February 5, 2016
For the last twelve years, I have taught courses on Corporate Communications and Public Relations mostly to university law students. Towards the end of the course, after following a company’s communications activities for around three months, I poll my students on the class forum, asking if they could imagine working for their chosen corporations. Around 90% reject the idea outright, often citing corporate greed, environmental destruction or unethical lobbying for their reasoning. These sentiments did not come out of the course materials which leads me to beg the question: How could so many well-educated young people at the beginning of their career paths develop such a negative impression of industry? When did industry become “denormalised”?
The denormalisation of industry is Part Six of the series on How to Deal with Stupid that started with a definition of stupid as a self-contained belief system based on an erroneous paradigm, but through manipulation on social media, has created a religious fervour that allows its tenets to withstand logic and rational discourse. Stupid has clever consultants who have designed an Activist Playbook that dominates policy debates by using commonality, the manufacturing of a perception that we all agree with their positions.
Outside of normal norms
Denormalisation, as the term suggests, is the removal of an entity from being part of society – an excommunication of sorts by the dominant actors within a societal narrative. As an exclusionary process, it implies that the entity (company, person, race, linguistic group) is not welcome and this discrimination is justified for the greater good. It is a play on the words “normal” and “norms”, implying an ethical or normative judgement.
Last year I coined the term “contrapreneur” to describe the activist campaigner who is against any innovative technology, entrepreneurial approaches to solve problems humans face or any promotion of progress or technological developments. For the contrapreneur, man is the source of the problem rather than a solution and industry is his weapon. Thus the logical goal for the contrapreneur is to control, limit and ultimately eliminate industry … the first step being to denormalise it.
I came across the term “denormalisation of industry” in 2012, in, of all places, a publication by the WHO on e-cigarettes. The World Health Organisation was rejecting the possible benefits of e-cigarettes in reducing harm because it “could therefore undermine the denormalization of tobacco use upheld by the WHO”. Anyone unaware of the activist nature of the WHO under Margaret Chan might be alarmed that a global body would reject a beneficial technology out of spite, but this follows perfectly their anti-industry rhetoric, seen also in their anti-pharmaceutical industry position during the Ebola crisis or any IARC study on anything industry produces. On tobacco, the WHO has isolated industry, refusing to consider their research, engage with their representatives or even allow them to attend meetings. While they acknowledge that the tobacco companies are still legally permitted to sell products, they are excluded from any normal role within society – they are pariahs … who pay taxes.
This selective discrimination at the regulatory level troubles me. It legitimises subjective exclusion, random policymaking and poor science. I am not going to defend the at times questionable actions of the tobacco industry, but if an industry, and a practice, is reviled, then make it illegal. If not, then regulate, but do not discriminate. If I treated students according to the random, spiteful nature seen by the WHO, I would be fired and rightly so.
Instead, the WHO has set a precedent for the denormalisation of other industries, legitimising an anti-industry narrative that is promoting a culture of stupid and intellectual neglect at the highest levels of decision-making. This Ludditious cultural narrative attacks research-intensive industries that provide great benefits to society from pharmaceuticals to petrochemistry to plant protection. Some examples:
- COP-21: Industry not welcome! The COP-21 Paris Climate Conference was meant to be a coming together of stakeholders to commit to a lower carbon future, but when industry leaders arrived to announce that they could and would adapt (see for example, DSM’s clean cow), it seems they had not seen the activist script: Industry, as the assumed cause of the climate crisis, was not welcome at the climate solution table. The NGOs had spread the rumour that the corporate lobbyists were there to try to undermine the deal, and should be banned from Paris. This fear-mongering was as tired as it was ridiculous given that the climate sceptics had long ago abandoned the COP process as a waste of time.
But the strategy was clever: Stupid wanted to keep industry out of the debate (kill dialogue) since it would interfere with the denormalisation message (with a screenplay written by Naomi Klein – Stupid incarnate), that the only way to save the world was to get rid of capitalism. Trying to portray the world capable of solving climate change without industry (part of their gameplan) of course weakened any deal Paris could have produced. Stupid even showed up at an industry-sponsored event in Paris to intentionally cause a disturbance; as they were being removed from the conference hall for their disruptive behaviour, their film crews recorded the drama queens spouting how industry is trying to hide the truth from the world. Stupid at its best, producing a clever message that caught the industry people (who had come to Paris with a positive message) unprepared, but ultimately killing the COP process. I wonder who they’ll blame! It is sad, because the UN realised post Copenhagen that they cannot work with governments, so as industry stepped up, the activists tried to shut them down. The activists are not disrupting the problems, they are disrupting the solutions.
