YOU'VE SEEN the ads: Lush, green forests. Stunning birds of prey in flight. Humpback whales breaching. Pristine streams glimmering in the sunlight. All photographed beautifully and reproduced at great expense. But something is a little off. Somewhere on the page, sometime on the screen, you see the tagline that reveals the truth: The ad is for a corporate polluter.
Ever since the environmental movement got serious 30 years ago at the first Earth Day, some of the world's biggest polluters have been at it around the clock, conjuring up one green illusion after another. This deceptive marketing has become known as "greenwash." The OxfordEnglish Dictionary recently gave the word a place in its prestigious pages, defining greenwash as "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."
Greenwash is a year-round phenomenon, but it is especially visible around Earth Day. This year's event, the 30th anniversary of our national ecological festival, focuses on energy and global warming. It will also bring with it a deluge of deception from corporate America -- particularly the oil, coal and car companies most directly responsible for the climate problem.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, just 122 corporations account for more than 80 percent of all global carbon emissions -- by far the major greenhouse gas. And just five private global oil corporations -- ExxonMobil, BP Amoco, Shell, Chevron and Texaco -- produce oil that contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
The decisions these companies make dwarfs the ability of individuals to make environmental improvements. You and I can turn out the lights when we leave the house or walk to the store. But we cannot rent a solar home or buy a hydrogen-powered car. We do not decide whether to invest billions of dollars to drill for oil on ancestral indigenous lands, or to take our research, development and exploration dollars and put it into developing environmentally sound renewable energy.
So what are the companies telling us this Earth Day? BP Amoco has put solar panels on the roofs of some its gas stations, to help you put "some sun in your life," as you fill your tank with gasoline. Shell touts its "commitment to the development of renewables" such as solar, biomass and forestry. ExxonMobil oscillates between denying the existence of climate change to telling us that technology will solve the problem. Ford is holding a ceremony to honor "Heroes of the Planet," is sponsoring the Time for Kids environmental prizes.
What's the reality behind this corporate environmentalism? BP Amoco, Shell and ExxonMobil all spend less than 1 percent of their budget on renewable energy, while they continue to invest billions in the damaging search for oil all over the planet. Ford was recently ranked the second worst polluter of all auto companies by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It is also the one whose fuel efficiency has declined the most in the last 10 years since global warming was recognized as a major problem.
The lesson of 30 years worth of Earth Days is that beneath their carefully crafted, superficial green images, most polluting corporations go on with business as usual unless they are forced to change by people and governments that organize and legislate to hold them accountable.
This Earth Day go ahead and recycle, turn out the lights when you leave your house and ride your bike to work. But keep a sharp eye out for greenwash.
Bruno and Karliner work with the San Francisco-based Corporate Watch, www.corpwatch.org.
Copyright 2000 Contra Costa Times