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Undermining in 2010: How Did I Do?

Posted by keith on 27th December 2010

There is something very human in looking back over a specific period of time and reflecting on what you have achieved, failed in or could just have done a bit better. It’s part of the learning process that civilization discourages, because if we really did look back and reflect upon what really matters to us, then we would – me included – have more than a few regrets as to how little we actually did. All that time spent shopping, watching TV, social networking, being taught pointless bits of information at school so we can end up doing pointless things at work in order that we can shop, watch TV and socially network…a boon for the industrial economy; another nail in the coffin of life.

But among that monotony and technologically-assisted repetition are signs that change is happening: that the system is creaking under the joint pressures of material shortage, financial instability and – how it warms my heart to write this – a determination from formerly benign quarters to no longer take this toxic existence lying down. The impact of WikiLeaks on the psyche of people who previously might have considered freedom of information a luxury, is perhaps the most high-profile indicator of this change; but there are other signs, such as targeted rioting across Europe, an upsurge in on-the-ground direct action in the Americas, and a not-too-insignificant backlash against the mainstream environmental movement’s stubborn intransigence. In parallel with that is the growth of survivalist and anti-civilization groups, and a widespread move towards self-sufficiency.

This is just a tiny taster of what is perhaps a much wider air of discontent with the industrial system, but there is no room for complacency – it is just as likely a reaction to financial hardship, rather than altruistic, or communal, desire; nevertheless, the light of humanity does seem to be flickering back into life.

For my part, I have been involved in a number of external and internal struggles that have manifested themselves in all sorts of unexpected outcomes. The Unsuitablog has provided a frosted window for peering into some of these, and given that I made Undermining the focus of this blog in 2010, I think it only right to explain, as far as I can, how I think I did in this area. As I made clear in the opening salvo of this year-long campaign, being an interested bystander was no longer an option. We all had to, and could do something significant:

“One action a month, by every person who reads The Unsuitablog: that’s a lot of actions that could really drive some terminal nails into the coffin labelled “Hypocrites”, helping to free up the minds of a misled and brainwashed public.”

The rule I set myself was that for every Monthly Undermining Task article posted on The Unsuitablog, I would do at least one of the tasks contained therein. I don’t believe in passing the buck; we all have a part to play, and if dramatic change is to happen we have it within our gift to provide the environment where that change can take place.

January‘s “The Great TV Turn-Off” was the opener, partly because television is such a ubiquitous and usually negative influence on humanity, and partly because I wanted to provide some ideas that everyone could carry through with immediate impact, and without great risk to themselves. After a few forays in local shopping malls with my TV-B-Gone, I decided to upgrade to a high-powered TV-B-Gone model (my first soldering project) that was so effective I had to make quick exits from a number of stores. On Christmas Eve 2010 I discovered, to my delight, that Burger King menus were now on LCD TVs…I didn’t hang around to see the chaos. Sadly I never had a chance to use my Grid Key Switch, but will try my best in the new year.

February‘s “Time To Break The Ads” saw a sudden outbreak of torn billboards in my hometown, along with AdBlock Plus becoming a staple of every computer I tuned up in my work. Again, I wasn’t ever in a position to switch off lit billboards, but did a fair bit of poster “reconfiguration”.

March saw the joint campaign called “Throwing off the Shackles of Debt“, which featured prominently in the ouvres of three writers of far greater significance than myself, creating a huge amount of fuss in one particular place. As a family we, even with a move from England to Scotland, reduced our spending and reinforced our desire never to be indebted. That month I sent a fake press release on behalf of a major retail bank to dozens of radio stations in the UK outlining the bank’s plans to go loan-free. As with most undermining activities, I have no idea whether this came to anything, but on the other hand did it with no comeback whatsoever (partly due to posting the letters in a different part of the country).

