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Advertising Is a “Serious Health Threat”—to the Environment

Michael Löwy (lowymich@verizon.net) is research director in sociology at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, and is the author (with Oliver Besancenot) of Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy (Monthly Review Press, 2009). Translated from the French by Shane Mage.

Climate change has brought the global environmental crisis to its crux. The primary point that must be noted is that the pace of climate change is accelerating much more rapidly than had been forecast. Accumulation of carbon dioxide, rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice caps and of the “eternal snows,” droughts, floods: all are speeding up and previous scientific analyses, the ink scarcely dry, turn out to have been too optimistic. More and more, in projections for the next one, two, or three decades, the highest estimates are becoming accepted minima. And to that must be added the all-too-little-studied amplifying factors that today pose the risk of a qualitative leap in the greenhouse effect leading to runaway global warming.

There are still some 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide confined in the permafrost, that frozen tundra that extends through Canada and Siberia. But how can the glaciers melt without the permafrost melting too? There are few depictions of the worst-case scenario, in which global temperatures rise by 5-6°C: scientists steer clear of painting catastrophic pictures. But we already know what looms: rising sea levels flooding, not only Dacca and other Asian coastal cities, but also London, Amsterdam, Venice, New York; desertification on an enormous scale; shortages of drinking water; repeated natural catastrophes. The list goes on. At a temperature 6°C higher, it becomes questionable whether the planet will still be habitable for our species. We have, alas, no other planet to move to.

Who is responsible for this situation, unheard of in human history? Scientists answer—humans. A true answer, but a bit incomplete. Humans have lived on earth for many millennia, but atmospheric carbon dioxide levels became dangerous only a few decades ago. In reality, the fault lies with the capitalist system—its absurd and irrational logic of unlimited expansion and capital accumulation; its obsessive drive to increase material production in pursuit of profits.

The narrow-minded rationality of the capitalist market, with its short-term calculus of profit and loss, is intrinsically contradictory to the rationality of the living environment, which operates in terms of long, natural cycles. It is not that “bad” ecocidal capitalists stand in the way of “good” green capitalists. It is the system itself, based on pitiless competition, demand for return on investment, and the search for quick profits that is the destroyer of ecological equilibrium.

In contradistinction to the fetishism of commodity production and the automatically self-adjusting economy propounded by neoliberal economics, what is at stake is the emergence of a “moral economics”—economic policies based on non-monetary and extra-economic criteria, as suggested by E.P. Thompson: in other words, the reintegration of economics into its environmental, social, and political integument. Partial reforms are totally insufficient. What is needed is to replace the micro-rationality of the profitability criterion with an environmental and social macro-rationality, which means that civilization will have to operate according to a different paradigm. This is impossible without a thoroughgoing transformation of technology aimed at replacement of current energy sources by non-polluting and renewable sources such as direct-solar and wind energy. The first question demanding an answer is, therefore, that of control over the means of production and, above all, over decisions on investment and choice of technologies, which must be seized from banks and other corporations, and made a function of the common good.

Of course, radical change involves consumption as well as production. Nevertheless, the problem of industrial capitalist civilization is not—as is often claimed by some environmentalists—“excessive consumption” by the masses, and the solution is not a general “limitation” of consumption, not even in the advanced capitalist countries. The problem is the prevailing type of consumption based on “false needs”: display, waste, fetishism of commodities. What is needed is production aimed at the satisfaction of genuine needs, beginning with those that might be called “biblical”: food, water, shelter, garments.

How can these real needs be distinguished from their artificial and meretricious counterparts? By the fact that the latter are produced by the system of mental manipulation called “advertising.” Contrary to the claim of free-market ideology, supply is not a response to demand. Capitalist firms usually create the demand for their products by various marketing techniques, advertising tricks, and planned obsolescence. Advertising plays an essential role in the production of consumerist demand by inventing false “needs” and by stimulating the formation of compulsive consumption habits, totally violating the conditions for maintenance of planetary ecological equilibrium. The criterion by which an authentic need is to be distinguished from an artificial one is whether it can be expected to persist without the benefit of advertising. How long would the consumption of Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola go on, if the persistent advertising campaigns for those products were terminated? Such examples could be indefinitely multiplied.

“Of course,” pessimists will reply, “but individuals are motivated by an infinity of desires and aspirations, and it is they that will have to be controlled and repressed.” Well, the hope for a paradigmatic change in civilization is indeed based on a wager, as propounded by Karl Marx, that, in a society freed from capitalism, “being” will be valued over “having”: that personal fulfillment will be achieved through cultural, athletic, erotic, political, artistic, and playful activities, rather than through the unlimited accumulation of property and of products. The sort of accumulation induced by the fetishistic consumption inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology, and by advertising—and having nothing to do with some “eternal human nature.”

As capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal and globalized form, seeks to commodify the world, to transform everything existing—earth, water, air, living creatures, the human body, human relationships, love, religion—into commodities, so advertising aims to sell those commodities by forcing living individuals to serve the commercial necessities of capital. Both capitalism as a whole and advertising as a key mechanism of its rule involve fetishization of consumption, the reduction of all values to cash, the unlimited accumulation of goods and of capital, and the mercantile culture of the “consumer society.” The sorts of rationality involved in the advertising system and the capitalist system are intimately linked, and both are intrinsically perverse.

Advertising pollutes the mental, just like the urban and rural, landscape; it stuffs the skull like it stuffs the mailbox. It holds sway over press, cinema, television, radio. Nothing escapes its decomposing influence: in our time we see that sports, religion, culture, journalism, literature, and politics are ruled by advertising. All are pervaded by advertising’s attitude, its style, its methods, its mode of argument. Meanwhile, we are always and uninterruptedly harassed by advertising: without stop, without truce, unrelentingly and never taking a vacation, advertising persecutes us, pursues us, attacks us in city and countryside, in the street and at home, from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday, from January to December, from the cradle to the grave.

Yet this advertising is nothing but a tool, an instrument of capital used to dispose of its output, to unload its shoddy goods, to make its investments pay, to expand its profit margins, and to win “sectors of the market.” Advertising does not exist in a vacuum: it is an essential part, a crucial gear in the capitalist system of production and consumption. Without capitalism advertising would have no reason to exist: it could not persist into a post-capitalist society for even an instant. And, inversely, capitalism without advertising would be like a machine with sand in its gears.

Let us add, in passing, that while advertising did not exist in the countries whose bureaucratically planned economies vanished after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a mendacious political propaganda that was no less inhuman and repressive. That too must be avoided in any transition to a post-capitalist society.

Still, today’s omnipresent commercial advertising is inextricably intertwined with capitalism. It is capitalist corporations that design, finance, and profit from advertising campaigns, and that “sponsor”—that is to say pollute via advertising—newspapers, television, athletic competitions, and cultural events. Advertising plays the role of tub-thumper, pimp, and zealous servant for the interests of capital: our aim, explained the chief executive of TF1 (the leading French commercial TV chain), is to be selling Coca-Cola during all the time our viewers’ brains are at our disposal. Capitalism and advertising, inseparably intertwined, are the authors and active promoters of the commodification of the world, of the commercialization of social relations, of the monetization of the soul.

What, then, is advertising’s impact on the environment? “Alliance for the Planet” is rightly upset by advertising’s use of fraudulent “environmentalist” arguments to greenwash everything: nuclear power stations, genetically modified organisms, automobiles, and soon—why not?—road haulage. For opponents of advertising, this is not exactly news: we have long known that advertising lies as naturally as it breathes. Not because of deficient morality among those gentlemen advertisers, but because of the intrinsically perverse nature of the advertising system. Mystification and manipulation of consciousness are, alas, the sole justification for its existence: advertising that does not lie is an animal as hard to find as a vegetarian crocodile. As to the Bureau for Truthfulness in Advertising, consisting entirely of representatives from advertising corporations, its credibility and effectiveness are about that of a Bureau for Safe Henhouses consisting entirely of worthy delegates from the Brotherhood of Foxes. Nevertheless, phony green advertising is but the tip of the iceberg. It is for more fundamental, structural reasons that the advertising machine is a dangerous enemy of the environment. Here are two such reasons:

1. Advertising is an immense, fearsome waste of our planet’s limited resources. In France alone, advertising expenditures amount to several tens of billions of euros, more than the state budget of many African countries. With such a sum, it would be possible to build thousands of child-care centers, hospitals, schools, and homes, to begin solving the unemployment problem, to give large-scale aid to the third world. How many millions of acres of forest are cut down in the world every year to print the ever-increasing mass of advertising brochures cluttering our mailboxes, or to make billboards and posters covering the walls of our streets and hiding our countryside? How many hundreds of millions of kilowatt hours are expended each year by the neon advertisements “embellishing” our cities, from Shanghai to New York, (not forgetting Paris)? How many tons of garbage left behind by this activity? How many millions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted to supply the energy needs of the advertising circus? And so on. The damages, though hard to calculate, are undoubtedly gigantic. And what purpose does this enormous waste serve? To convince the public that detergent X washes whiter than detergent Y. Makes sense? Of course not, but it’s profitable (for advertisers). If you’re looking for a sector of the economy that is useless, that could easily be eliminated without any harm to the populace, while saving great outlays on energy and raw materials—what better example than the advertising industry? Certainly, that would involve laying off very many people but, rather than condemning them to unemployment, they could usefully be hired for new “green” jobs.

