Big Oil’s deception begins in the classroom
We spoke with Dharna Noor, co-host of Drilled and Earther’s mini-series, “The ABCs of Big Oil.”
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
At the end of last week’s #SlipperySix hearing, House Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney announced that she planned to issue subpoenas to the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute for documents they failed to produce during the committee’s ongoing investigation into climate disinformation. This Tuesday, she made it official:
Meanwhile, journalists and academics are still looking into the myriad ways that Big Oil has sought to shape and distort our collective understanding of fossil fuels and their role in society. It’s hard to emphasize just how all-encompassing those campaigns are in the United States — for one, they begin in childhood.
In a podcast that wrapped up just last week, reporters Amy Westervelt and Dharna Noor, for Drilled and Earther respectively, dove into the industry’s (extremely sinister) influence in schools’ social science curricula. As “The ABCs of Big Oil” reveals, the industry has spent decades planting certain messages about fossil fuels and capitalism into our developing brains, from kindergarten to college and, of course, beyond. The result: a country whose values, politics, and ideals are shaped to benefit one industry’s profits — even at the expense of our planet.
We highly recommend you listen to the whole thing. As a preview, we spoke with Dharna Noor about the mini-series. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: Can you give an example or two of the types of fossil fuel propaganda children receive in school?
DN: I can preface this by saying that this has been happening for decades… We found instances from like a hundred years ago. The first educational kids’ programming on the radio were radio shows that were sponsored and created by Standard Oil. A lot of them were reportedly about music appreciation and American history and things like that, but they snuck in narratives about the extractive industry, equating American freedom and identity with extraction.
In Episode 2 of the podcast, we talk to this guy, Gleb Bahmutov, living in Cambridge Massachusetts, who found pamphlets in his 9-year-old kid’s bag distributed by the utility Eversource. One of them was called “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend,” and basically it was a workbook made for little kids all about touting the great virtues of the natural gas industry, pushing the idea that we can use natural gas in every part of our lives. We found other examples too that are a little more subtle — in the late 60s, early 70s, Amoco Oil used these slideshows and then videos called the Kingdom of Mocha, which is a series about a fictional kingdom that shows the good of capitalism and the evils of taxation. The message there is all about free enterprise, which I think is really interesting too.
In the podcast, you talk about how a lot of teachers were surprised to learn the lesson material they were using was sponsored by the oil industry. Many of them are so overworked and under-resourced that they’ll take whatever lesson plans they can get. Do you see a bigger theme here, as far as where the industry goes to spread its propaganda?
This is part of the reason that I was interested in this in the first place. When you start talking about how to undo all of this corporate influence, one thing that a lot of people will say is that we need more climate literacy, or that we need to train teachers better. But first of all, education is already so underfunded that allocating any funding for climate literacy could mean taking away funding from something else, so I think we need more funding if we’re going to do that at all. But also, teachers already have way too much on their plate. I think any solution that requires individual teachers to do more work is probably not gonna be super effective.
Both of these things stem from the same problem — gutting the public sector and putting more resources into the private sector. When education funding is cut, when teachers’ budgets are gutted, when teachers are forced to work longer hours, and work with more students, and just do more in general, and also have fewer access to good lesson plans and text books, and then someone comes along and it’s like — oh, by the way, here’s a beautiful lesson plan that’s super colorful and really accessible... about coal mining... and all of your kids are gonna love it, and maybe it even involves treats for the kids. I don’t know what teacher is gonna look at that and be like, no, I need to make sure this isn’t disinformation first. This all comes from the same problem, which is an overreliance on the corporate sector.
The real targets of that propaganda are of course kids and young adults. Why would the fossil fuel industry care so much what they think? Why not just lobby politicians the old fashioned way?
That’s a question I myself have tried to sort out in this series. This is a propaganda campaign that’s been around for a century, and when you instill ideas into kids when they’re 4, 5 and 6 years old, and they keep getting those same ideas reinforced through the time that they’re in college, and then out in the world through ads and things like that, what you end up with is a society that has these values really deeply embedded.
The other thing though is that as new messaging springs up — for instance, we saw a huge uptick in propaganda about the gas industry when that became the in-vogue fossil fuel — kids go home and talk about this stuff at the dinner table with their parents. If you’re a parent who’s not thinking about energy sources all day, if you’re just trying to be a person and work and have a kid, it’s entirely possible that some of those ideas would start to work their way into your thinking too. We found that often when there is some sort of campaign in schools, there will be a corresponding ad campaign targeting adults. You might be a 35-year-old mom who’s getting the same messaging on your TV screen or in The New York Times that your kid is getting in school. They’re just created with different tools for different audiences.
One other thing we saw actually is that it’s a really important way for the fossil fuel industry to build a workforce. Right now as public concern about the climate crisis is growing, I think the industry is seeing fewer and fewer young people actually working in this field. So teaching people about how great coal and oil and gas are can make that sound like a really appealing place to end up as an adult.
How do you see the results of this propaganda in education manifesting in the world today?
I think it’s everywhere. Since working on the series, basically every time I see Joe Manchin say anything, I’m like… oh. Those are all of the ideas the oil industry has been pushing into schools for decades. The “all of the above” energy strategy, the focus on preserving the “free market” even though these energy sources are obviously heavily subsidized, a lot of talk about preserving jobs and therefore American identity, while doing nothing really for workers. Again, that doesn’t mean that I know Joe Manchin or anyone else got these ideas in school, but it’s certainly significant that they’re coming in through that pipeline in addition to all of the other sources of propaganda that we see. The ideas, I think, are everywhere.
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