December 18, 2015
This series on How to Deal with Stupid has so far defined stupid as a self-suspended idea system built around an erroneous paradigm, well communicated on social media within a silo that easily confirms bias that can impassion its followers with a religious fervour that, in the case of environmentalism, adds meaningfulness and allows a belief-system to propagate. If that were all, it would be easy to ignore stupid, leave it to their cult followers and move on to other things. Except that in the policy arena, stupid keeps winning on regulatory issues that are beginning to cost societies greatly in loss of benefits, opportunities, public health safety and, more and more, loss of life. In order to understand how stupid keeps winning, we need to examine their tried and tested Activist Playbook. First a few examples of the regulatory success of stupid, and why our time is fast becoming known as the Age of Stupid.
The Beepocalypse: Cases of colony collapse of certain honeybee populations was experienced less than a decade ago. While not the first time this phenomenon had occurred, it was the first time in a social media driven world where well-funded activists saw an opportunity to run campaigns based on the fear of the extinction of all bees (and soon after, all humans – even resurrecting Einstein with a false quote). They took a complex issue with many variables and isolated a single campaign objective: banning a popular, safe and effective class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The NGOs banded together, teaching poor beekeepers how to be good lobbyists and, with some dishonest activism within EFSA, managed to get neonicotinoids under a two-year precautionary ban. The problem is that the science did not support the campaign rhetoric. The EU’s own research showed that where honeybee populations were declining (most were actually increasing), it was due largely to cold winters or poor hive management leading to increased mite infestations. Two years later, the European Commission’s director responsible for bee health, Michael Flüh, and DG Santé Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, have both admitted that the neonic ban has nothing to do with saving the bees, and it looks likely that, with the expected activist save-the-bee onslaught in the coming months, the ban will be made permanent and farmers will continue to suffer poor harvests with higher costs to the consumer, the environment and the bees. How’s that for stupid?
Endocrinageddon: For more than two decades, a handful of activist scientists, based on a dodgy and highly contested literature review in 1992, have been forecasting the end of humanity due to infertility and endocrine disruption. The NGOs joining in on the uncertainty chose to blame chemicals and pesticides, targeting and blackballing certain substances (like BPA and phthalates) in a twenty year war of attrition. The research community has benefitted from a cornucopia of funding given the Armageddon scenarios painted by the activists, but no credible evidence has been able to back up the claims and where cases proved the opposite, the activist scientists refused to release the data. Still the campaign lumbers on and now, under the beauty of hazard-based regulation, any pesticide that cannot prove that it is not an endocrine disrupter, will be taken off the market, however low and however important it may be to crop protection. Stupid is everywhere to be found in these regulatory cases, especially given that we consume so many known endocrine disrupters found in soy, humus and coffee – staple foods for the vegan activist crowd.
Carbo-loading renewables: The UN Paris Climate PR festival recently ended, and while there was no mention of promoting renewable energy like wind or solar (in fact solar parks may be restricted in coming years, Article 2.1.b). Now with less than 1% of global energy needs presently being met by wind and solar, the idea of campaigning for an immediate cessation of all other forms of energy production (fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro-electricity, biofuels) would strike the average thinking person as, well, rather stupid. Using less carbon emitting energy sources like natural gas might seem like a good idea, but if that entails hydraulic fracturing, then once again: No! 100% Renewables Now! At a time of the deepest economic decline since the 1930s, activists have been demanding and getting subsidies on renewables causing enormous hardship on poorer populations (Europe’s richest country, Germany, in the four years since it pushed towards renewables and away from nuclear, has created a new class of energy-poverty population). Every weakness in this 100% Renewables Now! Strategy has been met with remarkably ridiculous answers.
- Since we cannot guarantee energy supply with only renewables, we will need regulators to design a smart grid to introduce variable prices according to supply. In other words, invest heavily in a new untested distribution system to justify a stupid decision.
- In cases where the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow (a small detail), we need to subidise funding for research into better battery storage technologies (stupid alert: we will be using more resources and energy to produce large industrial batteries rather than refine fossil fuel energy production with carbon capture and storage!).