2. All environmentalists agree in denouncing the “consumerism” of the Western (i.e., advanced capitalist) countries as one of the main causes of the ecological disaster threatening us. But they don’t know how to alter that state of things: by making buyers feel guilty? By speeches preaching frugality? By willingly making one’s own life an example of austerity? All are legitimate activities, but they have a very limited impact on the larger public and even run the risk, in certain cases, of making people less willing to comply with environmental requirements. A change in consumption habits will not be accomplished in a day: it is a social process that will take years. It cannot be imposed from on high, nor can it be left merely to the virtuous “good will” of private individuals. It involves a true political battle in which active education by the public authorities must play a role. But the main agents of change will be education and struggles by consumer associations, trade unions, environmental movements, and—why not?—political parties. One of the crucial fronts in this battle is the fight for a complete and definitive suppression of advertising imperialism, that gigantic undertaking to colonize our minds and our behaviors, whose terrible effectiveness cannot be overestimated.

As we have seen, advertising is one of the main factors responsible for the obsessive consumption of modern societies; of the ever more irrational tendency toward piling up (usually useless) material goods; in short: of a perfectly unsustainable consumption paradigm. Compulsive consumption is one of the essential driving forces for the process of expansion and unlimited “growth” that have always characterized modern capitalism and now are driving us, with ever-increasing speed, toward the abyss of global heating. It is thus not by chance that the publishers of one of the most inventive “adverphobic” magazines in recent years, Adbusters, have also started the environmentalist magazine Objecteurs der Croissance (“Growth-conscientious Objectors”): advertising harassment and unlimited growth are two inseparable dimensions of the system, two teats from which capital accumulation feeds. It follows that transformation of the current consumption paradigm is closely linked to struggle against the tentacles of advertising. How can people be convinced to abandon consumption-habits incompatible with ecological equilibrium without putting a stop to the continuous pounding by advertising that incites, encourages, and stimulates them night and day to buy and buy again? How can individuals shake off the culture of conspicuous consumption—famously studied at the turn of the century by the American economist Thorstein Veblen—that tells them they can affirm their personality only by buying and displaying supposedly “exclusive” products; except by freeing them from the advertising that incessantly reproduces this reified culture? How can the public be freed from the dictatorship of “fashion” that forces the speedy obsolescence of products, themselves ever more ephemeral, without taking on the head-stuffing—if not brainwashing—of advertising? How can we put an end to the tyranny of “brands,” the neurotic obsession with “Logos,” without breaking up advertising’s frightful Ubuesque “brainectomy” machine?

The compulsive consumerist behavior in advanced capitalist society is not the manifestation of “human nature,” nor of some innate tendency of individuals to consume more and ever more. Nothing comparable is ever found in pre-capitalist communities or societies; it is proper to capitalist modernity and inseparable from the dominant fetishistic ideology, from the religious cult of commodity-worship actively promoted by the advertising system. And what that manufactures is not merely the desire to acquire this or that product—it is a culture, a worldview, habits, behaviors. In short, a whole way of life.

Rather than seeking to force individuals to “lower their standard of living,” or to “reduce their consumption”—an abstract, merely quantitative approach—what is needed is to create conditions under which people can, little by little, discover their real needs and qualitatively change their ways of consumption; for example, by choosing more culture, education, health, or home improvement rather than buying new gadgets, new decreasingly useful commodities. For this, the suppression of harassment by advertising is a necessary condition.

Of course, this is still not sufficient. For example, consider the iconic commodity of so-called “Fordist” capitalism, the private automobile, whose harmfulness to the general environment—by air pollution, paving over green spaces, and above all forcing climate change through carbon dioxide emissions—needs no demonstration. Steady reduction of its place in our cities—to be democratically decided by the public itself—can successfully be brought about only if, in parallel with the suppression of the persistent and mendacious advertising for automobiles, urban planning strongly favors alternative means of transport: mass transit, bicycles, pedestrianism.

Advertising is an essential gearing in the infernal neoliberal/capitalist spiral of ever-increasing, ever-expanding (“Expansion” is the title of a prestigious corporate business magazine) production/consumption/accumulation—that spiral that is driving the degradation, increasing at a geometric rate, of the environment—degradation that leads us, by means of climate change, to a catastrophe without precedent in human history. Advertising can even be viewed as the oil lubricating those terribly efficacious gears that are crushing the planet and might well, in a few decades, render it uninhabitable for humans.

The moral of the story is this: a different world is possible, beyond capitalist reification, commodity fetishism, and advertising. But we cannot wait for it to arrive: the struggle for a different future begins here and now. Every attempt to put limits to advertising’s aggression—until we are able, one day, to get rid of it altogether—is an environmental duty, a political and moral imperative for all those who hope to save our natural environment from destruction. The fight for a different civilizational paradigm is to be waged precisely through that sort of initiative. We fight, henceforward, to rein back advertising’s frenzy, in the same way that anti-capitalists mobilize for measures—the Tobin Tax, for example—that would apply the brakes to the unlimited covetousness of capital. Each success, even if limited, if won through collective action, is a step in the right direction and, above all, an advance in the acquisition of consciousness and self-organization of the people—the main condition for total transcendence of the system.

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