General Foods asked "How come we can't get together and make our voices heard?" — which is of course what they did. Throughout the 1970s, US corporations became politically active, getting together to support a conservative anti-regulatory agenda and financing a vast public relations effort aimed at regaining public trust in corporate responsibility and freedom from government regulation.
According to David Vogel in his book Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America, "It took business about seven years to rediscover how to win in Washington." Once they realized how the political scene had changed, corporations began to adopt the strategies that public-interest activists had used so effectively against them — grassroots organising and coalition building, telephone and letter-writing campaigns, using the media, research reports and testifying at hearings, "to maximize political influence". To these strategies, corporations added huge financial resources and professional advice. "A new breed of public affairs professionals began emerging" who could service corporations in their new activism.
For business, the turbulence of change was a nightmare of new regulations and increasingly vocal interest groups that needed pandering to. The rules of the game had changed, and new ways had to be found to at once get what one needed from government, shout down the opposition, and harness the power of interest groups for one's own benefit through persuasion.
They established 'public affairs' departments, increased the funding and staffing of those departments, and allocated responsibility for public affairs to a senior company executive, such as a Vice-President. The offices of these public affairs units were increasingly sited in Washington. Chief Executive Officers also devoted increasing amounts of their time to government relations. A survey of four hundred public affairs units in large and medium-sized firms in 1981 found that most received more than half a million dollars each year in funding, and more than half had been set up after 1970.
The number of business lobbyists in Washington increased rapidly through the 1970s. By 1982, 2,445 firms "had some form of political representation in Washington" compared with 175 in 1971. Trade associations also moved to Washington, often being restructured and given increased budgets.
All told, as of 1980 there were in Washington 12,000 lawyers representing business before federal regulatory agencies and the federal courts, 9,000 business lobbyists, 50,000 trade-association personnel, 8,000 public relations specialists, 1,300 public-affairs consultants, and 12,000 specialized journalists reporting to particular industries on government developments affecting them. The number of individuals employed by the 'private sector industry' exceeded the number of federal employers in the Washington metropolitan area for the first time since before the New Deal.
In response to government regulations brought on by the activities of environmentalists and public interest groups, businesses began to cooperate in a way that was unprecedented, building coalitions and alliances and putting aside competitive rivalries. This was facilitated by the introduction of legislation such as the Clean Air Act that affected large numbers of industries as opposed to one industry at a time. "They learned to find people who were similarly situated and form ad hoc committees with these people and have a concerted, organized effort across the board of a number of industries who were similarly situated to fight the thing together."
Broad coalitions of business people sought to affect "a reorientation of American politics". The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were resurrected and rejuvenated, and new organizations such as the Business Roundtable (for large corporations) and the Small Business Legislative Council (for small businesses) were formed to lobby government. The Business Roundtable, established in 1972, consisted of the chief executive officers of almost 200 corporations. It "cranked out smooth public-relations messages" warning of the costs of environmentalism. One of the Roundtable's early successes was its opposition to the Consumer Protection Agency in which it used strategically designed polling techniques and employed a public relations firm to distribute editorials and cartoons to thousands of papers and magazines.
This trend towards corporate activism could be observed in other countries too. In Australia, corporations "substantially increased their level of resources and commitment to monitoring and influencing the political environment"; ensured their senior executives were effective political operatives in their dealings with politicians and bureaucrats; hired consulting firms to help with government submissions; and established government relations units within their companies with direct access to the Chief Executive Officer. Also, as in the US, "concerted efforts were made to improve and centralize business representation at the national level" so as to mobilize and increase their power.
The Confederation of Australian Industry (CAI) was established in 1970 and the National Farmers Federation in 1977. The Australian Business Roundtable, modelled on the US Business Roundtable and made up of chief executives of twenty of Australia's largest companies, was founded in 1980. The Business Council of Australia was formed in 1983 by the chief executives of sixty-six large corporations, following what they perceived as a weak showing by business at the Economic Summit organized by the newly elected Labor Government. The Business Council now represents big business in Australia.
Rejuvenation of the activism of business in the US happened at a time that political power in Congress was becoming more decentralized and fragmented, and party loyalty was weakening. Individual politicians were increasingly susceptible to pressure from interest groups. Whereas previously business leaders could effectively lobby key people in Congress, they now had to adopt a new lobbying strategy that focused on a wide number of individual members of Congress. This required organising support in a number of electorates so that "by 1978, corporations and trade associations were spending between $850 million and $900 million a year on mobilizing their supporters throughout the United States." Trade associations did this by organising the owners of large numbers of small businesses to lobby their Congress Representative while large corporations mobilized shareholders, suppliers, customers and employees.
