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Brand Portland — The Greenwashing Machine
Nothing is sacred, market thinking trumps everything, even in Portland, Oregon. This is a manifesto for environmental justice.
By Nicholas Caleb
I still live in Portland because of a vision that our unique culture could be animated into a real political force for an equitable and sustainable future. Despite my optimism, I couldn’t help but laugh when I found out that Portland is going to be highlighted as a model of urban sustainability for World Environment Day. Even though Portland has a widespread reputation for being an environmental leader, we have to come to terms that we live in a city that:
Whatever the shared idea of our enlightened green community may be, it largely doesn’t extend beyond individual attitudes and small group practices into policy, at least not at a scale that we could celebrate as significant. It may even be true that we’re doing better than other places (I actually don’t agree with that outside of some metrics), but even so, if our goal is any meaningful realization of the word sustainability, we aren’t even on the right path. And despite ongoing efforts to highlight and oppose local environmental hypocrisies, these haven’t translated into significant environmental victories in quite some time. I think this is partially because there is a huge schism between so-called activist ideas of environmentalism and those of people who want to be seen as respectable in the realm of establishment politics.
As climate chaos intensifies and people feel the urgent need for paradigm change, these gaps are being bridged, but not nearly fast enough. And as people get serious about environmental problems elsewhere in the world, Portland’s reputation as a city operating on environmental principles goes largely unchallenged. I love Portland and all of its cultural idiosyncrasies — bikes (I lived in the Netherlands… it’s not as great here as you think), beer, weirdness, “progressive” political attitudes, etc. — but this fantasy that we are somehow excelling in environmental protection and sustainability can no longer be entertained. We’re being made fools of while we celebrate our undeserved green reputation.
As with any popular story, there is some truth here. Historically, Portlanders have done some pretty amazing things, like stop the Mt. Hood Freeway, liberate Tom McCall Waterfront Park from under the Harbor Drive freeway, and protect a lot of parks and green spaces around the city. In Oregon, we’ve had excellent success in preventing sprawl by pioneering strict land use regimes, we closed the Trojan nuclear power plant, and the Boardman coal fired power plant will go offline in 2020.
The problem is not just that our victories have been too small and sparse — the bigger problem is that we invoke past victories as evidence that our political system is enlightened. In reality, our few heroic efforts were grassroots victories that occurred in spite of the profit-driven machinations of local political power and not because of a working democratic process. Only mass public outcry has proven able to derail environmentally destructive plans that had been handed down by our ‘leaders’. Note that most of our successes come when people actively oppose a destructive project. It’s been over 50 years since Tom McCall sounded the pre-environmental movement clarion call with his documentary Pollution in Paradise and it’s about time we organized a similar call to action. We are at a breaking point as a global society and Portland could be a model in pioneering a way forward if our attitudes on sustainability could translate into major policy initiatives instead of settling for a smattering of small victories and half measures in the midst of industrial-scale environmental degradation.
This involves stepping back from party politics and their extremely effective way of entangling us in the minutiae of policy disputes in order to begin to tell the right stories about where power lies and how it shapes our cultural and geographical milieus. We have to start asking the right questions if we are to understand the gap between our ideas about how things work, how they actually work, and how they should and could work. How can it be that with a city with so much in the way of environmentalist energy can witness its entire political apparatus line up behind some of the most environmentally destructive policies possible without a mass uproar? Why are activities — like coal exports and water privatization — that are the antithesis to our environmental ethos happening so fast? How are local companies, front groups, and politicians erecting bureaucratic blockades that control our energy and prevent any sort of significant progress on sustainability and our commitments to climate justice? And most importantly why don’t we see it happening when it’s right in front of our faces?
Well, it’s a mix of heavy propaganda, global trade policy, partial truths, misunderstood local and national history (over-celebration of historic victories plus an under-appreciation of the lack of imagination, ineffectiveness, and simple corruption of the establishment), old political power (financiers and developers), and willful ignorance. When you throw it all together, you get a frustratingly hypocritical ball of mess that I have taken to calling "Brand Portland."
Brand Portland will be an ongoing project on Mismanaging Perception because there is much to uncover about the rotten core of this city. I hope it will inspire people to take a closer look at how things really work and speak out.
In this entry, I’m going to write about the role of Portland in the fossil fuel export economy and the “Green Economy”. The better we understand our specific role on this planet, the more effectively we can organize opposition to destructive projects and, at the same time, work to create an equitable and livable alternative.
Global Trade and the Political Geography of Urbanization
One way in which Portland plays the greenwashing game is by locking us into financially benefiting from ecological harm that happens elsewhere. To that end, the Portland Business Alliance (“PBA”; essentially our chamber of commerce and local mouthpiece of the 1%) and the mega-companies that it acts as a front for are attempting to position Portland as a leader in exports. PBA, for its part, is busy propagandizing the public with absurd claims that increases in exports will bring 100,000 jobs to this area. Apparently, there is nothing that these people won’t export.
