The Cognitive Dissonance of Earth Day

Marching for science in the Anthropocene

For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I ask the same question every year: how do we balance our sense of hope and despair? Another Earth Day rolls around and the question has never been more cogent.

Barely three months into Donald Trump’s America decades of policy and progress are now at risk of abandonment. As the world hurtles forward into an unknown future, the fractures within our society seem to grow wider; our self-absorption deeper our disconnect with the natural world more profound.

The ascension of Donald Trump to power and the appalling process that put him there seems to exemplify all of this. Trump, I argue, represents no cause; only effect.

As tens of thousands take to the streets to “March for Science” this Earth Day, the reality of what Donald Trump represents awakens within many a feeling of “resistance” in a world of increasing distrust and narcissism.

This is a good thing, but the anger and resentment we place at the feet of Trump change nothing unless we come to grips with our own disconnect; our own cognitive dissonance.

At war with ourselves

It may seem strange for someone spending so much of their time, energy, and resources advocating for environmental causes, but I am ambivalent toward Earth Day.

Like a tiresome preacher on Easter Sunday, it is too easy for me to look at the throngs of Earth Day supporters and wonder where they’ve been all this time; where they’ll be tomorrow.

Perhaps this a valid point, but it belies my own culpability. My own profound disconnect.

Do my efforts really make any difference or am I just assuaging my own guilt? To what extent am I responsible for the world into which I was born?

I write my articles on a computer made up of plastics, rare earth elements, toxic materials. A mysterious stew of components destined for an “away” that does not exist.

I often engage in my advocacy by traveling halfway around the world. Whether flying thousands of miles or driving hundreds, it doesn’t happen without adding to the destruction of which I claim advocacy.

I am a hypocrite.

I wouldn’t last a week without a lifestyle made possible by a global supply chain in an industrialized, fossil-fuel driven economy. Few of us would.

And yet we continue to play fast and loose with the resource base that makes it all possible.

Many days I would prefer to ignore the dark secret that it cannot go on forever. What choice do I have?

We start from where we are, a place of cognitive dissonance. One way or another, we are all hypocrites.

We all live with our own contradictions and conflict. Nothing will ever completely make sense. Accept it and move on.

By choosing our narrative we define our values.

The choice we all need to make is: “what kind of hypocrite will I be?”

Living with choices

There is still a debate about “Anthropocene” as a measure of geologic time, but surely “anthropocene” isn’t. We control our environment and there are a lot more of us.

Some dismiss it as modern-day Malthusianism. I believe we have ridden the industrial revolution to glorious heights, but at catastrophic cost for all.

I’m not getting any younger. Choices need to be made. I try to look at the world I inhabit through a lens of gratitude, consistently falling short.

That I have the luxury of time to devote to “a cause” makes it my responsibility to own it. For now, it works. I try to make it better. It’s what I can do.

Ripples of hope

I do, admittedly, often trot out these words from RFK’s historic South Africa speech. Nor am I the only one.

For me – for us –  it embodies among the most eloquent expressions of humanity, human agency, and change. It is the narrative I choose and therein lay my act of faith.

It’s my way of saying Happy Earth Day.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Thanks to all the people I’ve met, talked to, and worked with the past year. It is your work, insight, and expertise that informs any value in my efforts.

The gang at TriplePundit

Richard Matthews

Kurt Johnson:  Social System Physics

Natasha Zellerbach:  Zellerbach Associates

Andrew Burger

Mai Amit

Adrian Wain: Circular Economy, UL  EHS

Lynelle Cameron: VP of Sustainability, Autodesk. CEO, Autodesk Foundation

Sherry Flumerfelt: executive director, Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust

Jim Brainard: Mayor, Carmel, Indiana

Cyril Dion: filmmaker, Tomorrow

Anthony Barnoski: biologist and executive director, Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve

Noah Kaufman – World Resources Institute

Johnson Bridgewater, president, Oklahoma chapter, Sierra Club

Ondra Berry


Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity
– Horace Mann

I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.
-Edward Everett Hale

The Future of Sustainable Development : A Citizen Journalism Project

Beacon is a crowdfunding platform for journalists. For more than two years Beacon has supported hundreds of worthwhile projects, adding a perspective to journalism free from the internet echo-chamber or vagaries of the advertising business model (here’s one we recommend and support).