In April I targeted the school system, and it’s brainless testing regime in “Sack The SATs“. This coincided with our move to a place that does not have the regime I railed against, but while in England there was time to persuade a few parents not to subject their children to extra-curricular cramming classes, and steadfastly refused to give any time to pre-SATs homework. It was wonderful to learn that a quarter of schools had, for their part, decided to boycott English SATs – a serious blow for the testing regime. Immediately after moving we learnt about the joys of unschooling with one of our children, though haven’t quite got to the point where it’s necessary to take them out of school altogether – they need to make friends, after all.

In May it was time to “Mind Your Language“, for which I took a more analytical approach towards, publishing a major piece on The Earth Blog, which was republished in far more high-profile locations. Subsequently I have been a lot more careful with my own use of loaded words, but not being in more public-facing role there hasn’t been a lot more I could do.

June‘s “It’s The Freeconomy, Stupid!” coincided with the profile raising of the Freeconomy movement, particularly the Guardian’s featuring of Mark Boyle’s work – so I can’t take any credit for that. However, my barter-based computer servicing business has been quite successful, both in terms of work and the number of people in our village taking a renewed interest in bartering and sharing of goods and skills. In the 5 months since the business was established I have worked for: vegetables, the services of an electrician, some shelves, the labour to build a chicken fence, a loft full of sheeps wool insulation, a hand-made scarf and all sorts of knick-nacks that were offered.

July encouraged people to “Escape The Tourist Trap“, but I have watched in dismay as people close to me seem to have taken more overseas holidays, not less; although we have come across an array of neighbours who think close to home (or at home) is the best place for a holiday. For my part, we steadfastly refused to go any further than back to where we used to live, and even paid for a (relatively cheap) holiday next year which included people who might have otherwise gone far further afield. Fortunately for society in general, icy weather and industrial action stopped an awful lot of needless vacations in 2010, which is some comfort.

In August I wanted people to “Crash The Mainstream Environmentalists’ Party“, which saw a major ally in the form of the Cochabamba Agreement that made clear which NGOs were actually on the side of Earth and the people. It turned out that few were – the presence of the Agreement can only make things increasingly uncomfortable for the mainstream. I’m afraid I was distracted from doing anything really effective myself at the time, apart from becoming the bane of the Nature Conservancy Facebook Group, and publishing a few blogs about NGO hypocrisy here; but I have a couple of irons in the fire which will become apparent in 2011.

I was 40 in September. Just thought I’d mention that, and the fact that it just made me more determined to get stuck into things. I started writing a new book all about Undermining, but can’t really put that into the mix until its published. I did take a swipe at the fashion industry in that month, and October, making “Unfashion” the priority. Being a distinctly unfashionable person, there is little more I can do to change things at home, though I am working with a friend who produces goods from scrap and offcuts, and doing my best to imbue everyone with a love of the second-hand. Unfashion is more a state of mind than an activity, but if you fancy taping up any new year sales as a crime scene then be my guest…

The last published MUT was in November. Entitled “The Online Infocrunch” it was a shout-out to everyone with a taste for online activism to subvert and correct the skewed worldview given to us by the internet heirarchy. I have carried out a few subtle corrections to Wikipedia, helped out with a few bits of online subterfuge and – earlier in the year – created my own fake online announcement which made it to the front page (as a refutation) of the target company’s website. To my sheer joy, the company involved later pulled out of the relevant activities, although I probably can’t take much credit for that. I guarantee that more of the same will be happening in 2011.

Finally, I intended the December Monthly Undermining Task to be related to WikiLeaks, with a call for people to help the site, and to leak information wherever possible. Then I got involved in a bit of hard reality, and with the help of a few other people, EnviroLeaks was born. This is ostensibly an extension of the call for information from readers of The Unsuitablog, but with the stakes so much higher now that information leaking has become mainstream news. EnviroLeaks is not a substitute for WikiLeaks: we hope instead it will complement that offering with a more conversational and also targeted approach to environmental malpractice.

2011 may be a bit more barren on the pages of The Unsuitablog due to this and other committments. We all have so much to do – and even if we can’t or shouldn’t write about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Have a great and very active 2011.