For many, the news that coal would be exported through the Pacific Northwest came as an enormous shock (these projects are always sold as inevitabilities). The first time I heard it, I scoffed, shrugged it off, and forgot about it. After a while, it became obvious that a coalition of business and labor groups had indeed assembled to make coal exports happen. In addition, plenty of “sustainable” law firms lined up to represent coal interests, while “sustainable” Northwest public relations firms, including the notorious Brian Gard and his firm Gard Communications, were paid to lie to the public about the risks of coal. Here’s a list of some of the groups in Portland who have signed up to push coal:
As Stephen Quirke recently wrote in ESCO Steel — A Legacy Worth Celebrating?, another local company is also jumping into the energy export market at the point of extraction:
ESCO has recently become heavily invested in tar sands extraction, coal mining, and fracking for natural gas, and is staking its future on building vital, “mission-critical” enabling equipment for all three – particularly drill bits which wear out quickly and need frequent replacement. In a report to the SEC they even brag that they “… have established direct sales channels in the Canadian oil sands, Wyoming Powder River Basin and Brazil,”, the former two being perhaps the most controversial energy extraction sites in North America.The significance of ESCO in major fossil fuel extraction projects should not be understated. Without ESCO’s willingness to manufacture the critical machinery for extraction, these projects would be significantly delayed if not abandoned.
(This video includes a full discussion of ESCO’s profiteering in the context of a recent occupation of and truth-telling session at the Oregon History Society’s ESCO exhibit)
Quirke also notes that in their industrial processes to create the machinery that is ultimately used to destructively extract fossil fuels, ESCO massively pollutes the Portland environment while our regulatory agencies do nothing about it:
As it turns out, thirty five Portland-area schools are in the top 5% of national schools with the most dangerous exposure to air toxins. And for all seven schools in Northwest Portland, the #1 source of pollution was ESCO Steel. The Department of Environmental Quality has a cozy relationship with ESCO, as it does with all the agencies it “regulates” – in exchange for issuing their pollution permits, they provide DEQ with roughly 70% of its funding. So initially the DEQ worked alongside ESCO to downplay this information. They were later forced to backtrack, and in 2010, even DEQ’s Andy Ginsberg asserted that for people who live near the ESCO foundry, its emissions amount for 95% of all toxic compounds in the air they breathe.Notably, ESCO does claim to be a sustainable company and its online materials are comically bad and tragically ironic.
So, why the mad dash to jump into energy exports? I mean aside from the fact that some people, like the companies on the list above, will do anything for money. The answer lies largely in the rapid urbanization of China and Southeast Asia.
As David Harvey describes in detail in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (also in A Brief History of Neoliberalism and The Enigma of Capital), urbanization (building and rebuilding cities) is crucial in the history of capitalism. Chapter 1 of Rebel Cities is indispensable for understanding this dynamic, but I’ll try to pull out some important parts:
Since the mid 1980s, neoliberal urban policy (applied, for example, across the European Union) concluded that redistributing wealth to less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions was futile, and that resources should instead be channeled to dynamic “entrepreneurial” growth poles. A spatial version of “trickle-down” would then, in the proverbial long run (which never comes), take care of all those pesky regional, spatial, and urban inequalities. Turning the city over to the developers and speculative financiers redounds to the benefit of all! (p. 29)This choice to favor speculators and developers over the working poor is not a new phenomenon in capitalism, but globalization and the lessening of restrictions on the flow of capital across the globe have massively exacerbated its effects. A well-developed understanding of capital surplus, capital accumulation, and the flows of money and goods is necessary to understanding why we are experiencing the local effects of global capitalist dynamics.
Without a general perspective of this sort, we cannot even begin to understand the dynamics that led into the catastrophe of housing markets and urbanization in 2008 in certain regions and cities of the United States, as well as in Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. By the same token, we cannot understand some of the paths that are currently being taken, particularly in China, to get out of the mess that was fundamentally produced elsewhere. For in the same way that Brinley Thomas documents contra-cyclical movements between Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century, such that a boom in residential construction on one side of the Atlantic was balanced by recessions on the other, so we now see stagnation in construction in the United States and much of Europe being counterbalanced by a huge urbanization and infrastructural investment boom centered in China (with several offshoots elsewhere, particularly in the so-called BRIC countries). And just to get the macro-picture connection right, we should immediately note that the United States and Europe are mired in low growth, while China is registering a 10 percent growth rate (with the other BRIC countries not far behind). (p. 44)So, even though the United States has previously been the center of industrialization, urbanization, and suburbanization projects — which were conceived of and were largely successful as economic growth schemes — this is no longer the case. Massive urbanization, with all of its hazardous environmental effects, is taking place across the Pacific and they need energy to fuel the construction (although new information seems to suggest that the demand for coal is largely a myth). North America’s wildlands contain lots of natural resources that can be used for energy so profiteers are scrambling to extract it in order meet the energy demand, no matter what the environmental costs.
