History Redux: The Political Campaign Against Sustainability

A recent Stanford University poll found that support for clean energy, vehicle emission standards, and energy efficiency programs is waning, particularly among Republicans. It’s the latest in a series of events that has some observers noting a distinct similarity between external happenings in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and that of President Obama’s.

Michael Moore famously referred to President Jimmy Carter as “Debby Downer” in his documentary Capitalism: A love story. Carter was a Southern Baptist Preacher from Georgia who won the 1976 presidential election, only to face a global energy crisis and rising gas prices, as well as trouble in Iran. In the film, Carter appears in a public service announcement he famously made, asking Americans to conserve, to turn down their thermostats and wear a sweater, and to turn lights off when not necessary.

Republicans looking to oust Carter after one term found their shining white horse, according to Moore, in business-friendly Ronald Reagan, who championed deregulation (which, according to Nobel Prize winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of the New York Times Bestseller Freefall, was irresponsible at best, and ended up causing the financial meltdown in 2008) and deficit spending for the military. Reagan almost tripled the national debt during his presidency, and despite having the Tea Party rally against him in opposition to deficit spending, Reagan was able to win a second term. (That was a joke–the Tea Party never cared about deficit spending before President Obama came to office). Perhaps more importantly, through a series of propaganda campaigns funded by the oil and gas industries, the average American slowly lost interest in environmental issues. As Moore said, Reagan came in and made Americans feel cozy and content again–free from worry about such problems like acid rain and ozone layer depletion that were, well, outside of their control anyway, right?

It’s amazing how history repeats itself. We now have a sustainability-friendly President, much like Jimmy Carter and his famous solar panels on the roof of the White House. This President is facing trouble in Iran, rising gas prices, and a global energy crisis. He is also facing a Republican nominee that claims to be business-friendly and a champion of deregulation. He is facing the oil and gas industry’s Vote 4 Energy propaganda campaign. And unfortunately, Americans seem to be looking for someone to ease their worries and put them to sleep again.

Is Big Oil winning the hearts and minds of the American people? A SuperPac supporting President Obama made the claim that Big Oil is funding Mitt Romney with $200M, but that money is actually coming from the billionaire Koch Brothers,  who happen to own one of the largest private companies in the world that has some oil interests, not directly from BP or ExxonMobil, which you might normally see referred to as “Big Oil.”

What BP and Exxon are doing, however, is funding the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying front group, to conduct the Vote 4 Energy campaign, which aims to teach Americans that what’s in the best interest of the giant oil companies is also in the best interest of the average American.

It’s no small wonder that it seems to be working, at least among Republicans, according to the Stanford study. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance. When someone has a belief system and something challenges that belief system, the person is going to be opposed to that new item of information, no matter the scientific basis for it. That’s why the Tea Party is so opposed to policies like bike lane development and energy efficiency for government buildings. While no one would want to really be aligned with big oil, when big oil tells you what you want to believe anyway, you find ways to believe what they tell you. The American Petroleum Institute knows this, and the Vote 4 Energy campaign, while not directly endorsing Mitt Romney, is aiming to pull down the belief system that is sustainability, and lull Americans into a false sense of security about our energy supply, pollution, and climate change.

Will it work?


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Photo courtesy of Politico

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.