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Greenwashing

Blog entry posted by alex3619, Sep 10, 2012.

A Review of Skewed by Martin J Walker, 2003.

Greenwashing Part One: General Argument

A lot of people have wondered how the psychogenic explanation for CFS (and ME) has gained a wide influence. Walker addresses this issue by looking at the history of organizations that have promoted this viewpoint to 2003.

By labelling alternative views as "green" in a perjorative sense, and attempting to reframe the discussion using words that have negative connotations and empty rhetoric (not based on fact), they change public perception. Walker calls this process greenwashing, and the people who do it greenwashers.

He starts by discussing chemical industries - from food to industrial chemicals. These industries have a vested interest in promoting their products as safe. These groups fund numerous small lobby, "research" and public relations organizations to counter messages that are against their interest.

He points out that it would have been hard to analyze this process if it were not for the fact that the same process goes on with multiple targets: alternative medicine, chemical sensitivities (including MCS), Gulf War Syndrome, CFS and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.

Disclaimer: These views are not necessarily my views, though it does make fascinating reading if you want to know the story behind the story. There is another book that comes closer to my view, and I might write about that one later. However, it is impossible to ignore all the issues raised by Walker. If even some of them are able to be thoroughly substantiated (in terms of intentions, plans, documents, whistleblowers, not just events) then these are very serious issues. Walker does however discuss in passing many issues that will feature in my book. I am working toward an alternative explanation to Walker's, though there is some overlap.


Greenwashing

Greenwashing is spin and deception. It originated with the environment debate, and is spin designed to pursade that something (a product or organization for example) is environmentally benign. According to Wikipedia the term itself was coined in 1986 by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt. However the practice of greenwashing goes back to the 60s, when the rise of the environmental movement led to advertising that addressed green issues. Its possible that it goes back to the publication of Silent Spring by Rachael Carson in 1962, which argues there is substantial disinformation from chemical industries and it is too widely accepted.

In an article on the seven sins of greenwashing, it lists seven techniques of spin - claiming its a tradeoff, not providing proof, vague claims, irrelevant claims, claims that its a lesser evil, outright lying and exaggerating benefits.

This book is about the rise of the claim that unexplained illnesses are psychosomatic, and about how tactics developed for greenwashing are used in medicine. Here is what Walker has to say (p.6):

"Those who argue psychiatric aetiology are an oddly combined group, who also tend to argue that chemicals do no harm, that there is no such thing as environmentally created illness, that pharmaceutical chemicals rarely create iatrogenic illness."


Chemical Damage and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities

From the 70s through the 90s there was growing recognition that many people were sensitive to a variety of chemicals. The German ICD 10 listed MCS as a disease in 2000, which is an official acknowledgement of its existence.

Against this is a view that MCS is hysteria. From 1982 there were a growing number of claims of illness at the Camp Hill Hospital possibly from dry cleaning fluid contamination of the water supply. 684 people become ill prior to a report on this problem. Twenty volatile organic compounds had been identified as well as other potentially toxic chemicals.

The Langley Report in 1987 about the Camp Hill Hospital looked at this from a strictly toxicological viewpoint. They interviewed four patients. There was not enough of any chemical found that could induce symptoms via established toxicological mechanisms.

A dissenting report was released by Dr. Patricia Beresford, a second edition of which is here: http://www.environmentalhealth.ca/Jan98report.html She claims the Langley Report deliberately ignored research findings.

To quote Walker (p. 13): "Dr. Beresford put her finger on the most important thing which separates the science of the organic aetiologists from the non-science of the sceptics ... [omitted] ... The scientists consistently ask for more research and more analytical investigations."

Walker continues to develop this theme including exploring concerns about litigation and lobby groups. This includes discussion of groups like Campaign Against Health Fraud, of which Walker claims Simon Wessely was a founding member. (Page 48) Their aim: to discredit false health claims and keep medicine from disrepute. How ironic.

In 1982 three Bills were introduced to the House of Representatives. Walker calls them anti-quackery bills, but they were aimed at the "alternative" health industry. They failed in 1984, and the new National Council Against Health Fraud began targeting vitamins, minerals, holistic medicine and clinical ecology. (p. 43-4) The latter is the discipline dealing with environmental toxins. Four years later the British Campaign Against Health Fraud (CAHF) began. The CAHF became Health Watch in 1991.


The Denial Process

This is my interpretation of the process, following on from Walker. Step one, limit the scope of investigation and the number of patients examined. Step two, deny chemical causation. Step three, claim hysteria as a cause. Of course there is no objective test to confirm hysteria, and so it cannot be refuted directly. Then follow with lobbying to support this process.

