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Goodell writes: "Big Oil and Big Coal have always been as skilled at propaganda as they are at mining and drilling. Like the tobacco industry before them, their success depends on keeping Americans stupid."

Industrial chimneys emitting clouds of smoke. (photo: Bruce Forster/Getty Images)
Industrial chimneys emitting clouds of smoke. (photo: Bruce Forster/Getty Images)

How Big Coal Keeps America Stupid

By Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone

20 September 12


he New York Times has a good piece today about the $153 million ad blitz the fossil fuel industry is running to oust President Obama. The Times points out that this is a big change from the last election when green ads greatly outnumbered those for fossil fuels and global warming was openly discussed. And it's certainly true -- you can't turn on the TV right now without seeing ads touting the wonders of coal, gas, and oil.

But Big Oil and Big Coal have always been as skilled at propaganda as they are at mining and drilling. Like the tobacco industry before them, their success depends on keeping Americans stupid. Over the years, they have become masters at distorting science, dodging innovation, and predicting economic mayhem if anyone or anything gets in the way of their divine right to mine, burn, and profit off America's natural resources.

Coincidentally, Greenpeace has just unearthed a bunch of old coal industry ads, and the results are pretty amusing for anyone who tracks the propaganda campaign waged by America's biggest energy thug. Take the phrase "clean coal," for example, which sounds like it emerged from a focus-group session on Madison Avenue in the late 1990s. In fact, the industry has been using the phrase in advertising copy since at least 1921, when a New York coal company pitched clean coal as if it were a forerunner of Viagra, promising that "clean coal will develop more heat and make for mutual satisfaction."

There are a number of ads from the 1970s, just after the Clean Air Act was passed, hitting on another favorite theme of Big Coal: that measures to reduce the amount of deadly pollution emitted from power plants stacks are either unreliable or too expensive. One ad from 1974 refers to smokestack scrubbers designed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions as "monstrous contraptions"; another talks about the environmental dangers of the "oozy gook" that the scrubbers produce; yet another predicts blackouts if utilities are forced to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

There are vintage ads from the early days of the fight over global warming, including a 1991 one from a now-defunct coal industry front group with the delightful name of "Informed Citizens for the Environment" that unabashedly proclaims, "there is no hard evidence [global warming] is occurring" and "proof that carbon dioxide is the primary cause is non-existent."

My favorite is from 1976. American Electric Power, one of the biggest coal-burning utilities in the country, ran an ad in the New York Times to hype the idea that America has more coal than it knows what to do with. In the ad, there's a big picture of a little boy's face, and he's in tears. Below is the headline: "By the time he's out of 8th grade, America will be out of oil and gas." The ad claims that America has only 12 years of oil and gas left -- but, lucky for us, we have 500 years worth of coal.

What makes this particular ad so damning (and so amusing) is not just that it turned out to be so wrong, but that it makes clear that the industry will say more or less anything, no matter how outlandish, to keep America hooked on coal. "These ads show a long history of lies and deception by the coal industry," says Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace. "So why should we believe anything they say now?" your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+41 # colvictoria 2012-09-20 13:16
These coal burning plants spew out so many toxic chemicals the worst is mercury which is a neuro toxin. Much of the coal comes from states which use mountain top removal. They are literally blowing off the tops of these ancient majestic mountains such as those in Appalachia to get the coal. When will this end? What is the future of North America? Will we just wake up one day and be told that all our precious lake and river water has been contaminated with coal slurry? another oil spill? fracking waste? a nuclear melt down?
+25 # Vardoz 2012-09-20 14:19
They will lead us to our doom with their lies.
+12 # Jim Young 2012-09-20 13:50
I still recall the years of Paul Harvey ads on clean coal. When I checked on how many clean coal plants there were, it seemed the maximum was about 5% though Paul made it seem as if most were already. I wonder how many there ever have been, and what the current percentage is.
+18 # universlman 2012-09-20 13:59
I think of the $153 million spent on ads for the media plus "donations" to candidates just before the election as hush money. These handouts are to make sure that BOTH candidates support "clean coal" and "energy independence" and that the media is not enclined to ask any embarrassing questions.

Everyone wins except the public trust.
-88 # HowardMH 2012-09-20 14:00
As Forest said, "Stupid Is as Stupid Does" and we got a whole lot of stupid out there just letting this crap happen.
The danger to America is not (solely) Barack Obama but a citizenry capable of entrusting an inexperienced man like him with the Presidency... Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The Republic can survive a Barack Obama. It is less likely to survive a multitude of Idiots such as those who made him their president
+27 # pwehrle 2012-09-20 16:41
I think you need a psychiatrist.
+3 # Terrapin 2012-09-21 17:36
Dear HowardMH: were you awake, or even conscious during 8 years of the the Bush Regime? Could you, with a staight face advocate that the Village Idiot was an "Experienced Man" capable of being entrusted with the Presidency? And after two terms of bringing this nation to ruin, 48.5% of the "multitude of idiots" STILL voted Republican!
0 # MidwestTom 2012-09-20 14:03
Presently wind and solar account for less than 3% of our power, throw in hydroelectric for an additional 7% and you now have 10% of our power coming from non-polluting sources. Unfortunately the world runs on economics and electricity from hydrocarbon fuels will be here for a long time. If we outlaw nuclear we will need even more hydrocarbon fueled power. The coal fired plants of today are much cleaner than twenty years ago, but as long as we want electricity, it's generation will be polluting.