We’ve just launched our own campaign on Beacon to help fund a series of articles and interviews exploring the future of sustainable development. The capstone of this series is one-on-one discussions with global leaders in government, business and academia at the GRI Global Conference in Amsterdam this May.

We’ll look at the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN last year as well as the Paris Agreement signed at COP21. We want to examine how these frameworks create a platform for progress, not only as aspirational goals but by defining steps for real action on the ground.

The revelations last week from release of the Panama Papers is clear evidence of how a lack of transparency leads to increased economic and social disparity.  It’s no surprise that the among the world’s most wealthy and powerful people, including top business and government leaders, use whatever means at their disposal to protect their wealth from the vagaries of economic, social and policy constraints.

On the other hand it is a stark reminder of the need to redouble our efforts to align our values with our functioning global economy if there is any hope of achieving the aims of our higher aspirations. 

The importance and nature of the “socially conscious enterprise” is changing rapidly and along with it sustainability reporting. Information exchange is opening up opportunities for sustainable investment and increasing corporate and government transparency.

Is all this just pie-in-the-sky rhetoric to greenwash us into believing such a change is possible? Can we possibly “consume” our way out of the challenges we face? Is the “Triple Bottom Line” (people, planet, profit) an effective business strategy? 

Help us find out!

From my previous conversations over the years with business leaders, scientists, engineers, NGOs and policy wonks, one thing is for sure: business-as-usual is fast becoming untenable. But as we acknowledge this urgent need for change, we need to define a clear and sustainable path forward. 

Help my colleagues Andrew Burger, Richard Matthews and I explore the changing business and public policy landscape in an ever more crowded, resource-constrained world. 

Support citizen journalism!

Contribute to Making Sustainable Development a Reality today!

Exxon’s Crimes Against Humanity

It is now public knowledge that Exxon has known for decades that their core business is directly responsible for climate change. Even more damning is the fact that they covered up this knowledge. To make matters even worse, they actively participated and funded a sophisticated campaign to fuel climate denial and delay climate action as long as they could.

As reviewed by InsideClimate News, an 8 month multi-part investigative exposé, Exxon’s own research proves that they were aware of climate change and the salient role played by fossil fuels all the way back in the 1970s.

What Exxon knew and when they knew it

In 1977, Exxon’s own scientist James Black said that there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, Black told the company’s Management Committee that CO2 generated by fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

A year later, he offered an updated version of the same warning to Exxon scientists and managers. As reported by InsideClimate, his message explicitly stated:

“[A] doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.”

Black even mentioned the implications for food scarcity, warning that in some places “agricultural output [would be] reduced or destroyed,” Exxon’s research included climate modeling of the greenhouse effect and a tanker that traveled the world to measure carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. The tanker project ran from 1979 to 1982.

Other scientists began to publish their own research linking fossil fuels and global warming. As the public began waking up, in 1988 Exxon ended its CO2 research and unleashed one of the most pernicious and destructive misinformation campaigns ever perpetrated on humanity. Their goal was simple, manufacture an element of doubt into the science of climate change so that they could buy time and bring as much of their climate destroying petrochemicals to market as they possibly could.

As Exxon engaged this diabolical campaign, they knew from Black’s warnings that they had five or ten years to make “hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies” before the situation became “critical.” ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that the company’s scientists knew that the “risk of climate change is real and warrants action.”

In 1978, Harold N. Weinberg, one of the managers at Exxon Research, wrote an internal company memorandum that read: “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefiting mankind.”

As revealed by a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office, Exxon’s management was well aware of the dangers from fossil fuel emissions. The report was marked “not to be distributed externally,” but it was “given wide circulation to Exxon management.” The report clearly indicated that reducing the impacts of global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” They further knew that failure to do so would result in, “some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer said, citing independent experts. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

Roger Cohen, head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories, wrote our “ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature…Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”

Willful deception

While they published some of this research in the early 80’s, they soon made a strategic decision to end their greenhouse gas research and pursue a deliberate and willful campaign to sabotage the public’s trust for the science associated with climate change.