1. Limit The Scope. Limit the scope of the enquiry. Look at only a handful of hundreds of patients. Limit the questions being asked. Limit the research being considered. Limit the argument to irrelevant trivialities. Misdefine and redefine as much as possible.

2. Deny Causation. Deny any biomedical claims of causation. Deliberately confuse claims with nonsensical claims. Use lack of data about the incident to promote doubt.

3. Claim hysteria. Invoke unproven and unprovable claims of hysteria, mass hysteria, functional syndromes or the equivalent. Refer to older unproven claims as though they substantiate the current claim.

4. Lobby for the hysteria viewpoint. Lobby against the biomedical viewpoint. Primarily use pursuasive and political rhetoric rather than primarily use evidence and reason to support the claim. Lobby for no further investigation, therefore ensuring that more data in support of biomedical causation will be harder to obtain. Invoke irrelevant claims as part of the political process, such as claiming that victims are conspiring to distort the science, or that the victims are under the influence of a cult that believes chemicals cause disease.

The book goes on to describe two major chemical incidents, the role of insurance companies, and of course how many industries fund public relations groups in relation to these matters. The two chemical incidents discussed are Camelford and Love Canal.

On to Part Two
Ren, MeSci, merylg and 2 others like this.
alex3619

About the Author

I am a long term ME patient with many complications. While I have pushed research advocacy since 1993, I became political around 2009. My current project is a book called "Embracing Uncertainty". Uncertainty in medical science seems anathema to too many doctors. "I do not know" is something more doctors should be honest about.
  1. Jarod
    You're doing some fantastic work Alex.
  2. Don Quichotte
    One of the most useful "green-washing" words is ""progress". If you are against GMO then you are against progress. Progress=scientific innovation and our way to improve the world. So, the combination of "profit" and "progress" is a sure winner. People also convince themselves that way-what can be bad with making progress and getting a nice profit at the same time? Like this guy-
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzTECVk8tVU&feature=related
  3. Don Quichotte
    I think the problem is that "profit" has become the buzz-word. As long as you show that something is profitable (either by saving money or by making money) then you have proved your point.
    It's not that people are greedy. It's that this has become the synonym of excellence. People, departments, organizations or even countries are not measured by their talents, by the contributions they make, but by their profit. Having a bigger salary than your neighbor means that you are more successful/more appreciated etc. It can become so ridiculous that a certain ward in a hospital earns a prize because they have saved more money than the other. Why? because one ward takes care of patients with skin disorders (and therefore overall uses less expensive drugs) and the other takes care of patients with cancer. The head of the department taking care of patients with cancer (who also works much harder taking care of very ill patients) is asked by the hospital management to learn from the head of the other department how to make his work more efficient and profitable. I know this sounds ridiculous but this is a real world situation. Green-washing is a very good way to make profit. If you manage to advertise mediocre work or products as "the best" (when in fact it is very cheap to make or do) than you make enormous profits with very little efforts. So, advertising and talking about what you do, becomes much more important than what you actually do. In this world honest hard-working people who don't waste their precious time on advertising themselves, have a very little chance to truly succeed, let alone become leaders who change things. I think the true revolution can only come from the bottom up. People have to stop buying products or consults workers who advertise themselves. People should start asking for a proper work-environment (in every sense) and not more profits. Workers should protest against greenwashing of what they do.
    alex3619 likes this.
  4. alex3619
    Thanks Don Quichotte, interesting report; the nature article is behind a paywall though. Large numbers of scientists and a growing number of medical practitioners are aware of the issues. I see this as a clash between scientific culture and business culture. The medical science is aimed at the truth, the business strategy is aimed at supporting profits. This is not a blanket criticism of business, the way things are its a duty of business executives to protect their interests. The problem arises when there is unbalanced influence, when business methods overshadow scientific ones.

    I think part of the problem is over-politicizing of science due to modern scientific funding. It cannot be addressed until government science funding rises to match corporate funding, and better methods are developed to deal with the issues by government and oversight bodies. The science behind neurotoxins has been clear for a long time, but its not making an impact in the real world. This is not surprising, its happening in every other controversial area of science.

    A commentary on the nature article can be found here:
    http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2012/09/epa-iris-chemical-risk-rethink

    This raises another side of the issue: government agencies do not always have good methods to assess risk. The article talks about over-emphasizing risk, but under-emphasizing can occur too.
  5. Don Quichotte
    And also this- http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/489027a.html
  6. Don Quichotte
    Hi Alex,

    You may find this interesting- http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/8368495/62782997/name/Neurotoxins+at+Home+and+in+the+Workplace.pdf
  7. alex3619
    Hi GracieJ, I write all parts at once, but separate them for editing reasons. All of them are up now and all the links have been checked.
  8. GracieJ
    Whatever happened to good old common sense? Poison is poison is poison. Looking forward to part two.