- Monsanto: If ever Stupid wants to fire up its troops, it brings in the M word. Monsanto is not a company, but a symbol of why industry cannot be trusted and must be eradicated in order to protect human health from mass extinction. The number of Armageddon-like films with Monsanto in the title, the number of campaigns or marches against them, the amount of research funding raised to question their products … have spawned a cottage industry of activism. What Monsanto represents has become so wretched that campaigners feel perfectly OK to lie, use children like Rachel Parent or spread false rumours to try to rid the company of any right to be part of the debate. Even scientists have acted irresponsibly or misrepresented data to get at Monsanto, from Gilles-Eric Séralini to Christopher Portier. Within the denormalisation of industry narrative, the corporation has no rights and the detractors therefore have no conscience. It has created an atmosphere where, should a regulator choose to act according to facts rather than rhetoric (to agree with the science that supports Monsanto’s research), it would be pure political suicide. Stupid, once again, has shown to be very cunning.
- Pharmageddon: What disturbs me most is how the pharmaceutical industry is being beaten out of existence by “Paleo-sophisticus”. The anti-vaxxers declare that Big Pharma is just poisoning children to sell them more drugs to deal with the autism they have
created; the chemophobes claim that the cancer industry is hiding the simple cures to make more money; and even those who pretend to be sensible are undermining trust in pharmaceutical research. True the business profit model is not a natural fit with public health goals (why we need regulators), but innovative businesses have a mission to solve problems (like people dying young or having a poor quality of life). It has become easy to attack the pharmaceutical industry for not serving us health for free on a platter (in this age of entitlement, we have forgotten what we are, ourselves, responsible for our health with little things like exercise or diet), or to elevate criminals like Martin Shkreli as a caricature of pharma management, but what would indeed happen to our world if these flat-earthers succeed in denormalising the pharmaceutical industry? I hope they stay healthy – as someone who takes three pills a day to manage a rare vascular disease, I for one know I would be in box by now if they had had their way.
Hippie Commune Utopia
Since the anti-industry, anti-globalisation movements against the WTO and the G7 (8, 20 …), which found their voice during the Seattle WTO riots, there has been a clear strategy of limiting the role of industry and multinationals in society, bringing together a motley crue of anarchists, environmentalists, communists and trade unionists, each with their own issues and a delightful openness towards contradiction. Campaigns against the next wave of trade negotiations (TTP, TTIP) are built on this revolutionary push to denormalise multinationals and global trade. Groups like Sourcewatch, PIRG, Center for Public Integrity, Corporate Europe Observatory and their parent group, the Transnational Institute found their voice between Seattle and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which provided the opportunity of a large population of victims looking for a scapegoat.
These groups all share the same strategy – limit dialogue and honest, open thought while using the societal narrative of transparency to expose, discredit and denormalise industry to achieve a different worldview. Leftists, anarchists, extreme right intellectuals and radical environmentalists have joined in to articulate a worldview of mistrust, where authority must be centred around the individual in a small community (much like the Hippie Commune mentality of their parents). The corporate model or any industry is not welcome in this utopia
Jeremy Rifken pontificates his futuristic ideal of small, independent communities of prosumers all producing and freely sharing the harvests from their window boxes, energy from their solar panels and manufacturing output from their 3D printers. He is not too clear who makes these panels or printers, but Rifken’s anti-industry idealism (what he called the “third industrial revolution”) is merely an extravagance on the sharing economy philosophy, a benevolent perception of humanity that has been dreamt about since 1848 (although never actually realised). You can read this Hippie guru’s wisdom on how we will soon be willing to freely share everything (available on Amazon for shareable price of USD 20.04!). Despite such undeniable certitude flying in the face of his own hypocrisy, everything Rifkin had forecast in this Third Industrial Revolution book (oil through the roof, a second property market collapse, rabid inflation) was spectacularly wrong. But that is a minor point to gurus who claim to know everything and can still charge high speaker fees to tell others what to do.
Is There a Denormalisation Strategy?
I recently came across a document illustrating a clear activist strategy to discredit and denormalise the fossil fuel industry – using the same approach that had worked in finally bringing down Big Tobacco: relentless litigation. The model is clear if not hauntingly unethical in its cunning and ruthlessness. In 2012 there was a series of workshops in the US organised by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Climate Accountability Institute and Naomi Oreskes where certain academics, NGO activists and lawyers initiated a push to litigate the fossil fuel industry out of existence (along the same legal/social strategy as that used against the tobacco industry). When reading the report, there was a foulness in motive expressed by the workshop participants to try to come up with a strategy to get the public more outraged at industry to ensure successful litigation.
