Fake Grassroots Campaigns Deserve Uprooting
AstroTurf looks and feels like grass—in an all-too-perfect way. But it's not grass.
Now the well-known artificial turf's brand name has taken on a new meaning, referring to purported "grassroots" efforts that are actually funded and supported by industry and political entities.
Some people, organizations and campaigns around everything from forestry to fossil fuels look and feel "grassroots," but many are anything but. In discussions around climate change and fossil fuels, for example, we see groups like Canada Action (and its spin-offs, Oil Sands Action and Pipeline Action), Ethical Oil, Resource Works, the International Climate Science Coalition, Friends of Science and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, among others.
It's one tactic in the industry playbook. In a recent column, we discussed science denial campaigns related to climate change and caribou habitat protection. Astroturf campaigns are designed not just to deny evidence and discredit opponents but also to imply broad public support for products or practices.
Many of the organizations are secretive about their funding and alliances, even as they attack social justice and environmental organizations over "foreign funding" and collaboration with international groups.
Astroturf campaigns aren't new, but they're becoming increasingly widespread and effective as social media and the Internet play a greater role in shaping public opinion.
In British Columbia, they go back at least as far as the 1980s and '90s, during the "War in the Woods" over logging in Clayoquot Sound. To counter massive protests, the Citizens Coalition for Sustainable Development, also known as Share B.C., was launched with support from and ties to the forestry industry, later spawning a number of "Share" offshoots.
The tactic gained notoriety in the U.S. after the Environmental Protection Agency released a 1992 report about the health impacts of tobacco smoke on non-smokers. In response, the world's biggest tobacco company, Philip Morris, launched a campaign "to prevent states and cities, as well as businesses, from passive-smoking bans."
The company hired PR firm APCO, which warned that industry spokespeople are not always seen as credible messengers and that a "national grassroots coalition" would carry more weight. APCO then established the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition to challenge the scientific consensus about tobacco smoke harms.
In his book Heat, UK writer George Monbiot quotes a memo from tobacco company Brown and Williamson: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."
The coalition, with additional funding from Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, went on to sow doubt about climate science. Its name illustrates another tactic: using labels and branding to convince the public they're evidence-based or to blur distinctions between them and legitimate entities. In Canada, the International Climate Science Coalition and Friends of Science (both of which Tom Harris has been or is involved with), are anything but friendly to science.
A report sponsored by the U.S. Heartland Institute and promoted by Harris's ICSC was published under the banner of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a name aimed at creating confusion between it and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In 1998, a group called the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine sponsored the Oregon Petition, which urged the U.S. government to reject climate change measures. It used the same font and format as the legitimate Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, prompting that organization to issue a statement distancing itself from the bogus group.
As the Internet and social media become greater forces in society, astroturf groups and campaigns are growing, especially around global warming. Armies of trolls and credible-sounding organizations spread similar messaging on a range of topics. In keeping the forestry industry's caribou science denial tactics, we can expect to see it using PR firms and ostensibly third party voices to make its case.
Although it would be difficult or impossible to end astroturfing, people can learn how to spot phony "grassroots" organizations and campaigns. SourceWatch and DeSmogBlog provide thoroughly researched information on a range of groups and individuals involved in these campaigns.
For the sake of public discourse and progress on important social, health and environmental issues, it's up to all of us to critically assess all information sources.
Monsanto Hires Internet Trolls to Cover Up Roundup’s Cancer Risk https://t.co/OLfCAhXs3n @bpncamp @pesticideaction— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1494625516.0
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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