When two or more employees get together and organize for better conditions, it’s considered a threat. Thirty years of mantrically repeated conservative economic ideology has made “union” a dirty, dangerous word. The percentage of U.S. workers in unions is barely half what it was at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, since that president began the modern assault on labor. Unions are now regularly blamed for the recession in conservative media—not bankers, job-off-shorers or their lapdog politicians.
Organized capital, however, is doing about as well as it ever has. Whole consortia of corporations can organize into unions to determine market conditions, push for lower tax rates (for them, not you), lessen environmental regulations and increase capacities to squeeze more value out of workers. Much of that effort is conducted in the halls of Congress and state legislatures, where armies of lobbyists trade favors with our elected representatives.
But as important as that largely invisible influence-peddling is the outward-facing project of manipulating public opinion. The perfect crime, these corporations have discovered, is when the victim is convinced that the theft is a legitimate, even desirable outcome. What if the victim begs to be rolled?
Bankrolled by the biggest oil corporations in the world, the American Petroleum Institute has been running a half-century-plus con job. The API member list includes nearly every entity making money on the sale of oil and its derivatives. It’s a bit like if the biggest meth labs formed a trade group. We know that oil is toxic, dangerous to obtain, and its use is guaranteed eventually to destroy everything around us. The pushers must distract us from these unpleasant realities. And not only that, but they must encourage us to be willingly complicit in the destructive behavior. Like a pusher. This is the API.
Back in the early 1960s, API duped patriotic Americans into buying absurd amounts of gasoline along the API-charted “Lincoln Heritage Trail,” a serpentine, 2,200-mile hot mess described by Lincoln scholar R. Gerald McMurtry as “a meandering route that goes or ends no place in particular.” The API’s goal back then was to get Americans used to driving all the time, and it worked. Then came modern climate science and the discovery of the effects of atmospheric carbon, and the API backed off its message encouraging Americans to drive around in senseless circles, and took another tack. A leaked API memo from 1998 exposed a vast and expensive campaign by the group to promote the “uncertainties” of climate science to citizens. Climate change skepticism in recent years points to the success of the oil companies’ campaigns.
But as climate scientists further solidify their findings, the API has in recent years pursued a new, apparently desperate angle: oil might kill us all, but it's completely indispensable. Complete with free lesson plans, games, comics and videos, the API-funded "Classroom Energy!" project reaches into schools to convince children that they can’t possibly live without oil: that the oil corporations’ power is necessary. It’s a threat, in a way. Available for classrooms is “Fuel-less” (modeled after the 1995 film Clueless—get it?), a “funny and informative 16-minute video” about a “young, pampered” teen from whose life all petroleum-derived things suddenly vanish, prompting the epiphany: “You're not going to believe this, but everything I have that's really cool comes from oil!”
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I can only imagine that at the end, all our hip protagonist’s plastic shit reappears, along with her “cool” cancerous growth. I also hear that in the director’s cut, a million or so Iraqis come back to life during the "oil doesn't exist" scenes.
API’s ubiquitous "Energy Tomorrow" media campaign tries the same tack with adults, just replacing “cool stuff” with "jobs and security." As humanity is endeavoring to imagine a post-fossil fuel future, the API is there with a hopeless, nihilistic message: not only must we knowingly participate in the precipitous destruction of our livable environment, but that death march can only proceed with more and more wealth being collected by those leading us on our way.