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Listen: How to Sell a Pretend Climate Movement: Reading Act IV of Cory Morningstar’s Series on the NGO Industrial Complex

Listen: How to Sell a Pretend Climate Movement: Reading Act IV of Cory Morningstar’s Series on the NGO Industrial Complex

Ghion Journal

September 18, 2019

By Stephen Boni

 

 

About 43% of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers. After the establishment of the United States government, over a near 250-year period, the number of lawyers in Congress has, by-and-large, mirrored that original percentage. In fact, our current Congress is made up of 43% lawyers. This is a powerful voting block of like-minded people.

Additionally, it isn’t much of a secret how important legal expertise is to modern corporations and how many lawyers exist among their executive ranks. And America’s most prominent corporations represent the financial backing of nearly all members of Congress.

The way lawyers have been trained to think, the skills they possess, the way they maneuver, and what they maneuver for casts a massive shadow over what kinds of decisions get made for our society—and what kind of loose consensus (or acquiescence) gets achieved in order for those decisions to stick.

What I’m talking about is how those decisions are sold to us. Because, at this point, there are very few societal decisions that are made from the ground up by regular citizens.

As I sat in front of the Words of Others podcast mic this week to read Act IV of Cory Morningstar’s multi-part series on how the corporate elite are using a string of nonprofits, foundations and advocacy organizations to engineer a specific set of likely ineffectual responses to the climate and pollution crisis, I noticed how she highlighted elite use of nuanced language—language that smacks of lawyerly thinking—as one of the key methods members of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) industrial complex use to mask the basic assumptions behind the solutions they want the world to adopt.

It’s interesting to me that it was this aspect of Morningstar’s piece that jumped out. The issue of precise but deceptive language is not the focal point of the article. What her piece zeroes in on, actually, is the evidence of a coordinated, psychologically thought through marketing campaign cutting across the entire swath of NGOs currently inserting themselves into the climate crisis movement.

But a marketing campaign is about storytelling—and storytelling is, in large part, about the use of language. And the language used to sell us a movement is consciously connected by its salespeople to the language used to sell the movement’s solutions.

About a quarter of the way through the piece, Morningstar notes the use of a very specific phrase in the proposals of NGO-connected elites to define their specific goal for reducing carbon emissions: “Net Zero Emissions”.

As she explains, this is a very precise modification of carbon goals articulated by NGOs in previous years, and certainly a departure from what grassroots climate activists seek. Because “net zero emissions” doesn’t mean a massive reduction in the amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere:

Rather, it is the amount of emissions being put into the atmosphere being equal to the amount being “captured.”

To achieve that carbon capture, the NGO industrial complex is seeking huge investments for carbon capture storage technology, investments they don’t want to make with their own money but want to take from pension funds and our tax dollars. And, as Morningstar laid out in Act III of her series (which you can listen to here), they want to securitize these investments in green technology so they can become a series of financial products that invigorate growth in a now perpetually sluggish capitalist economy.

This tricky use of language as a sales technique is remarkably precise. It’s not just marketing-ese. It’s downright lawyerly. “Net Zero Emissions” sounds good, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t mean genuinely cutting carbon emissions, reducing consumption, or pollution, or anything, honestly, that would hinder corporate profits.

Since the biosphere has not a single care about what our economic system is, and is only reacting to our very physical waste, “net zero emissions” is no solution at all. There is nothing adaptive about it. It places perceived economic needs over the healing needs of the Earth—which we need healthy for our own precarious wellbeing. But you would only know that by digging into the phrase, and most of us don’t parse the world like that or have the time to think about such things too deeply.

These lawyerly manipulations are not only effective at diverting us from genuine adaptive solutions to climate change and pollution, they’re also tailor-made to make sense to the lawyerly sensibilities of Congress, which, as we remember, is made up of people who have a vested interest in pursuing “solutions” (and use of the public purse) that meet the needs of their corporate donors.

In both politics and astro-turfed movements, we see this linguistic move time and again. Barack Obama was one of the most gifted practitioners when he was campaigning to be president. He knew—as the elites who run the world’s NGOs know—that citizens understand instinctively that things are so bad that only some kind of systemic change will make them better. Since that type of change was not his goal, he concocted a rhetorical style so open to interpretation, so precise and conscious in its use of vague language, that he was able to convince most of the voting public that he was their voice for sweeping change.