- We are producing large volumes of solar panels without performing any carbon footprint LCA – in other words, given the large amount of energy needed to produce these panels with the present technology, are we actually so sure that we are not producing more (cumulative) CO2 emissions that we will ever save? Only “stupid” would allow that to happen.
Don’t get me wrong – I am all for renewables, just not now. Maybe in 50 years when the technology develops … until then, regulators pushing renewables are just acting really stupid.
The Activist Playbook
The activists have a “Playbook” which environmental consultants have developed and widely share among the activist community in order to ensure campaign success. Some consultants like former Greenpeace director, Chris Rose, are very open about how to achieve campaign success and are not at all ashamed at the consequences of such spreading of stupid. These NGO consultants have refined and articulated a Playbook: 12 easy tried and tested steps that any activist can use to raise issues, fund-raise, run campaigns and turn a dream into a movement.
In a social-media driven world, this Playbook has evolved and can be tailored to fit any idea, however stupid, and any strategy to change the system along the following 12 key steps:
- Armageddon threat: Identify an uncertainty or hazard that could be portrayed in Armageddon proportions that man caused and cannot control. This Armageddon fear needs to be concrete, visible and able to cause deep dread, isolated vulnerability and shared anxiety, be it the total loss of life on our planet (climate change), slow, painful widespread death (nuclear reactor meltdown), a cancer pandemic (pesticides), radical loss of fertility (endocrine disrupting chemicals), epidemics like obesity (GMOs, processed food), autism (GMOs, vaccines), or the loss of bees (GMOs, pesticides) – all of which will lead to the extinction of man. An important Playbook caveat: Do not choose an Armageddon threat that people like (cancers from cell phones, health problems from car exhaust emissions, climate change from livestock production or endocrine disruption from coffee) – you will not be able to get donations or sustain public panic.
- Imminent threat: Ensure that the threat affects humans (preferably the most vulnerable: babies and pregnant women) and is imminent. The word “imminent” needs to be kept in an evolving context as these fears need to be sustained over prolonged periods where facts or evidence often belie the doomsday scenarios (the climate warming stall, the increasing honeybee populations, improving male sperm counts, absence of research against GMOs …). When the foundations of your campaign paradigm are illogical (ie, stupid), it may take a while to defy evidence and sound logic, but with a good emotional story and continued scaremongering of the imminent threat, you will eventually win (or cause reasonable people to give up and walk away … the same thing as a win).
- Storifiability: The Armageddon threat must be “storifiable” with legions of victims or walking wounded ready to tell their story – one that would fit within a long-term communications strategy. It is essential to keep to your story and keep it emotional – never get pulled into debate or having to respond to other stories where light might be shone on your stupid. Stories need to play into a clear Good v Evil narrative. Who better than a pregnant woman to campaign against chemicals; a cancer survivor against pesticides; a concerned Mom expressing her fears about GMOs and allergies. Numbers, dosage and facts don’t matter; the “story makes the poison”. From this, B-grade journalists produce one-sided documentaries funded and shared among the activist community, YouTube stations are set up to pose as network news and armies of coordinated and funded bloggers and activists keep pounding out the messages on social media. Scientists and industry actors are horrible story-tellers (we interpret them as horror stories) while the NGOs pull out the Hollywood A-list to read the populist script: Leonardo DiCaprio or One-Man-Army-Arnie pops by the COP-21 climate conference in Paris, Just-Label-It brings out every Hollywood Mom they can find to attack GMOs (prepare for tears on that one) and as for Jenny McCarthy on vaccines, well, I wish someone could find a way to shut her up before the death-toll mounts. Who needs evidence when you have emotional stories told by well-respected, trusted (pretty) individuals?
- Easy Solutions: The removal of the threat must not be associated with loss or sacrifice; the solutions must be simple and make individuals feel good about themselves (precaution is easy, rewards must not be complex). We can have 100% renewable energy tomorrow without any problem; we can feed the growing population without pesticides if we just stop wasting food; we can keep our (electric) cars, leave the lights on with (green) energy and feed the world from our roof gardens and window-boxes – It’s easy, painless and smart. Activists following the Playbook know that their campaigns will not succeed if they entail a change in lifestyle or any sacrifice … so they lie.
