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Social (Media) Warfare in the Energy Industry

The latest wave of attempts at trying to garner public favor includes various campaigns and slogans illustrates how important energy issues have become in America. But it is a discussion that remains fueled by stoking emotional reactions, sympathetic appeals, or satirical snarkiness – rather than engaging the difficult task of addressing our energy future. I write here as a means to further energy literacy, and more broadly (hopefully) media literacy.

The viral “” was an effort spearheaded by Greenpeace, with ‘user-generated slogans’ like: “Some say catastrophe, we say opportunity!”. It takes aim at the energy industry, notably Shell, by allowing (or having allowed for a time), commenting as well as user-generated slogans with Shell logos. The comment page was laced with a mock-benevolent welcome:

We’ve created a tool that allows you to share your ideas, from ways to make this site better to ideas for further reducing our impact on the marine environment and the Eskimo people who call it home.

Please, take a moment to add your thoughts, because we want to hear from every one of you.


Mock “User Generated Slogan”, visible on

The ‘Let’s Go! Arctic’ campaign was complete with a mock ‘PR event video’, which also turned out to be a complete failure, making ‘Shell’ look profoundly inept.

The energy industry, as a whole, is vying to look its best and represent itself as a functioning, reasonable part of American life. There are many attempts from competing facets, companies, and sectors – as well as interest groups both inside and outside the industry – to look good, to reach out, and to meaningfully connect with people on abstract topics. This is particularly the case on the big name issues – like Keystone XL, shale gas development, the arctic, and energy security (or “energy independence“). The implications for this year’s election season are also vast, with much political polarization about how environmental regulations could benefit or harm the economy, and other parts of life and society.

Recent polling indicates that more Americans believe that climate change is a significant issue – and they also support policies to encourage more mindful energy use. But with that in mind, other polls also show a distinct disinterests in some segments of the population – such as, interestingly enough, Generation X; even The Atlantic notes the “the result of a University of Michigan study that polled some 3,000 Gen Xers and found that in the last several years their overall interest in climate change has waned.”

It is no surprise there are different approaches for different population, regional, and voting segments. On the other side of the battle lines resides the makers of “TruthLand“, a documentary that is meant to be a response to the Josh Fox film “GasLand“. TruthLand welcomes its website visitors with:

In the HBO movie “Gasland,” New York City filmmaker Josh Fox tried to scare people into thinking that natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing are new, unregulated and dangerous. It made one Pennsylvania mom living atop the Marcellus Shale wonder what she was getting into. She asked environmentalists, academics and everyday people what they think. Nobody got paid to talk — all they were asked was to tell the truth.

The approach here is to represent GasLand as made by someone who is completely out of touch. Josh Fox (or “foolish environmentalists”) is/are portrayed as having a bogus agenda, and completely out of touch with the truth (or at least the target audience) – which would appear to be those who see themselves as modest, hardworking people; people like the Pennsylvania mom who is documented in her endeavor to hear ‘the truth’. The film/trailer admits TruthLand was paid for by various natural gas companies, but asserts no experts were paid to speak. As far as I can tell, the strongest divergent viewpoint the mom encountered was an expert identified as the “Climate Change guru”; his segment ended with him saying that his strongest point of disagreement with Josh Fox was that the breaking of the rocks was a source of the problem — to which the mom concluded that yet another expert refutes GasLand. There is also an actual indication of cement failure in Dimock, PA, but the community representative states the gas companies fixed everything right away.

Creating a more in depth analysis of these instances would defeat the point of this article, which is to illustrate the problematic nature of energy discourse. As far as my judgment goes, TruthLand is no more ‘useful’ than – in terms of dealing with issues. They are effective, however, at polarizing opinions, and creating in groups and out groups. TruthLand paints GasLand as an incredulous attempt at Hollywood theatrics, made by some NYC sensationalist. ArcticReady portrays Shell (and “big energy”), a both ridiculous in their PR attempts and heartless about environmental concerns, while being too ‘outdated’ to get internet savvy jokes – akin to being ‘punk’d’. In other words, one-sided representations simply don’t engage the complex nuances that are inherent to the significant issues of energy, of our time.

The recent KONY2012 was both praised and criticized, while its creators (activist group Invisible Children) simply wanted to get the word out about issues like child-soldiering and the LRA. While its overall effectiveness is also questionable, this media trending of wanting to go ‘viral’ and get a ‘strong response’ offer only so much. They offer marketing jobs, and important strategy meetings about how to brand your product – or your viewpoint. These things are not bad, you could say they are natural, and even unavoidable.

But the temptation to focus on building your brand and winning over the masses can come at the expense of real substance. Why? I say, because, quite simply, it’s easier – and seductive. Feeling good about yourself because you’re right and they’re wrong, especially relishing in that feeling, is, in one sense, checking out on doing the hard work of making complicated choices and problem solving. It is quite psychologically convenient – to see reduced problems with easy solutions and obvious bad guys.

Easiness has a particular relationship to familiarity – and comfort. But our future is not going to be familiar; (at least in that) the energy situation of the 21st century is significantly different than of the 20th century. So we need to become acclimated to this unfamiliarity.

The challenge is that we are not simply industrializing planet Earth for the first time. We are having new, unprecedented views at where we can go, and how to get there – new levels of awareness. Yet the structures that provided the growth and development of the 20th century – borne out of the resource base, technology, population, and environment of the 20th century – are still in place. So we are not just building something brand new, with a sense of the sky being the limit. We’re building new things, maintaining less-new things, and renovating old things — all the while dealing with unprecedented, planet-scale constraints and stresses.

This makes charting the course for the future only more difficult – the concept of disposability and starting with something fresh is not applicable, at all. “Familiarity” is not a real option – and that is the same if you’re in favor of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas or not. The question ultimately is what to take, and what to leave behind; what is going to provide for the best situation in the future. I’d add, what will provide the best situation for our future. For the grand-kids.

You can see where I’m going with this, but I will not offer a ready-made, easy solution – because I don’t think it exists. What I would like to close with, though, is a hope that you/I/we stay in the game, and keep trying to have meaningful discussion. One of the most critical issues is how we see ourselves, and how we relate to each other – or that’s what I believe, anyway. With that in mind, the polarizing mentioned earlier in this article, these efforts to create In-Groups to share victory with, competing against the problematic, insignificant, unintelligent, or evil Out-Groups, it’s something to be kept in check. This whole process is something worthy of scrutiny, particularly as one looks towards creating the best future.

I know it affects how we talk about energy. It affects how we comprehend and process many other issues of our time. Let’s be courageous and challenge the unfamiliarity of what lies before us. I am sure, at the very least, that earnestly engaging in that challenge is an essential component to making the best possible decisions. Maintaining – and strengthening- our ability to make the best possible decisions is one of the surest positive, constructive things we can do; we should guard it, and cultivate it as if our legacy depends on it.

[original article]

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