Even thought he wasn’t.

That particular use of precision; precision as a way to conceal, is built in to marketing to be sure, but even more so, it’s built in to legal language. In our Constitution itself, written by men steeped in legal thinking, we can see the good and evil sides of legal language’s ability to both reveal and hide meaning.

We live in a complex, often faceless society. Inverted totalitarianism, as theorized by famed historian Sheldon Wolin, gets expressed through the anonymity of the corporate state. Large nonprofits, foundations, NGOs and their backers on Wall Street are an embedded part of that corporate state.

In her extensive research and her journalism, Cory Morningstar is not trying to shit on Greta Thunberg or the Extinction Rebellion activists currently shutting down parts of London. She’s trying to tear apart that legalese-influenced language so we can inoculate ourselves against propaganda—and pursue ground-up solutions that actually have a chance of ensuring us a healthier planet, a healthier society and a healthier life.

After all, wouldn’t it be interesting if those taking part in these movements, armed with a little knowledge on who’s running these organizations, turned on their putative masters and spun the movement out of their control?

Now wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?

Incidentally, here’s how you can listen to the first three parts of Morningstar’s series:

Act I

Act II

Act III

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for listening.

 

[Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal’s current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.]

 

Listen: Don’t Take Movements at Face Value: Reading Cory Morningstar’s Research into Environmental Activist Greta Thunberg

Listen: Don’t Take Movements at Face Value: Reading Cory Morningstar’s Research into Environmental Activist Greta Thunberg

Ghion Journal

September 5, 2019

By Stephen Boni

 

 

A few years back, I was working on a writing and interview project for a national nonprofit in which I spent time with professionals who focused on sustainability. I wasn’t hanging out with Julia “Butterfly” Hill or the descendants of Edward Abbey. These were people who were firmly part of the professional class and operating inside the system to varying degrees. Not everyone’s a radical and I found many of my interview subjects to be fascinating individuals who had accomplished worthwhile things.

However, one issue threw me for a minor loop. During a discussion with a guy who was involved in the financial end of foundation work on climate change and ecosystems, he termed the natural processes occurring in ecosystems as “ecosystem services” that need to be quantified monetarily. “That’s weird”, I thought, so I probed and he enthusiastically explained how financializing the functioning of ecosystems would help the foundation he worked for create “deals” to structure the ways in which they would use their resources to help preserve or restore ecosystems in various parts of the world.

His explanation made a certain amount of sense at the time, but the framing of natural processes to fit within a concept of markets and payments troubled me. On a planet undergoing constant (albeit often barely perceptible) evolutionary change, as well as continual stress due to the massive impact of capitalist economic models enacted on its ‘body’, I wondered how helpful it was to frame the millions-of-years-old interdependently balanced functioning of ecosystems as, essentially, an enterprise. Enterprises within capitalism seek growth at all costs. Ecosystems and the atmosphere don’t conform to or care about these constructs, so what was this financialization effort really all about?

In the years since I conducted that interview, I’ve continued to look askance at the idea that we can avoid catastrophic ecosystem collapse by conceptualizing earth’s materials, relationships and processes as nothing more than a new set of markets within capitalism.

With this uncomfortable feeling remaining near the surface of my consciousness, earlier this year I discovered the investigative journalism of Cory Morningstar (an admittedly late discovery, since she’s been writing for 10 years or more), who does in-depth research into the connections between nonprofits, startups, marketing, movement building, and the long-range planning of politicians and the capitalist class. Her series, the Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg, has helped me get a lot more concrete about the disquiet I experienced as I interviewed sustainability professionals.

With the backdrop this week of the AOC-allied climate group ‘The Sunrise Movement’ praising presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren (who has done next to nothing for the climate during her time as Senator) for environmental plans she discussed on a recent televised town hall, I thought it would be helpful to continue our podcast reading series—recently given the title “The Words of Others”—with the first section of Morningstar’s 6-part investigation into media celebrity Greta Thunberg and the climate organizations to which she’s connected.

Morningstar’s work (all six pieces have also been compiled in book form) may prove instructive as those of us who are concerned about our survival on this planet try to focus on what activity can genuinely make a positive difference for the climate, the atmosphere and the health of our ecosystems.

Listen here:

 

 

[Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal’s current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.]