Digging back through old ads makes no sense. All one has to do is look at the old ads for various medicines for a good laugh; besides, what would you expect the power industry to do, "say don't burn our coal"?

All advertising is full of deceptions, most obviously the current political ads.
-35 # Raymond Dean 2012-09-20 14:14
The writers of this article are adherents of "Thunder Pot Technology" They presume that we should be environmentally pristine when at the same time they do not consider the growth of world population by one billion people per lifetime. No society that is beyond the bush has developed the needed energy required without resort to fossil fuels, hydro power and nuclea energy. These same adherents of "green" technology hate equally each of these categories of power production. Hydropower is the most renewable of resources, but it modifies the landscape and the hydrologic cycle. Therefore it is judged to be irreversibly detrimental to some pristine notion of the landscape. They never consider or enter into their crusading arguments that a billion more people even more radically alter the landscape.
There cannot be a rational energy development policy formulated and implemented as long as such nasayers who emphasize the worst in order to destroy are viewed as credible.
+22 # cordleycoit 2012-09-20 14:19
Americans as the they are dumbed down are more sheep like than the nineteen fifties. They have been brain washed and then dry cleaned. Does all those ads they run over kids shows only sell white man's shit food and electronic games that teach them how kill. Add on top of that an education that is based on texts written for Texas board of education fundamentalist standards. How can people who have been so abused understand something as difficult to understand like global warming much-less HARRP? The sales men for Nukes, coal fired,fossil fuel addicts have a pretreated audience.
+21 # brux 2012-09-20 14:21
What pisses me off royally is that what it seems like
in the media to me is that the vast majority in the US
remain stupid by choice.

Everyone knows the system is screwed up, but no one
has the courage to talk about it, in fact very few really
even have the courage not to resist their programming
to attack people that do talk about it.

At some point any US democratic movement has to open
their eyes and look at that , see it for that it really means.
The vast majority of stupid Americans provide enough
of a mob, enough of a cheap labor force, enough of a
backstabbing threat to their fellow citizens that they
ARE the thing that prevent Democracy.

The question is what are the effective strategies against
such a unassailable threat?
+5 # WolfTotem 2012-09-20 16:43
"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."

from Following the Equator by Mark Twain)
+11 # brux 2012-09-20 14:27
These corporations simply cannot continue to exist unless we continue the practice of paying them to let them kill us.

In other words, some elite person has access to a way to make money and get people to work for him ... forget any lofty goals such as environmentalis m or human rights, this is raw power, hidden by polite subterfuge an iron hand in a fantasy world glove ...

So now that Americans have become lustful for the fantasy world, the question is ... how to actually create it, since what we have no is just a pure fantasy.

To create that world in a sustainable manner, all citizens must be taken into accout ... or the alternative has always been war, murder or genocide.

This is class warfare from a class that is able to hide itself due to its ability to manipulate and structure social reality not to even see it .... pretty good trick.
+21 # panhead49 2012-09-20 14:51
Bet we could have slapped solar panels on everything in America that could handle them for about a tenth of what the wars have cost. And that doesn't even factor in the toll they've taken on humanity.

Any species that goes upstream to download deserves what it gets.
-7 # Glen 2012-09-20 16:36
Wait wait wait, panhead, how about trout and salmon?!! Upstream can birth some great stuff!
+30 # jerry6665 2012-09-20 14:54
My people work the mines of W.VA. After the last big accident, Massey and the other companies working the coalfields threw a bone to the mine workers. They upped the pay, gave up a bit in benefits and very conspicuously threw some $ at the schools.

Mines are the backbone of the W.VA economy. Miners won't say much against the Companies even though they don't like the mountain-toppin g that clogs their waterways, ruining the landscape, etc.

Coal still is responsible for the poor health many have. The lack of education can be blamed on the low income and need to go right to work out of school.

My people are good people. They work hard and tragically, many die before they should. It's sad when I go back and see the damage that coal has done from one of my visits to the next visit. The landscape is devastated and people are living within feet of huge piles of coal.

Coal companies consider the employees as cattle - when one falls, another gets put in its place. Lawsuits are the price of doing business. The Company attitude is that they're sheep and will go for whatever the ads say if there are enough ads. Little kids in ads, appealing to $ motivation, touting 'clean coal - whatever works no matter how untrue.