(For a sobering view of the costs of mass industrialization and urbanization, watch Manufactured Landscapes.)
We are to drive further Chinese and South-East Asian urbanization, which is already proceeding at an incredible rate, in order to prolong late stage disaster capitalism with all of the pollution, displacement, and dispossession that comes with it. The political class, even “progressive environmentalists” in safe districts, is doing nothing to stop these suicidal efforts at infinite development on a finite planet. It doesn’t even seem as if they are cognizant of the global effects of their inaction. If these exports are allowed, a small amount of people will gain financially from the projects, but the JOBS, JOBS, JOBS and return of an industrial economy we’re being promised are not going to materialize. As if to add insult to injury, the short term financial benefits that may accrue from these projects will be realized almost entirely by the investors who assume no direct risks — and their lackeys in law, lobbying, and public relations — while the workers and those who live along the export routes are left to deal with the dangerous effects of the pollution. We’re just a connecting point between capital, fossil fuels, and the development happening across the world. And, of course, since climate change affects us all, no one will be shielded in the end.
This passes for “sustainable” in the Rose City.
The Myth of the “Green Economy”
The fossil fuel export economy that is fueling massive urbanization is obscured by a larger, public strategy to pretend as if the global economy is turning over a new green leaf. This branding effort is known as the “Green Economy”. The City of Portland has accepted its precepts and, more importantly, wants to be the standard bearer.
Portland seeks to build the most sustainable economy in the world and become the capital of the global green economy. In this quest for international leadership, Portland will create 10,000 jobs within five years and expand economic opportunities for all Portland residents. - Portland Economic Development StrategyTapio Kanninen, in The Crisis of Global Sustainability, defines “Green Economy” as “one of the broadest concepts available, widely applied but mostly remaining undefined and used according to the taste of each user[.]” (p. 53) This, of course, makes it an excellent word for disaster capitalists because it will communicate a positive emotion or idea without its users having any intention of being faithful to it. Consumers and citizens feel as though they are contributing to some grand environmental project despite the fact that they are simply engaging with a facade. The “Green Economy” is a floating signifier. It is a brand.
Though there have been plenty of attempts at using “Green Economy” to communicate a need for a balance of social, environmental, and economic sustainability, its practical use allows for social and environmental sustainability only in the context of sufficient and consistent economic growth. Because dominant notions of economic growth in the global economy, as mentioned above, are tied to resource extraction and mass urbanization/development on a finite planet, “Green Economy” simply describes the economy as it always was. One might even argue that this latest incarnation of capitalism is even scarier than those preceding it because we now commodify everything in nature, including ecosystem services. In other words, there is no sacred. There is nothing off limits from the cruel logic of the market. Everything in nature can be reduced and traded. This notion is already being perverted and exploited to produce massive biofuel plantations that replace and threaten native habitat and vital ecosystems to satisfy the bizarre logic of this new economic farce.
Last summer, the “Green Economy” (I’m going to keep putting it in quotes) was the toast of the town during the United Nations Rio+20 Conference. Kanninen, describes the outcome of the United Nations Rio+20 Conference, which in essence resulted in the governments of the world doing absolutely nothing to get in the way of the coming “Green Economy” and unfettered capitalism “solving” our environmental crises… as if this isn’t what got us here in the first place:
[C]ivil society organizations and international media organizations in particular were frustrated. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, characterized the conference as “a failure of epic proportions” and its final report as “the longest suicide note in history.” Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam, called the conference “the hoax summit.”Local activist and organizer Kari Koch, after her trip to the People’s Summit last summer (which took place at the same time as the Rio+20 Conference), voiced her opinions about the green economy in There is No Good Faith: The Green Economy, Climate Change, and Reimagining Social Movements:
As is evidenced by the ever-growing crisis and deepening economic caverns between the owners and the workers, capitalism is on the decline, though it is by no means dead. It is wiggling it’s way into a new phase – the Green Economy. This was the primary focus at the Rio+20 conference and the primary focus of dissent at the People’s Summit, a conference of popular movements that ran parallel to the official UN negotiations in Brazil.As Kari accurately points out, the “Green Economy” has been seized upon by exploitative industries as a way of pretending that we are on the way to transitioning toward a sustainable planet, but we have got to utilize fossil fuels in order to get there, and we’re never going to stop growing. Just a few weeks back, I heard this exact extraction-as-transition sentiment promoted by Gard Communications president and coal propagandist, Brian Gard, at the Concordia Coal Export Forum. Essentially, the argument is that we don’t have the technology to be sustainable right now, so we’ve got to move full speed ahead with the most destructive fossil fuel extraction projects, like coal and Tar Sands extraction, to fuel the manufacturing processes that will produce our sustainable infrastructure.
