Amir Amirani on Progressive International’s struggle to expose how the world’s biggest carbon emitters are side-stepping responsibility
In 2018, a call rang out from two organisations in Europe and America for progressives of the world to unite in the name of a more just and sustainable planet. The movement that emerged and took up that call is “Progressive International”, and it’s a safe bet that you haven’t heard of it. That’s no accident. More on that later.
Now here’s a phrase you probably have heard of: “Carbon Footprint”, the measure of an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sound familiar? That’s because it was popularised by a huge advertising campaign paid for by BP, devised by the advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather. The aim of the campaign was to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry, while shifting responsibility to individual consumers – to you and me.
It’s worked so well that most public debate today revolves around consumers’ use of plastic shopping bags and water bottles, with only occasional attention paid to the real polluters.
But did you know that the world’s single largest institutional consumer of oil, and the single largest producer of greenhouse gases, is the Pentagon? It produces more greenhouse gas emissions than up to 140 countries. You won’t hear about that on your nightly news. According to Prof Neta Crawford of Boston University, if the Pentagon were a country its emissions would make it the world’s 55th largest contributor, ranking it higher than entire industrialised countries such as Denmark and Sweden.
The US military aside, what about corporates? Well according to CDP’s (Carbon Disclosures Project) “Carbon Majors” research, 100 active fossil fuel producers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom are linked to 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, the year in which human-induced climate change was officially recognised through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Faced with economic and environmental crises, the Jane Sanders Institute in America together with Yanis Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), called for a united front against the rising tide of right-wing authoritarians around the world, leading to the creation of Progressives International. Unsurprisingly, they don’t have money to produce glossy advertising campaigns. And two of the movement’s leading voices, Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders, are wilfully and misleadingly portrayed as outcasts and dangerous radicals by the mainstream, for questioning economic orthodoxy.
But the link between the infinite growth model of capitalism and climate change is becoming ever clearer. Despite the widely recognised failings of financialised casino capitalism, all talk of a post-capitalist future and a Green New Deal, as espoused by Progressives International, is not just media-policed, but ridiculed as wildly unrealistic.
And yet during the pandemic, governments globally have asserted the state’s power over economic markets, revealed orchards of money trees, borrowed and spent and essentially blown apart their own rhetoric and practice of neoliberal capitalism. But we are still a long way away from even talking about decoupling the idea of well-being from infinite growth, as measured by GDP. This idea remains heretical, and we know what happens to heretics.
One of history’s great campaigners, Martin Luther King Jr, whilst known best as a fighter for civil rights, was also a trenchant critic of capitalism, believing as he did that America had to deal with the triple and interconnected scourges of racism, materialism, and militarism. On 4 April 1967, exactly a year to the day before he was assassinated, Dr King delivered a speech that’s now known as “Beyond Vietnam”, in which he called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and highlighted the injustice of western capitalists exploiting the resources of the developing world. The next day 168 newspapers denounced him, including The New York Times and Washington Post. President Johnson retracted King’s invitation to the White House.
All such campaigners know they will face a mixture of ignorance, denunciation, and outright hostility. The pejoratives du jour for today’s campaigners are words like “woke”, “eco-militant” and “social justice warrior”, as used against the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter activists. Be in no doubt that were he alive today these types of epithets would be hurled at Dr King.
So it’s no accident that Progressives International, and other movements like it, cannot get a hearing in the face of a disinterested or hostile media and a browbeaten citizenry manipulated by the well-funded PR campaigns of their adversaries such as BP.
In the campaign that got us all watching our “carbon footprint”, Ogilvy and Mather deceptively changed BP’s name to “beyond petroleum” (lower case is cooler, apparently). For the man who masterminded BP’s TV campaign in the early 2000s, John Kenney, the penny finally dropped, as he recalled in The New York Times in 2006: “I guess, looking at it now, ‘beyond petroleum’ is just advertising. It’s become mere marketing – perhaps it always was – instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm… Only they didn’t go beyond petroleum. They are petroleum. The problem there is that “are petroleum” just isn’t a great tagline.”
Jonathan Swift said, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. You don’t have to be a genius, or even a Dr King, in today’s world, to be faced with a confederacy of dunces. Being a “social justice warrior” is quite sufficient; the bar is far lower, the confederacy is far larger, and the world remains awash in taglines and oil.
Progressive International unites, organises, and mobilises progressive forces behind a shared vision of a world transformed. The movement will be the subject of a series produced by Paco Productions due to be released in 2022
The release of the Mountbatten diaries
Perspective, June 2021
Four days after a parliamentary Early Day Motion signed by 22 MPs from several parties had been tabled on the last day of the parliamentary session last month, Southampton University quietly made available online the diaries of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten up to 1960.
I discovered the fact by chance, but it was a sweet moment. For six years I have been battling through the Information Tribunals for the release of these diaries. Not everything I have campaigned for is available – still missing are some wartime diaries, their diaries for the period they were in India in 1947 and 1948, and the correspondence between the two. But it’s a start.
More scandalous than anything in the diaries themselves is that this material, bought with millions of pounds of public monies ten years ago, was ever closed in the first place. Probably another £1 million of taxpayers’ monies was spent on its suppression, not to mention my own legal bill, which stands at £250,000.
Reading them over the past few weeks, it’s already clear that historians of the twentieth century will find numerous nuggets in these diaries – an inside seat on the Abdication Crisis, a fuller understanding of how Mountbatten encouraged the courtship of his nephew Philip with the future Queen, and stories about famous friends such as Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward.
As the Mountbattens’ biographer, I very much regret not being granted access to them when I requested it six years ago. My book would have been much richer if I had. But at least they are now available to other historians. My book is published but my campaign goes on for release of the missing diaries (most importantly those for 1947 and 1948 which will shed fresh light on Indian Independence), letters and eventually I hope the Edwina/Nehru correspondence.
There is no reason for any private material now to be withheld. I have shown it is not subject to any government control – whatever the government claims. This is also an important victory for academic independence, free speech and against the censoring of our history.
Andrew Lownie is the author of “The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves” (Bonnier, £10.99)