This week has been heartening as corporations and people come together to try to pull us through the national disaster caused by Covid-19 and the resultant 21-day lockdown. Billions of rands have been donated. If you for a moment forget how people accumulate wealth, often at the cost of their workers and society, then this is a hopeful moment, illustrating how South Africans can help each other.
All this goodwill had me feeling downright positive.
Then I read some research from 2011 by the University of Brighton’s Julie Doyle, titled “Where has all the oil gone? BP branding and the discursive elimination of climate change risk”.
Oil and gas companies have, for a century, run sophisticated public relations campaigns to distance themselves from the effects of their products, which range from children living near refineries growing up with crippling asthma to the deadly heating of our planet.
Public relations, in turn, owes its origins to a campaign to rehabilitate the image of John D Rockefeller, after his mining company murdered striking workers and their families.
Doyle’s research focused on the more than $100-million media campaign that BP ran in 2005, talking about the “personal carbon footprint”.
In one advert, the company said: “What on Earth is a carbon footprint? Everyone in the world has one. It’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year due to the energy we use. Calculate the size of the household footprint, learn how you can reduce it and how we’re reducing yours …”
That seems like a reasonable advert. Almost nice. A corporation informing and empowering people.
It is genius. BP, like other major carbon polluters, has run orchestrated campaigns that want to pin the problem of emissions on people. And yes, everyone is responsible for their effect on the planet and, if they have the resources to do so, should reduce that impact.
Living beyond your means affects other people, much in the same way that people who have the space to isolate but choose to go out during the lockdown harm other people.
But what the oil giant was actually doing is known in the climate science community as a “deflection campaign”. If individual action is seen as the key to the climate crisis, corporations aren’t the focus of regulators, activists and people who worry about their future. And it’s not just oil and gas companies doing this sort of thing; big companies that take shortcuts and pollute are expert at deflecting the attention (and corrupting officials and regulators).
So, in this moment where those corporations are “stepping up” to the Covid-19 challenge, let’s not forget their true character and where and how they have made their money.