“The Earth is Full” of Denial, and PR Professionals Must Not Create More

In his recent column, The Earth is Full, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes about the threats posed by soaring food and energy prices, record-setting floods and droughts, and other extreme weather disasters that displace real people and threaten diverse communities around the world.

Something occurred to me while I read Friedman’s June 7 piece - a theme among the questions - noting how it is that we refuse to panic even when it is so obvious that we’ve exacerbated these problems by assuming that limits to growth don’t apply to us.  Friedman asks whether we’ll realize this fundamental error in a few years, and wonder what were we thinking? In his words, “How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”  

He refers to Australian author and environmentalist Paul Gilding who says the answer is rooted in denial. When humans are surrounded by problems so big that they require us to change everything about the way we think and see the world, denial is the natural human response, Gilding contends.

So it occurred to me that while denial may be natural, in this case it is also deeply immoral.  Most of us would agree that knowingly harming others is wrong. Yet when we deny the problems of climate change and over-consumption, we not only harm ourselves - we harm those least able to deal with the consequences.

When we consume trees, fish, water and other resources faster than they can be sustainably replenished, it is very often the poor who suffer most from resource scarcity, scarred landscapes and the resulting increase in the prices of basic needs.

Climate science models suggest that as we in developed nations warm the Earth with our cars, ‘cheap’ fossil fuel energy and comfortable lifestyles, it is people who farm marginal lands in the world’s poorest regions who will suffer most from the extreme weather events that leave them with less water where they need it most and more water where they need it least.  A degree or two of warming can completely alter the ability of farmers in certain areas to produce food for local populations.

Climate deniers - and the Darth Vader PR firms who assist their efforts to mislead the public - are essentially taking food out of the mouths of the people who can least afford to cope with global warming. It seems to me that this is deeply immoral, and constitutes a crime against these communities and all of humanity.

In my work as a public relations professional over the past quarter century, I have advised clients from a wide range of business interests to be honest and genuine in their communications. Straying from those tenets of basic morality leads people toward the temptation of denial.

As professional communicators, we need to encourage our clients to act honorably and distance ourselves from communications work that encourages denial.

Good communicators illuminate and inform. But anyone who uses their talents as a communicator to encourage public denial is cheating humanity. If we allow our financial interests to blind us to the unethical nature of dishonest communications,  nobody wins in the long run. Not the client, not the public and not the PR profession.  

Read Eric Friedman's full article "The Earth is Full" - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/opinion/08friedman.html

- Jim Hoggan