The War of Ideas
Far more important than the money invested in political campaigns, however, was the money invested in other forms of political influence, particularly in influencing the political agenda through the dissemination and selling of ideas:
Right-wing businessmen like Richard Mellon Scaife and Joseph Coors, and conservative treasuries like the Mobil and Olin foundations, poured money into ad campaigns, lawsuits, elections, and books and articles protesting 'Big Government' and 'strangulation by regulation', blaming environmentalists for all the nation's ills from the energy crisis to the sexual revolution.
Corporations put large amounts of money into advertising and sponsorships aimed at improving the corporate image and putting forward corporate views. Much of this advertising was on environmental issues. One 1974 survey of 114 large companies "found that thirty to thirty-five per cent of corporate advertising addressed environmentalism, energy-related issues, or the capitalist system". During the mid-1970s over $100 million was being spent each year on this sort of advocacy advertising, particularly by oil companies, electrical utility companies and the chemical industry.
The Advertising Council also became active: using funds from the US Department of Commerce, it attempted to educate the public about the benefits of free enterprise, distributing millions of booklets to schools, workplaces and communities. It blamed inflation on government regulation. The idea for this campaign came from the Chairman of the Board of Procter & Gamble, the largest advertiser in the US, in a speech in which he called for American people to be better educated about the free enterprise system, so that business people need not be defensive about their work.
In Australia, after the election of a 'progressive' Labor government in 1972, the Australian Chamber of Commerce reacted with a nationwide 'economic education campaign' to promote free enterprise; and in 1975 Enterprise Australia was established by the Free Enterprise Association (funded by multinational companies such as Esso, Kodak, IBM and Ford Motors) to take part in the "propaganda warfare for capitalism". In 1977, the president of the Institute of Directors in Australia told his fellow directors that the Institute should, in conjunction with Enterprise Australia, "publicise and sell the benefits of the system it espouses".
Another area of corporate investment in the US, Britain and Australia was to support scholars whose views were compatible with the corporate view by funding them in universities or non-university research institutes, otherwise known as think-tanks. This was seen as a way of countering some of the anti-business research that was being produced in universities, particularly in the social sciences. Irving Kristol, one of those widely credited with persuading the US business community of the merits of this strategy, argued: "You can only beat an idea with another idea, and the war of ideas and ideologies will be won or lost within the 'new class', not against it." The 'new class' comprised people — such as government bureaucrats, academics and journalists — who dealt in ideas rather than products.
Another person who persuasively made these arguments was William Simon, head of the Olin Foundation. He argued that rather than fight each piece of legislation as it came up, or spend money getting particular candidates elected, business people should foster a 'counterintelligentsia' "in the foundations, universities, and the media that would regain ideological dominance for business". Three of the wealthiest US foundations funded the establishment of the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA), which was conceived by Kristol and Simon to coordinate the flow of money from corporations into the production of conservative ideas. Millions of corporate dollars was distributed each year in this way.
Corporations continued to fund the sciences and engineering, but became much more political in other university funding, endowing forty chairs of "free enterprise" between 1974 and 1978, to promote business values to undergraduate students at colleges perceived to be liberal. They also spent millions "to influence the teaching of business and economics in the nation's high schools". They sponsored or funded educational films promoting free-market economics and screened on public television, such as Milton Friedman's series Free to Choose and five films on American Enterprise supported by Phillips Petroleum Company. The Business Roundtable also sponsored economics courses in primary and secondary schools.
In Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise Australia used surveys of school leavers to find the 'deficiencies' in their attitudes to the free enterprise system and then circulated corrective material through schools. They also produced fifteen videos and films with titles such as Profits, Advertising and The Market Economy. Their material was made available to school resource centres with the approval of the departments of education in each state.
Enterprise Australia produced a series of television programmes called Making it Together, distributed a text book by one of its directors entitled The World of Business, presented awards to Young Achievers and broadcast commercials promoting the benefits of free enterprise on over one hundred radio stations. Business groups such as chambers of commerce, the Australian Bankers Association and the Australian Mining Industry Council ran conferences and made presentations to teachers, business people and school students.
Excerpted from Global Spin by Sharon Beder. Copyright © 2002 Sharon Beder. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >