I will get back to my series on food production, I promise, but today I was sidetracked/gobsmacked by something I’ve just read in The Guardian, and needed to share.

Apparently the US energy department has rebranded fossil fuels as ‘molecules of freedom’.

I appreciate that energy can indeed improve quality of life in many ways, but energy from fossil fuels also has the potential to dramatically and negatively impact on your quality of life.

I’m assuming that the PR whizzkid who came up with the “molecules of freedom” tagline knew they were echoing the godfather of PR, Edward Bernays, who used the “torches of freedom” line to flog us something else that does us no good – cigarettes.

If you’re not familiar with this story, Bernays was hired just after World War I by the CEO of the American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill, to help figure out how ATB could tap into the female half of the market. “If I can crack that market, it will be like opening new gold mine right in our front yard”, he allegedly said.

At the time, it was deemed unseemly for women to smoke in public. They were likely to be branded whores or harlots. A major cultural shift in public perception was going to be necessary. No doubt highly motivated by his $25,000 incentive, a vast sum at the time, Bernays came up with possibly the most audacious rebranding campaign in history.

On 31st March 1929, at the height of New York’s Easter Parade, a young woman named Bertha Hunt stepped out into the crowded Fifth Avenue and lit a Lucky Strike cigarette. The press had been informed in advance of her actions, and had been provided with leaflets containing relevant information (propaganda). What they did not know was that Hunt was Bernays’s secretary and that this was the first in a series of events that was aimed at getting women to smoke. Bernays proclaimed that smoking was a form of liberation for women, their chance to express their strength and freedom.

The great irony was that Bernays was using sexual liberation as a form of control. “Torches of freedom” actually enslaved countless women into nicotine addiction.

The capitalist objective was served, with Lucky Strikes doubling its sales between 1923 and 1929. But at what cost to human health and wellbeing? Well heck, hospital bills boost GDP too, so what’s not to love about that? (sarcasm).

(There is a good little 5 minute film by HowStuffWorks that explains more about this story, including the clever use of colour messaging to manipulate the market. I also highly recommend a series called The Century of Self, which starts with Bernays and traces the rise and rise of PR/marketing, and hence materialism, throughout the 20th century, changing us from citizens into consumers, conditioned to satisfy our wants rather than our needs. It’s powerful viewing.)

So what is the moral of the story? I think it’s this.

When somebody tries to sell you something on the basis of “freedom”, get sceptical. While you may win a “freedom to” (smoke/burn fossil fuels), you may also lose a “freedom from” (disease/climate change). Follow the money, and see who stands to benefit. I’d can almost guarantee it’s not you.


One Comment

  • I was grateful to receive this good news from a correspondent in Minnesota, who wrote after reading this blog post:

    Goods new for you and I’ll be brief. What the US Government does and days at the national level is pointless and meant to nourish the ill-informed, and the wise majority of us know better.

    The fossil fuel disarmament is done at the state level in the US. Here in Minnesota, we are pledged to be at 100% renewable energy by 2050, and recent news shows evidence that we may well reach it before then. Regional energy giant Xcel Energy is closing down coal plants and investing heavily in wind power. California has been very aggressive on this topic, as have many other states.

    My mail to you is not meant to refute your post, I just wanted to cheer you. Check around the various websites on clean energy for all 50 states. The matter is important to us Yanks, and we will do our substantial share.

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