While I think this is madness to litigate industries that everyone uses and benefits from on the basis of climate accountability (why not bring the meat industry to account for climate change?) and indicative of the contrapreneurs’ overall strategy to deny industry a right to exist, it validates how there is a clear strategy to denormalise the fossil fuel industry. It also implies that scientific disagreement could have legal ramifications – talk about politicising science!
It should come as no surprise then that in November, 2015, the New York State Attorney General opened an investigation into ExxonMobil and other companies for not disclosing the financial risks of climate change (assumption – lying to investors). Is this an Al Capone stunt by climate witch-hunters? If we can’t arrest them for producing fossil fuels (which I imagine the attorney general uses every day), then we can get them for not disclosing the business risk to investors. How far has the malicious Oreskes report gone up into the American legal establishment?
Well, very far it seems. In the workshop report the strategy is clear:
A key breakthrough in the public and legal case for tobacco control came when internal documents came to light showing the tobacco industry had knowingly misled the public. Similar documents may well exist in the vaults of the fossil fuel industry and their trade associations and front groups, and there are many possible approaches to unearthing them. … State attorneys general can also subpoena documents, raising the possibility that a single sympathetic state attorney general might have substantial success in bringing key internal documents to light.
The strategy to investigating Exxon appears to have developed from the 2012 activist workshop led by Oreskes. Is the New York State Attorney General in bed with Naomi? Sadly, they will certainly find documents in Exxon “vaults” since any business worth its salt will do studies of all scenarios, develop crisis preparedness and business continuation measures. This does not imply that they are lying to their shareholders – they are just being responsible and prepared for any eventuality. In future, I suppose, to avoid situations like this, companies will not do crisis scenarios … not a good idea to many perhaps.
So the next step in the denormalisation process is in full swing. The strategy is to continue to litigate fossil fuels until big oil and coal just give up. At the same time, activists will continue to force investors like Bill Gates to divest from oil and coal following a moral crusade boycott strategy. These activist punks are openly celebrating when stock market prices fall, wiping billions off of the larger economy, not realising how it is affecting everyone. The UK Guardian, which used to be a newspaper until they discovered that running activist campaigns better paid the rent, has been leading a Keep it in the Ground divestment campaign with a small NGO to raise the public outrage … all seems to be going to plan.
Some would argue that these strategists are noble in their mission to rid the world of an industry contributing greatly to climate change. That, in a Machiavellian sense, banning big oil is an obligation to ensure our means to survive on the planet. This self-declared sanctimony is one reason radical environmentalism will never be able to mainstream. Their hypocrisy is mind-numbing: why not ban cars or reduce the livestock industries (far greater sources of greenhouse gas emissions)? That, of course, would hurt their members, who donate generously to these NGOs. The film, Cowspiracy, highlighted the hypocrisy of the NGO movement in all of its glorious state of Stupid.
What floors me, and at times absolutely infuriates me is to have to watch good industries, with good people who make good things for society become ostracised by a motley band of fringe punks, anarchists, prissy elitist, mindless Mommy-bloggers and unemployable radicals, all with good social media skills allowing them to manipulate public perceptions. This is the ugly face of Stupid. They are manipulating a class of professional bureaucrats who rule by the virtue of expedience and have never managed a business and through their relentless but pointless activism, are pushing innovators, scientists, engineers, job and wealth creators and the technology skill class outside of the process and outside of society. We are losing innovations in agriculture (and our capacity to feed the world), new chemical substances that can improve well-being and energy use, new products that can improve human health and protect us from diseases and pandemics. This privileged class has never understood want or problems, but the consequences of their lobbying is starting to offshore intelligence and establish Stupid as the status quo in Western society. It frightens me and I feel offended by their entitlement and hypocrisy.
Research against second-hand smoke was, to say the least, quite dodgy (remember the claims that second-hand smoke was more dangerous than direct inhalation), but given the anti-tobacco bias of regulators, it was enough to act against industry. In a denormalised situation, it seems acceptable to reject an industry position without good data while legislating on shaky research. Who, afterall, would stand up for the tobacco industry? Given that their scientists were not allowed to participate in the discussions, there was really no need for a fair assessment of the research.
