August 2011’s 350.org/BillMcKibben-lead Tar Sands Action was hailed by its ring-leaders as both “unprecedented” in nature, and in size, “the largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history
of the climate movement.” At the commencement of the action it even appeared as if a collective front had formed to do whatever it took to close down TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or “shut down the machine,” ala Mario Savio, if you will.
With a blaring headline, the Tar Sands Action announced on August 24, 2011 that the “Nation’s Largest Environmental Organizations
Stand Together To Oppose Oil Pipeline.” It was on that day that leaders from groups including Greenpeace USA, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Defense Fund co-signed a letter to President Barack Obama telling him
“We want to let you know that there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone Pipeline and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House…It’s perhaps the biggest climate test you face between now and the election. If you block it, you will trigger a surge of enthusiasm from the green base that supported you so strongly in the last election.”
350.org Founder Bill McKibben remarked on the groups’ letter in a triumphant manner, “They’ve all shown that there is one way to demonstrate to the environmental base that the rhetoric of Obama’s 2008 campaign is still meaningful—and that’s to veto this pipeline.”
Really? Let’s examine this new “movement.”
Clearly it has thousands of fans, and has been widely celebrated as a stunning climate “victory” by grassroots activists. But is that the real story? Or was it in fact a manipulated charade, funded and run with loads of money from pro-Obama Democrats through non-transparent organizations like the Tides Foundation?
Noam Chomsky’s famous book on the American system of media and propaganda is titled, “Manufacturing Consent.” In this case of the Tar Sands Action we see how big liberal Democratic funders have mastered the propaganda technique of “manufacturing dissent.”
As will be seen, what occurred over the past several months was nothing more than well-funded, political theater and public relations. It was not social change, nor was it grassroots empowerment.
Quite the opposite, Tar Sands Action was a sophisticated, extremely well-funded model for creating the illusion of movement building, complete with mass civil disobedience, but the real goal, mirroring its cousin, “The 99 Spring,” was (and is) to hammer Republicans and fire up grassroots enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Tar Sands Action: Part of Broader Tides Foundation “Tar Sands Campaign”
When green groups announced, in an elated manner, that they had a united front to shut down the Keystone XL, what they really should have said, if they were being honest, is that they had a united funding pool and accompanying message machine, feeding from the trough of the Tides Foundation, a non-transparent slush fund into which numerous other institutional and wealthy private money managers pool cash into political “activist” campaigns.
To the public the campaign was referred to as the “Tar Sands Action,” but to insiders it is simply known as the “Tar Sands Campaign,” and sometimes also referred to as the “No Tar Sands Coalition” or the “No Tar Sands Oil Coalition.” The Tar Sands Action is but one small piece of an ongoing multi–year campaign that began in August 2009, with Corporate Ethics International (CEI) serving as the Campaign’s “nerve center.”
The timing of the Tides Foundation August 2009 gift was interesting given that it began several months into the President Barack Obama’s first term. Perhaps the raison d’etre was to manufacture an Obama a “green victory” during his first term in the run up to the 2012 election? More on that to come.
The Campaign is the “largest cross-border collaborative environmental campaign ever waged,” proclaimed CEI on its website. CEI oversees the Business Ethics Network, or BEN. Kenny Bruno, a former member of Greenpeace USA’s Board of Directors, serves as the Campaign Coordinator, according to this LinkedIn page. His “speciality,” according to his Linked In, “is the combination of research, writing, media work, advocacy, coalition building and action known as ‘campaigns.’”
The key funder of this Campaign — though not made public by CEI — is the Tides Foundation. A January 2012 story in the Financial Post explains, “In both the U.S. and Canada, a large number of the groups that campaign against [tar sands] oil are funded by Tides USA…Tides USA and its sister organization, Tides Canada, have paid a total of US$10.2-million to 44 organizations…In 2010 alone, Tides USA made grants to 36 groups specifically for something called the ‘Tar Sands Campaign.’”
The story goes on to explain, “The top recipient of money for the Tides ‘Tar Sands campaign’ is [CEI]…From 2009 to 2010, Tides USA nearly doubled payments to CEI, to $1,450,000 from $750,000.” The list of the NGO’s funded by “Tar Sands Campaign” slush fund can be seen here. Naturally, it was most of the organizations “standing together” on the front lines of the Tar Sands Action to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline.
A July 2008 PowerPoint presentation goes further in demonstrating how the Tar Sands Campaign funding stream works, with insiders at the meeting referring to the millions flowing in simply as the “Tides Tar Sands Fund.”
Presenters at this meeting included the likes of Michael Northrop, Program Officer of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Michael Marx, then Executive Director of CEI and now head of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Oil Campaign”; and Susan Casey–Lefkowitz, Director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s International Program. “Tax records from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund indicate that it sent $1.25 million to Michael Marx’s organization, Corporate Ethics International, between December 2007 and November 2010,” explained the right-wing website, The Daily Caller, in a February 2012 investigation.
What’s obvious here is that the Tar Sands Action was the climax of the years-long elite-funded Green NGO campaign to stop the Keystone XL. But why all the money invested to stop one measly pipeline anyway?
Unpacking the Tar Sands Action: Reviving “Brand Obama”
Never mentioned in the Tar Sands Campaign/Tar Sands Action conversation by the likes of Bill McKibben and Friends, of course, was the fact that Obama had already approved a key tar sands pipeline in August 2009: Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper Pipeline. The Alberta Clipper moves tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada southeastward to Superior, WI at a rate of 450,000 barrels per day, where it is taken to the Murphy Oil refinery, then piped to various key markets. To borrow former Vice President and now “climate hawk” Al Gore’s documentary title, this is “an inconvenient truth,” to be certain.
Given the completely disastrous environmental track record of the President with an “All–The–Above” energy policy during his first term, ranging from boisterous approval of offshore oil drilling, Arctic drilling, shale gas drilling (“fracking”), support for “clean coal development,” support for nuclear energy, you name it, the Tar Sands Action, it is clear for those willing to look, was a beyond desperate effort by Obama’s key patrons, funneling money to green NGOs vis-a-vis the Tides Foundation, to manufacture a green “victory” prior to the 2012 election to sell to his “voting base.”
It is really no wonder then, that Obama imagery and language reigned supreme for the Action. Examples:
● In the June 2011 “call to action” for the Tar Sands Action, McKibben and Friends wrote a letter requesting that actionists wear their Obama 2008 “Hope and Change” memorabilia to the front lines: “And another sartorial tip—if you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young Senator who told us that with his election the ‘rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet start to heal.’”
● The trademarking of the “Yes We Can…Stop the Pipeline” chant, a throwback to the ridiculous Obama “Yes We Can” speech he made in January 2008 in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary second place finish, and the creepy chant it inspired in the run-up to his 2008 electoral victory over John McCain.
● A peeved Ralph Nader described his experience at one of the days of the Action: “Observers told me that there were to be no criticisms of Barack Obama. McKibben wore an Obama pin on the stage. Obama t-shirts were seen out in the crowd.”
In the Sept. 3, 2011 Tar Sands Action “movement being born” statement, McKibben went so far to say, “We are not going to do President Obama the favor of attacking him. We are going to hold the Obama campaign to the standard it set in 2008. Denying this pipeline would send a jolt of electricity through the people that elected this president.”
English translation: The Tar Sands Action was nothing more than an astroturf movement and pawn of the elite Tides Foundation Democratic Party allied funders. It served merely as an attempt to reinvigorate his “voting base” that fell in love with what author Chris Hedges refers to as “Brand Obama” in 2008.
“Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country,” explains Hedges. “Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush.”
The “Victory” Dance Charade
“Um, we won. You won,” stated McKibben on November 10 after the Obama Administration kicked the can down the road on the Keystone XL Pipeline decision until after the 2012 electoral campaign. “It’s important to understand how unlikely this victory is. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone,” he continued. “The American people spoke loudly about climate change and the president responded. There have been few even partial victories about global warming in recent years so that makes this an important day.”
Nearly 10,000 people shared the euphoric (and propagandistic) statement by McKibben on Facebook.
“In case you haven’t heard the thunderous celebration by the North American climate movement, today the State Dept is set to outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline. #booyah,” stated 350.org organizer Joshua Kahn Russell. “This is a reminder that people power works. Direct Action works. Social movements work. Grassroots organizing works. Lets take some time today to celebrate another huge victory. Every time we win, it builds our resolve for the next fight.”
The victory dance, of course, rings hollow for the indigenous communities suffering who live in Alberta close to tar sands extraction sites, for the suffering communities where tar sands pipelines and refineries are already a daily reality; for citizens who live in North Dakota where, due to lack of pipeline infrastructure, fracked oil and gas is being flared off at unprecedented rates; and generally speaking, for those who understand full well how expansive the tar sands industry already is in North America. As Mother Jones made clear in a great January 2012 article, there’s “no hiding from” the tar sands oil at this point in time in this continent.
Another inconvenient truth: the tar sands oil will be transported with or without the Keystone XL.
This is due to the fact that one of President Obama’s most loyal billionaire patrons, Warren Buffett (one of the richest men on the planet), owner of the holding company Berkshire Hathaway, owns the railroad company BNSF via Berkshire. BNSF, in turn, has the capacity and will to rail more barrels of tar sands crude per day to the U.S. than does the Keystone XL, according to a January report written by DeSmogBlog.
