01.08.2008

See Clearly

As we face the challenges of our Earth Century, Adrian Glamorgan urges a spirit of conscious enquiry

As we face the challenges of ourEarth Century, Adrian Glamorgan urges a spirit of consciousenquiry

Everbought something you desired instead of just needed?The art and science that capitalises on our instinctualand unconscious desires as unsustainable mass consumersemerged with an American, Edward Louis Bernays (1891-1995),Sigmund Freud's nephew no less. Bernays took the psychoanalytictheories of his famous Viennese uncle and applied themto politics and advertising, simultaneously inventingthe shadowy occupation of public relations.

If you've ever wondered why we keep on buying thingswe don't really need, or expect satisfaction from eachpurchase yet immediately hanker for the next thing,look to Bernays for some ready answers.

Eddie Bernays' "engineering of consent,"involved all kinds of ventures that delved deep intoour unconscious. In 1928, the American Tobacco Companywanted to expand the profitable cigarette market toinclude women, but there was a cultural barrier againstwomen smoking in public. So they turned to Bernays.He organised a group of 10 young women to march in theNew York parade and, at the right moment in front ofphotographers he hired, the women produced and lit theirLucky Strike cigarettes according to a careful script,claiming they were lighting "torches of freedom".Breaking the tobacco taboo was a symbolic Freudian wayof challenging male power. It also started selling alot of cigarettes to women.

Bernays' particular talent in shaping consumption wasto bring in third party "independent" research,to help persuade consumers they needed something. Throughhis tireless efforts, Americans came to believe thatfluoridation would be wonderful for dental health, justwhen the aluminium companies wanted somewhere to puttheir waste product; that heavy breakfasts were healthy,just when bacon producers needed more pork to be sold;that cars needed better ventilation just at the timeGeneral Motors produced an innovation in its windows.Bernays would commission a survey that would find whiteunperfumed soap was preferred, just when only one suchproduct existed - his client's. These days, the wineindustry produces reports about how good red wine is(for men, in a narrow age bracket), the nuclear industryreports on how safe Chernobyl fallout was, and medicalauthorities and pharmaceutical companies fund studiescritical of alternative medicine. The toxic sludge industryis quite possibly commissioning an independent reporton the advantages of chemical waste on our skin pores,even as we speak. Fair go. Whenever you read a surveypopping out of nowhere in the newspapers, ask who commissionedit?

Bernays openly declared what he was doing: "itis now possible to control and regiment the masses accordingto our will without their knowing it," he maintained."Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism ofsociety constitute an invisible government which isthe true ruling power of our country.... In almost everyact of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politicsor business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking,we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons... who understand the mental processes and social patternsof the masses. It is they who pull the wires which controlthe public mind."

This manipulation of democracy and free market by the"intelligent few" to protect us all from chaos,and sell lots of products, backfired tragically. In1933, Bernays discovered his Crystallizing Public Opinion-was being used by Goebbels to orchestrate the Nazi persecutionof the Jews. But he was not beyond using these samepropaganda methods closer to home. On behalf of theUnited Fruit Company, Bernays advised how best to undermineGuatemala's democratically elected President Guzman.The CIA did the rest.

People had to be persuaded to throw away possessionsto create rubbish. During the Great Depression, Bernaysset up the Committee for the Study and Promotion ofthe Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink, which founddisposable cups, produced by his client, Dixie Cups,were more "sanitary". For Mack trucks, Bernayscreated fronts such as the Better Living through IncreasedHighway Transportation. Waste and more greenhouse gases,unsustainability, all just an independent survey away.

Now we are living in a century when a response to theecological crisis is urgent. In February, the StratigraphyCommission of the Geological Society of London, theoldest association of Earth scientists, determined thatthe old Holocene Epoch, the geological time cradlingour species into existence, has come to an abrupt halt,with the Earth entering "a stratigraphic intervalwithout close parallel in the last several million years".As well as greenhouse gases building up, human monocultureand cities have transformed the natural sediments, acidifiedthe oceans, and overseen species extinction, "producinga distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal".It means the work of the last 200 years is being writteninto the rocks. Through our actions, Earth has enteredinto the Anthropocene Epoch, an entirely new geologicalage, in our lifetime. That is how profound the changeeffected by humans is.

Garnaut's draft report confirms this - the most ambitiousemission reduction plans only give us a 50-50 chanceto save the Great Barrier Reef. Sobering indeed. I'mnot sure that those in corporate and governmental poweractually properly grasp the enormity of what's happeningacross our country. Expect "independent" studiescommissioned by the coal industry. Expect to hear argumentsthat we "can't afford" to do something aboutclimate change. Prepare for people who are brought forwardwho do not "believe" in greenhouse gases -as if it was something you decided to barrack for ornot. It is not a time for the "intelligent few"to decide we can wait a little longer till the worldjoins in action. Fear, doubt and xenophobia may be persuasiveinstincts, but they are not a measure to help save anecosystem.

No point blaming Bernays or greenwashing industry, soft-pedallingthe environmental crisis; no point in decrying the advertisingagencies re-employed to launch us into faraway wars;no point decrying the modern day Goebbels or UnitedFruit Companies. Expect smoke and mirrors. Blow awaythe smokescreen and see clearly - it is entirely upto us. We wish for truth, understanding and action.We will need, not self defeating cynicism, but consciousenquiry. We need to question, but not destroy our trustin each other through our questions. Such a delicatebalance!

The Earth Century calls for a revived ecological sensibility,one on a global scale as well as an interior measure,that connects with others and the other inside the self.It will acknowledge our vulnerability to fear, doubtand hate. It will dare to respond with courage, opennessand compassion. It will acknowledge the persuasivenessof our strange desires, without giving ultimate powerto them; attempt to rise from the half-dream calledconsumerism to face the glare of the newest, ecologicalcentury, with a new kind of humility and wonder. A newgeological age has begun: perhaps, too, a new humanconsciousness is emerging with it.

Advertisement