- Big Tent Campaigns: Widen the Armageddon threat within a bigger tent (issue coupling). A campaign picks up more urgency if the threat is the cause of many perceived crises. So endocrine disrupting chemicals not only cause infertility and cancer, they are also the cause of the obesity epidemic; climate change is responsible for the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis; and if the bees are in a bit of a bother, bring in: pesticides, GMOs, intensive farming practices, biodiversity loss, diesel fumes and climate change (but ignore research on the varroa mite or electromagnetic fields). Any good activist knows that if you create an umbrella of concerned NGOs speaking with a single voice, rational people will just give up. In Brussels we have the Green 10 and a strange activist campaign incubator called the Mundo-B to create umbrella fear campaigns.
- Our Common Future: Play the shared better future vision and the need for us to change from our bad old ways. Activists like to call themselves agents of change seeking a better world for our children without pollution, chemicals, cancers or industry. What is not to like about such a utopian vision (except perhaps those who would like progress, jobs, food, medical advances and a stable economy). In order to achieve this common future, we have to break with the destructive past: industry, capitalism, science will all have to go (a sub-objective is to demonise industry and science to diminish the benefits they provide) to ensure the revolution’s success. Activists know that people will donate to those striving to attain an idealism we all share.
- A Revolution Worth Fighting for: Frame the threat within an “Us v Them” struggle. The activists are fighting a war against big business, corrupt leaders and a broken capitalist system. Those opposing “Us” need to be portrayed as being on the wrong side of history and that “We” are leading the way into the future: A Third Industrial Revolution, without capitalism. Social media makes this nonsense sound believable and, as Part Five of this series on stupid will demonstrate, with the correct use of commonality (the manufactured perception that we all agree) will make it palatable enough for activists to present a convincing argument. If “We all agree that the threat we’re facing is unacceptable, and only an idiot or shill would support it!”, then the next step, to radically change the system, seems to make sense. Stupid finds a mission!
- Promote Activist Scientists: Identify and mobilise (enhance) those scientists on the fringe and amplify dissent or doubt while discrediting mainstream science (attack their funding, motivation and link to industry if you cannot question them on their science). The activist community is promoting cranks or lunatics like Nassim Taleb, Gilles-Eric Séralini and Andreas Kortenkamp while demonising articulate scientists like Kevin Folta and Bill Nye. Those with little scientific background like Vandana Shiva or Naomi Oreskes are promoted as sages while those who question them are sceptics or shills. The Activist Playbook demands that we do the PR for these experts, fund activist scientists like Charles Benbrook and Dave Goulson and pronounce sound-bites from their dodgy one-off conclusions as grounds for revolutionary change. The game is simple: Find a scientist who says there are things we still need to study, from that, conclude that there is no certainty, and then invoke the precautionary principle for a never-ending game of: “Well, that’s still not enough to convince me”. The key objective is to get your activist scientists onto regulatory panels (and industry scientists off) – as recently seen with EFSA and IARC on pesticide issues – so that your advice is seen as the only one worth considering (hence less stupid).
- Rig the Regulatory Game: Activists need to find soft-spots in the regulatory structure to grow long-term roots for the campaign. Friends of the Earth campaigner, David Gee, saw the means to institutionalise the precautionary principle (interpreted maliciously as reversing the burden of proof) as a means to make it impossible for industry to defend chemicals or pesticides in such a rigged regulatory process. Add to this the isolation of industry experts and lobbyists from the policy consultation process and stupid starts having a pretty good chance of winning.
- Attack the Slowest Zebra: After years of attacking the polluting industries without success, activists have had better results attacking the soft-spots in the supply chain (generally at the consumer level), targeting the slowest zebra (the company or brand most likely to cave in to activist demands) with relentless campaigns that assassinate their PR and consumer trust. The Greenpeace Detox (Nike, Adidas, Zara, Benetton …), sustainable palm (P&G, Unilever, Nestlé, Mattel …) and green electronics (Samsung, Lenovo, Philips …) campaigns all hit at the consumer or brand levels to achieve their victories. Those who commit to your demands are declared champions, putting pressure on the next slowest zebra until the NGO’s appetite is full (a rare situation). Recently NGOs discovered that shareholder campaigns also provide easy wins. Greenpeace’s Green My Apple campaign was going nowhere for years until they hit Apple shareholders and board members like Al Gore. Today the Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground anti-fossil fuel campaign is going after well-known investors like Bill Gates, assuming that he is vulnerable to sanctimonious shame games.