This plan has several problems with it. First, it flies in the face of the precaution we need to be taking to stop our emissions immediately – not drastically increase them — in order to stave off catastrophic climate change. Neither the levels of the production of energy nor mass consumption are ever called into question because these would mean the economy would lag. It is simply assumed that our extravagant lifestyles can continue. Second, it’s simply a convenient lie that allows entrenched and dominant economic interests to profit off of extraction for as long as people will allow them to. It’s much like the tobacco industry’s very successful propaganda efforts at mucking up the science about lung cancer in order to rake in the most profits for as long as possible. Third, it’s even more cynical considering that fossil fuel subsidies and anti-competitive efforts are actually slowing the process of the introduction of renewable energies. Coal propagandists like Gard will tell us that of course they are excited about the new economy, but we just aren’t there, while coal lobbyists line the pockets of elected officials to make sure that cleaner technologies are delayed as long as possible.
We should expect this nonsense from industry shills who are paid to lie to us, but our governmental institutions and politicians are also lining up behind the logic of the “Green Economy.” “Progressive” Portland City councilperson Steve Novick says that coal is “evil”, but forecloses on the idea that our local democratic institutions should or can do anything about it — lest we be hypocrites — and instead, suggests that we appeal to our local multinationals to please, please, please commit to using cleaner fuel sources. Jules Bailey drones on about market-based strategies for reducing carbon and gushes over the possibility of allying with Grover Norquist (in this video, the “unusual partners” reference supplements comments Bailey made earlier in the evening about Norquist’s interest in the carbon tax).
The intellectual farce is that by re-focusing on economic self-interest we might be able to solve the problems that were caused by its greed and tunnel-vision in the first place. As David Orr reminds us, “Rational self-interest… seldom generates much imagination, creativity, and foresight, which will be greatly needed in coming decades.” As philosopher Mary Midgley explains, “Narrowly selfish people tend not to be very imaginative, and often fail to look far ahead… Exclusive self-interest tends by its very nature not to be enlightened, because the imagination which has shrunk so far as to exclude consideration for one’s neighbors also becomes weakened in its power to foresee future changes.” What is needed instead is a re-contextualizing of our economy based on human needs and the planet that supports us.
With the economy in decline in a country run by neoliberals who masquerade as environmentalists and clearly have no plan for a more equitable and sustainable future, this is what we get: last ditch efforts at doing the exact same things that used to stimulate the economy and a dedication of ecosystem services to the same predatory economic forces that have decimated both the developing and developed world. This is regressive.
So, of course it would be nice if we could “create the most sustainable economy in the world” in Portland, but to do that we would have to begin to withdraw ourselves from the global economy as it currently stands while localizing/decentralizing food production, energy production, decision making, etc (more to come in future articles). Unsurprisingly, this is not presented as a “reasonable” option by the people who operate solely within the logic of economic growth and profit. One has to wonder why the only option that we treat as sensible is the surest path to environmental suicide.
As long as we accept these market-based precepts and branding efforts as the boundaries to our collective social imagination, we will be on the defensive with regard to environmental policy and placemaking. This is not the time to shrink our focus to preserve the ethical ideals of Christopher Columbus and Grover Norquist.
Portland’s quiet embrace of the fossil fuel export economy and tolerance of cynical branding efforts betray what we should be doing: transitioning into a place with the capacity to say NO to proposals that ask us to accept and materially benefit from anything that risks ecological suicide. If we want to be a model city, and I think we should, we must pioneer resistance instead of creative acquiescence that makes us feel good.
At the same time we look to the creative energy of those who live in the city for local solutions, we should shame and shun those among us who lie and propagandize, whether they be public relations specialists, law firms, profiteering corporations, or politicians. These are not times in which we are doing anything positive by staying quiet and not making waves. We owe it to posterity to at least have the courage to speak plainly and honestly about the struggles we’re facing, the forces that are behind global environmental crises, and most importantly, our own contributions, complicity, and opportunities for remediation.
As long as we buy into the story that we’re somehow different, enlightened, or insulated, we’re going to be a part of the problem. Once we understand that we occupy a critical geographical position in the global fossil fuel economy, we will see that our actions do matter, and we can disrupt the supply chain through policy and direct action. This requires a huge effort and it won’t happen without a massive commitment of energy.
Nicholas Caleb teaches at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. This article appeared at Mismanaging Perceptions. The original article has links to many o the sources mentioned in the article.
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