Tar Sands Action and Manufactured Dissent
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, in their book “Toxic Sludge is Book For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry” have a key chapter titled “Divide and Conquer,” which explains how well-paid and well-trained PR professional work overtime, applying the classic tools of counterinsurgency (think “winning hearts and minds”) to destroy radical grassroots activist movements.
“The public relations industry . . . carefully cultivates activists who can be coopted into working against the goals of their movement. This strategy has been outlined in detail by Ronald Duchin, senior vice-president of PR spy firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin [MBD]. . . In a 1991 speech to the National Cattlemen’s Association, he described how MBD works to divide and conquer activist movements. Activists, he explained, fall into four distinct categories: ‘radicals,’ ‘opportunists,’ ‘idealists,’ and ‘realists,.’ He outlined a three-step strategy: (1) isolate the radicals; (2) ‘cultivate’ the idealists and ‘educate’ them into becoming realists; then (3) coopt the realists into agreeing with industry.
According to Duchin, radical activists ‘want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives’ and see multinational corporations as ‘inherently evil. . . These organizations do not trust the . . . federal state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry. . .
Duchin defines opportunists as people who engage in activism seeking ‘visibility, power, followers and, perhaps, even employment. . .The key to dealing with opportunists is to provide them with at least the perception of partial victory. . . If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution.’”
Put in the context of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the “radicals” have long been isolated and were boxed out of having a voice at Keystone XL rallies. Ralph Nader, as one example, was denied a chance to speak and wrote publicly about the shenanigans surrounding that particular decision.
The “idealists” here were the rank-and-file day-to-day worker-bees writing press releases and doing social media work for 350.org and Friends who became True Believers in the mission, as well as the 1,000+ arrestees, many of whom ironically probably flew to Washington, DC to get arrested on planes fueled by tar sands crude.
The “realists”? Those who soon realized President Obama is a puppet of the oil and gas industry and will simply lie and cajole Obama into winning a second term and four more years cutting deals for multinational corporations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He is such a puppet, in fact, that one of the senior advisors of his campaign team, Broderick Johnson (husband of NPR’s “All Things Considered” host Michelle Norris), was formerly a lobbyist for Bryan Cave LLP and was contracted by TransCanada to lobby the Obama Administration on the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, the Administration’s State Department team assigned to approve or disapprove of the pipeline was — surprise, surprise — stacked to the brim with revolving door ties to TransCanada, in a situation DeSmogBlog described well, calling it “State Department Oil Services.”
Exhibit A of “realist” behavior: the behavior of the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, and Environment America, who, in completely predictable fashion, have already endorsed Obama for President in 2012 despite his completely atrocious environmental record.
“The Sierra Club and our 1.4 million members and supporters share the same vision for America as the president for a prosperous and innovative economy that protects the air we breathe, the water we drink and the health of our families,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement to The Hill that could have come straight out of The Onion.
Coming full circle, 350.org and Democratic Party allied Friends have now re-charged their email lists for the upcoming election, having gained thousands upon thousands of new people to spread their message to and convert into clicktivists who will hopefully contribute money to the Obama “I’m In” 2012 Presidential campaign, ecological landscape be damned.
Activist John Stauber, author of the aforementioned “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” weighed in on the manner, telling The Insider,
“Martin Luther King must be turning in his grave. The much-hyped victory for civil disobedience at the White House claimed by 350.org last November is a mirage. Rather than civil disobedience, it looks now like civil obedience, pursuing the goal that President Obama smell like an Earth Day rose for his heroic stand against the XL Pipeline. The commentators in the mainstream corporate media never bought the progressive liberal hype flooding the blogosphere and media from Democracy Now! to The Nation. The crusty corporate media observers knew at the time that Obama was simply signaling that in 2013 he would be approving XL. Connecting the dots, as 350.org likes to say, it’s clear that the XL victory was a setup of epic proportions.”
“The truth is that real non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful strategy and tactic in the hands of a genuine, transparent movement of grassroots organizers. But both 350.org and its cousin The 99 Spring are driven by invisible funders with their own financial and political agenda who supply the money to do the organizing.
The jig’s up, says Stauber, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
“I would love to see the real people who have bought the hype and taken these civil disobedience trainings, and who have gone through the arrests, rise up and seize control of their own movement.”
Genuine movements come from the grassroots, not the invisible patronage of millionaires and billionaires. As the old adage goes, “You live and you learn.”
The Insider is the pseudonym of an activist who works inside the Liberal Foundation-Funded Democratic Party-Allied Belly of the Beast.