In 1982, Exxon knew that fossil fuels would be replaced by renewable sources of energy. As Edward E. David, the president of Exxon Research and Engineering, said: “few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation.” Corporate executives did not share this information with the general public or Exxon’s shareholders. They knew that synthetic oil made from coal, tar sands and shale could significantly boost CO2 emissions, but they did nothing to stop or slow production.

Rather than heed these warnings, Exxon began investing millions in misinformation and they lobbied to block government action to reduce fossil fuel related emissions. Exxon was a founding member of the alliance of large corporations that formed the Global Climate Coalition, to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions.

In 1988, after James Hansen warned Congress that climate change had already begun, Exxon deployed a deceitful counter-narrative to muddy the waters of climate science. As reported by Motherboard, Exxon poured “at least $16 million dollars into lobbying and advertising campaigns to cast doubt on the scientific evidence about climate change. Exxon brazenly declared that “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.”

Pseudo science and payoffs

Exxon influences the political discourse on climate change

To execute their devilish plan, Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute and pseudo-scientific research from think tanks. As reviewed by Triple Pundit, Exxon has funded climate denial lobbying groups like the Heartland Institute. Exxon gave the institute $765,500 over an eight-year period.

Exxon continues to take advantage of its deep pockets to provide “contributions” to politicians in a bid to buy their cooperation. Exxon funds members of Congress, like Jim Inhofe, who deny climate change. They also use their control over legislators to kill legislation like the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey Bill). Exxon’s influence extends to the most powerful office in the world. According to the Hill, in 2001, Exxon Mobil lobbyists helped convince President George W. Bush to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol.

In addition to paying off politicians and funding a number of front groups, Exxon also does their own lobbying. Exxon paid researchers to publish papers questioning established climate science. One such researcher is Wei-Hock Soon, he has received extensive funding from fossil fuel companies including Exxon Mobil. Exxon also supports ALEC, a free-enterprise group that has opposed government mandates, subsidies and other efforts to force or encourage companies to develop and use more renewable energy sources.

Exxon scientists like Cohen and David who had been pioneers of climate research began to publish views that cast doubt on the veracity of mainstream climate science. This prompted the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s science academy, to send a harsh letter to Exxon in 2006 accusing it of being “inaccurate and misleading” on the question of climate uncertainty. Bob Ward, the Academy’s senior manager for policy communication, demanded that Exxon stop giving money to dozens of organizations he said were actively distorting the science.

Through deliberately misleading campaigns like the so called “climategate” scandal, deniers sought to discredit the scientists who contributed to climate research. Michael E. Mann, Director of Penn State Earth System Science Center; author of ‘Dire Predictions’ and ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’ was one of the scientists that Exxon’s disinformation illegitimately sought to discredit. Exxon is also trying to discredit the journalists who exposed the company’s systematic obfuscation.

A November 2015 New York Times article indicated that New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman was exploring the grounds for legal action against Exxon. Schneiderman issued a subpoena to Exxon that demands financial records, emails and other documents. A New York statute known as the Martin Act may make it easier to secure a conviction than under financial regulations.

Set back all of humanity

Others are also calling for legal action including Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp and 49 leaders from environmental, indigenous and civil rights groups signed a public letter asking US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a probe into Exxon. They specifically want Lynch to determine whether Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change as it funded efforts at climate denial and systematically misled the public. Sharon Eubanks, a former Department of Justice prosecutor who helped win racketeering convictions against tobacco industry execs in 2006 is also among those calling for a criminal investigation. She specifically suggested that Exxon should be investigated under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) action.

In a Guardian article, Bill McKibben succinctly explained Exxon’s historic misdeeds describing them as, “treachery” and “unparalleled evil.” He went on to say, “No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad…”this company had the singular capacity to change the course of world history for the better and instead it changed that course for the infinitely worse. In its greed Exxon helped more than any other institution to kill our planet.”

As explained by the Hill, “a single company may have set back all of humanity.”

Exxon’s malfeasance has succeeded in slowing climate action and this will have calamitous repercussions. There is a parallel between Exxon’s subterfuge and the tobacco industry’s criminal culpability for their failure to disclose its own research about the serious health dangers associated with smoking. However, there is a powerful difference, unlike big tobacco’s lies, Exxon’s deceit imperils all life on the planet.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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Photo by Steve Snodgrass