Such was also the case with the European Commission’s precautionary measures on neonicotinoids. The European Commission used a highly questionable approach to the management of the relevant data on this class of pesticides’ effect on bee populations, while at the same time being totally OK with inadequate data on an issue that is normatively accepted (ie, largely untested organic pesticides). This is an example of Stupid institutionalised. If policymakers in DG Santé and EFSA had integrity, they would either apply the bee guidance document without discrimination (and be forced to ban all pesticides used by organic farmers as well) or admit that this document was formulated with discriminatory intent towards the pesticides industry because of the denormalising campaigns of some judgemental activists. Bad science regrettably goes with biased, discriminatory policy and this story is a dark spot on the scientific reputation of the European Commission.
One can measure the bias used in precaution-prone issues by the level of dislike (normative distaste) certain regulators have towards an industry. I have spoken often about the anti-industry exclusionary nature of those calling for precaution, a concept institutionalised in the European Union by David Gee, a Friends of the Earth director on secondment to the European Environment Agency (ironically empowered with the position of head of science for the agency). When an industry is under threat of denormalisation, the precautionary principle provides the nails (enduring doubt) for its coffin.
Stupid has been undeniably successful in marginalising industry, and as it feeds off of each campaign, grows stronger and cockier in its attempt to rid the world of all industry – next up, biotech, chemicals, alcohol and yes, pharmaceuticals. Their scientists and experts have already been granted the pariah status – pariahs who pay taxes.
Sadly, the only hope I see for the continuation of technology and innovation is for Chinese companies to continue to buy heavily discounted western industries and become keepers of the flame. We saw that this week when Syngenta was bought by ChemChina.
Conflict of Interest or Conflict of Influence
The irony about the denormalisation process is that in the 1990s, when industry and government started to look at CSR, sustainability and stakeholder dialogue in the 1990s, they brought the civil society groups in from the cold and gave them a place at the table. It did not take the NGOs too long to feel at home and move to kick industry out into the cold. Their claim is that industry, as profit-making organisations, would have a conflict of interest and should not be involved in the decision-making process. So the only people allowed at the policy table soon became the NGOs and academics (at least those who agreed with them – those who threatened the NGO position had likely received some money from industry to attend a conference and were quickly turfed out as well). By denormalising industry experts and removing the voice of other stakeholders, Stupid then controls the table and the policy process.
But conflict of interest is not only about corporate profits. NGOs, when successful, increase their donation pools and grow their business. Some like Greenpeace, WWF and conservation groups are pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars, and following the corporate model, need to continue to grow their business. These NGOs have a business model – their product being influence.
Rather than isolating industry, their research and their experts because of some limited conflict of interest, we should be looking at regulating potential conflicts of influence. An NGO activist like Christopher Portier, a scientist employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, clearly had a conflict of influence when he wormed his way onto the IARC glyphosate panel as the only external expert. Portier was also not transparent on his affiliations when he had advised IARC the year before about doing a study on glyphosate. He brought his bias onto a panel and wielded an enormous influence on its outcome. He now uses this IARC reputational influence to travel the world campaigning to ban glyphosate. If anyone had read his pro-Sèralini, anti-Monsanto publications, they would have not allowed him on the IARC panel due to his conflict of influence.
In a private correspondence, I once challenged a Corporate Europe Observatory operative with their own hypocrisy. The Risk-Monger has not worked for industry for over a decade so he clearly has no conflict of interest. Imagine that the European Commission sets up a panel to reassess the transparency register and my name gets put forward. Clearly, like CEO, I have a conflict of influence and it is patently clear that CEO would try to stop my participation. The problem with measuring conflicts of influence is that we are OK with it if we agree with the views of the person, but oppose those we don’t like. Such is the hypocritical essence of doing policy in a world that promotes bias and denormalisation … in other words, in the Age of Stupid, influence is OK if it agrees with our bias; if it does not, then we denormalise it.
Part of the denormalisation process is to replace the excluded industry research, which uses the same techniques, practices and tools set out by the scientific establishments, with a new form of science – a science of the people. A science that Stupid can use. A post-normal science. That will be the subject of the next chapter in this series.
Table of contents
- Defining Stupid
- Social Media: Where stupid learns to fly
- The New Religion: Eco-fundamentalists and the natural bias
- The Activist Playbook: Understanding how clever stupid can be
- Commonality: Shutting down dialogue and engagement
- The Denormalisation of Industry: The challenge of eco-topian idealism
- Post-normal Science: Inviting stupid to the policy table
- Nudging: The dangers of a sanctimonious choice architecture
- Passivists: Waking up the non-involved majority
- How to Deal with Stupid
Agriculture & Food, BioTech, Climate & Environment, Climate Change, Environment, Health & Consumers, Innovation & Enterprise, Innovation and Growth, Public Affairs, Science & Policymaking, Sustainable Dev.