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Book Review: Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore

Posted by keith on 3rd November 2009


I want to say this is an unequivocally wonderful book, I really do, and had it not been for a few rather major issues, Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore would have been right at the top of my reading list recommendations. It’s still in the upper reaches, and I’ll explain later why it’s not near the top; but for now let’s look at the good stuff, and why this is a very important book.

First, and probably most significantly is the small matter of DeSmogBlog, a project and web site that James co-founded, and which has become the de facto repository for investigative work and enlightening documentation with regards to the climate change denial industry. While The Unsuitablog explores the more public facing and insidious side of ethical hypocrisy, DeSmogBlog takes the big boys on head-first, and in many cases is the reason the denial industry is not even more influential than it currently is.

And, yes, “industry” is the proper word for what is driving the denialist agenda; something Climate Cover-Up explains with a clarity that is evident throughout a great deal of the text:

Promoting scientific research or advancing the public understanding of the true state of science appears not to be the priority. The [American Petroleum Institute] strategists, working on behalf of clients in the chemical and fossil fuel industries, are working instead to change the conventional wisdom, irrespective of the science. They are crafting a plan to create grassroots organizations that serve industry goals, regardless of whether the public might share those goals or might spontaneously have risen to fight for those priorities. These industry-funded planners set out to ridicule the Kyoto agreement and to frustrate government efforts to constrain greenhouse gas emissions. They made a plan to overwhelm the media with a steady stream of information that served industry’s purposes and injected “balance” into coverage, whether or not that balance reflected the true state of science.

You can sense the anger in the writing; something that peppers the text, driven partly by a frustration that the “good name” of the PR industry which Hoggan hails from is being tarnished, but also (I suspect via Richard Littlemore) a genuine disgust at the atrocious behaviour of almost everyone who falls under the Climate Denier banner. Much of the language used by the denial industry is utterly transparent; take this example from Chapter Four:

ICE [a coal-funded astroturf] went into small U.S. markets that were heavily dependent on coal-fired electricity and, with advance planning from the D.C. public relations firm Bracy Williams and Company, tested a series of messages, including:

• “Some say the Earth is warming. Some also said the Earth was flat.”
• “Who told you the Earth was warming . . . Chicken Little?”
• “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”

I had a pencil constantly at hand while reading this book, and made the following amendments:

• “Some say the Earth is warming. Some also said the Earth was round.”
• “Who told you the Earth was warming . . . scientists?”
• “How much are you willing to risk to ignore a problem that may not exist?”

Simple, isn’t it? But the big story that Climate Cover-Up tells is of the sheer volume of disinformation and number of bodies that the denial industry has been able to muster in order to put forward a point of view that runs entirely counter to the scientific body of evidence. Scientists are trusted; politicians and corporations are not — so what did the denial industry do to correct this inconvenient cultural glitch? They manufactured a blizzard of pseudo-science and politicised jargon, forwarded by a battery of “authority” figures, so compelling in its entirely that both the political mainstream and the general public swallowed it and savoured its comforting taste: none of this bitter Climate Change nonsense for them.

The activities of “authorities” like Timothy Ball, Steven Milloy and “Lord” Christopher Monckton (who is wonderfully taken apart in Chapter Nine) are shown as little short of genocidal, given the lives that will undoubtedly be lost as climate change takes hold of the global ecosystem. Timothy Ball, out of all of the Junk Scientists, is the one that, upon reading about him, fired my anger most of all. The totality of his devious activities is brilliantly exposed in Chapter Eleven:

Everything that [Professor Dan] Johnson had said was easily subject to the libel defense of truth. There really was a long parade of highly respected climatology Ph.D.’s before Ball came along, and Ball had not been a professor for twenty-eight years. In fact, twenty-eight years before his retirement in 1996, Ball was still pursuing his bachelor’s degree at another university. Yet the Friends of Science front man had been advertising himself hither and yon as the first climatology Ph.D. in the country and had said in public and on Web site biographies that became part of Johnson’s statement of defense that he had been “for 32 years a Professor of Climatology at the University of Winnipeg.” Ball even wrote a letter to then Canadian prime minister Paul Martin in which he said, “I was one of the first climatology Ph.D.s in the world”. He signed that letter, “Dr. Tim Ball, Environmental Consultant, Victoria, British Columbia, 28 Years Professor of Climatology at the University of Winnipeg.” (And no, the “32 years” reference was not a typographical error, at least not here. Ball used different years in different biographies.)