- Build Trust Networks: Money is not necessary to win campaigns, nor is evidence, facts or reality. What is necessary to win is the emotional trust relationships built up between individuals who have a familiarity, kinship and shared vulnerability. As seen in Part Two of this series on stupid, activists are building a network of “Mommy bloggers” and social media gurus to widen the “movement” and present a trusted force that frightened individuals can seek reassurance from. An important task for the Activist Playbook is to raise doubt in industry and any dissenting regulators as a means to undermine the public trust in them – we would not want anything our opponents would say, or any evidence they might present, to be believable now, would we?
- Declare Victory and Move Forward: The most important thing an activist has to do, according to the Playbook, is celebrate victories (nobody donates to a loser) within the context of next steps in the ongoing battle. Many NGOs have pages on their websites call “Our victories”. This is part of the “big picture” strategy that a campaign is slowly moving towards goals of a better world. If you reach these goals, then you establish new goals otherwise (as Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, stated), you lose your reason to exist. The best recent example of the Playbook in action was how all of the NGOs were celebrating the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement achieved virtually nothing but all of the NGOs who had staked a reputational claim were dancing in the streets. If you say your victory is a duck, and you try to present it as a duck, keep quacking like a duck, then who cares if that duck will never fly, your followers will insist it is a duck.
Anybody who follows these 12 steps from the Activist Playbook should succeed, regardless of how stupid their campaign issue is. If you are cunning enough, then being stupid is not a hindrance to winning.
Long-term Issues: where the Playbook has performed well
The Activist Playbook has been developed over decades of campaign experience on chemicals, GMOs, nuclear energy, bees, pesticides, plastics, palm oil, EDCs, fossil fuels and, of course, climate change. All of these fit nicely into the mix of vulnerability, uncertainty, Armageddon and the need for a better, more sustainable future. Quite simply, stupid succeeds here when we think there are alternatives so being wrong on removing these products won’t really matter.
Dead issues: where the Playbook does not work so well
The Playbook has not worked well or is not even applied in campaigns against electro-magnetic fields, mobile phones, car emissions, chemicals in coffee, air pollution, pharmaceuticals, child labour, carcinogens in red meat and mercury in light bulbs. All of these issues have similar or more significant risk profiles than the successful Playbook issues, but fail to attract attention because the benefits are too strong, the threats are not visible or ubiquitous, there is no funding for a sustained campaign or a public interest to change. Quite simply, stupid has no chance here because activists would be demanding the public to make sacrifices.
Is this hypocritical? Of course it is and I am regularly calling out the NGOs for hypocrisy, but that gathers no traction (see Playbook steps 3, 4, 8 and 9). The best example of how the Playbook works is when IARC, within six months, made two warning pronouncements on carcinogenic substances: glyphosate and red meat. The Playbook came into application with glyphosate but fell silent on red meat. The production of red meat (the livestock industry) is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions – you would think that during the COP-21 climate conference in Paris, someone would have mentioned that! This hypocrisy and collusion of the NGO community on livestock emissions was highlighted in the film: Cowspiracy.
The Activist Playbook is a tool to win campaigns, not to behave responsibly, ethically or to change the world for the better. It is, simply put, a tool to allow stupid to succeed.
Does industry have a playbook to deal with the Activist Playbook?
No, and frankly industry has been bumbling about reacting to every twist and turn from those implementing the Activist Playbook. It is not even clear that industry actors know the Playbook exists (industry consultants are certainly not filling out their timesheets by solving the bigger picture – that would undermine their business model!). When activists focus on a slow zebra, and start implementing the Playbook, the most that industry can do is try to delay the process and get a few more good years out of their targeted product before it is taken off of the market. How is this a long-term strategy?
The “How to Deal with Stupid” series seeks a means for industry, science and government to find a way to answer the Activist Playbook. Understanding what Stupid does and how it succeeds is the first step in the process. The next step is to analyse how commonality is used to confuse rational-minded people and make stupid seem “less stupid”.
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