It's very sad but changing from the sooty coal to clean fuels is going to come at great personal costs to those who toil in the mines and all of us who love them! Change is never easy but is necessary.
+3 # brux 2012-09-20 16:03
> Miners won't say much against the Companies even though they don't like the mountain-toppin g that clogs their waterways, ruining the landscape, etc.

Then the miners are stupid. I don't think they exactly deserve what they are getting, but anyone who does not get this by now is as much a part of the problem as the coal companies.

The companies get rich killing the miners, and the minors exist at a low level by allowing other Americans to get killed and have the land we hold in common destroyed.

> My people are good people. They work hard and tragically, many die before they should.

I don't know what a good people is anymore?

All big companies consider their people cattle ... if you read between the lines of Mitt Romney's comments, he is basically saying that they want to suck all he wealth out of the country with zero responsibility and MAYBE if they feel kind and generous to some people that they might have some kind of use for they will trickle down something to keep them alive long enough to find out. What is that but cattle?
+11 # jerry6665 2012-09-20 18:50
ah, brux, it's easy to be brave when you live where there are opportunities to change your situation. but, when you are living in an area where the only industry IS the coal industry, it's not that easy. further, when you have mouths to feed and your words can sabotage not just you, but your whole family and their futures, standing up to a huge monolithic cartel like this is even less possible.

west virginia is amazingly poor and i am not arrogant enough to believe that they have any of the opportunities that i have now. just for water, my relatives had to hike a half mile to dip it up out of a creek. (this was less than 20 years ago!) their well water was too polluted. on saturday night, the 4 kids, the grandmother and the father could take a bath. kids first, gramma next and father, who had coaldust was always last.

mother had died at home of leukemia. their health insurance didn't cover it so she had to be cared for at home. look up what untreated leukemia is like and see how long you could stand it.
believe me, if you lived like that, you'd not have any energy to fight either.

what coal has done to the country so that the companies can get richer would curl your hair. you don't know the half of it.

if you believe that this - or anything else- should be changed, demonstrate (non-violently) and work to get laws changed and appropriate legislators in place. that's the only way to get things to happen that work!
+2 # colvictoria 2012-09-20 19:28
@jerry6665 If mining is the backbone of the W.Va economy then something is wrong with the leadership in your state. When an entire state's economy is based on just one resource that is simply irresponsible.
Who represents the workers? No union? The workers need to speak up and stand up for their
beautiful landscape and natural resources. People need to mobilize and come up with innovative economic models that are sustainable and responsible.
Everyone loses in this situation. If things continue at this rate we are all doomed to a life of breathing toxic air and drinking poisoned water.
-17 # Martintfre 2012-09-20 15:00
So the people who want to keep the lights on are stupid.. OK

What does that make those who want to keep us in the dark?
+15 # brux 2012-09-20 16:13
The 1% ;-)
+3 # reiverpacific 2012-09-20 17:26
Funny, I thought that Obama was supporting "Clean Coal" and "Safe Nuclear"!
Did something slip by me?
I really am asking.Quoting Martintfre:
So the people who want to keep the lights on are stupid.. OK

What does that make those who want to keep us in the dark?

You tell us -you seem to live there all the time.
+1 # brux 2012-09-20 18:56
You are right, Obama had to cave to coal and corn ... not to mention health care. What does that mean ... I don't think what you seem to be implying.
+3 # reiverpacific 2012-09-20 17:50
Didn't Obama say a lot in support of "Clean Coal" and "Safe Nuclear" during his first run for Pres?
Maybe something slipped by me lately; has he since changed that stance? I really do want to know.
Of course in Twit, the super-polluters like the Military, Kochs', and all the regressive extractive giants see a true ally, who considers the planet fair game for any kind of plunder-for-pro fit; and who as a Mormon and like the Catholic church, encourage overpopulation by breeding their own like bloody rabbits.
Oye-oye, vot a vorld.
+11 # fhunter 2012-09-20 18:16
If Big Coal's success depends on keeping American stupid, than Big Coal will have an easy victory. Remember the "Americans" elected W. twice. Anyone who voted twice for W. must be a MORON. (62,040,610)
+3 # brux 2012-09-20 18:58
Or once.
+1 # John Steinsvold 2012-09-20 19:19
An Alternative to Capitalism (to help clean our environment)

Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

John Steinsvold

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."~ Albert Einstein
+2 # tanis 2012-09-22 16:38
what the hell is clean coal? Ask a miner fresh from the mine after a long day in the dark.
+1 # Corvette-Bob 2012-09-24 11:46
Clean coal is the most outrages statement every made in the history of ads. Next, they will be saying that mercury is good for your brain. But the truth of the matter is that 50% of the people would start drinking mercury as a health tonic.

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