You would think someone who had been so casual in remembering the details of his career would be reticent to pick a fight over those details. But perhaps Tim Ball thought that Dan Johnson would, like Justin Lancaster, look at the cost of defending himself and choose instead to apologize and retract his criticism. There was certainly pressure to do so. The administration at the University of Lethbridge made it clear that they would offer no assistance with Johnson’s defense, and his colleagues were silent while he took the heat.

Given the anger that Climate Cover-Up undoubtedly creates, you would expect either an utterly radical set of measures be proposed by the authors, or that they would leave it at that and let the reader decide what to do with this inflammatory information. Unfortunately, this is where the book falls down rather badly. Given all that has come before, the final two chapters are infuriatingly weak, and in some cases are actually counterintuitive; for instance:

Together, all [the] polls seem to indicate the following: people don’t trust business; they don’t trust government; and on issues of sustainability at least, half the people don’t even trust one another. No wonder so few people are struggling to make a large personal contribution in the battle to limit the effects of climate change: nobody wants to be a chump. Nobody wants to be the only person on the block who is spending money to repower their heating system. No one wants to give up their car, change their diet, or limit their consumption if their efforts will be rendered irrelevant by the consumption patterns of those around them.

It’s pretty clear to anyone who reads Climate Cover-Up that big business is not to be trusted, and neither are most politicians, given their willingness to take funding from the selfsame industries that are destroying the planet: that is the nature of the beast, and the way Industrial Civilization works, and no encouraging words will change that. The system itself is incapable of doing what is right; which is why when I see phrases like “No one wants to give up their car, change their diet, or limit their consumption”, I get so frustrated — yes I do want to change, and am doing so, despite what others have been brainwashed into thinking, because it’s the right thing to do. Even worse than this, is a statement that turns up in Chapter Seventeen, one that made my blood boil, and not in the way the authors intended:

Sometimes, the most aggressive people in environmental organizations have contributed to that image. Sometimes in moments of frustration or desperation, they have chained themselves to trees or smashed their ships into whaling vessels, adding to the image of environmentalists as inherently radical.

Yes, it’s called passion, and it’s those passionate people who actually create change: not the sheep walking around with banners and petitions calling for “political strength” and “hope”, but those who are willing to stand up directly against the offenders and do what they can to prevent harm to that which sustains all of us. Who wouldn’t, given the nature of the threat?

In the same way, I do not accept the viewpoint put forward by Hoggan, that somehow everything will be okay providing “our leaders” can be persuaded to do the right thing. The implied view that we should look up to people and accept their leadership, while at the same time decrying their culpability is logically flawed to say the least, as exemplified by this statement from the last chapter:

We have to get informed, and we have to get active. Because if we don’t, if we don’t all take the initiative and demand of our leaders that they start fixing this problem, beginning today, it will indeed be a crime. And the punishment will be visited on our children and on their children through a world that is unrecognizable, perhaps uninhabitable.

The act of exposing hypocrisy in the open; encouraging and using the products of confidential leaks and hidden information, and fundamentally knocking down the images of the rich and powerful is far more radical than any of the suggestions for “action” proposed at the end of the book. As I suggested earlier, had the authors decided to leave the stage at Chapter Fifteen, and let the reader use his or her nascent anger in a constructive way, then the book would have achieved, what I presume was its aim: to create change.

Like their contemporaries, Naomi Klein, Ben Goldacre and George Monbiot; Hoggan and Littlemore have produced a cracking book that, while it may not actually fix anything in itself, provides a valuable lesson about a noxious set of practices — practices that still persist, but which now can be better understood and suitably dealt with. Use this as an ideal primer in the world of Climate Change Denial, but choose your own actions: it’s your world.

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