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Coin in the fuse box

It used to be that frustrated homeowners who were sick of frequently blown fuses would sometimes play tricks on their electrical system by shoving a coin into the socket where a fuse goes. Of course, pennies were actually made of copper back then; they conducted electricity just fine while not melting the way that pesky and fragile fuses were designed to.

By doing this coin trick these homeowners were, of course, obliterating a very important feedback mechanism that protected their houses. Feedback systems are found virtually everywhere in modern society and are designed to warn about dangers, help us steer a safer course, and to tell us when to call for help. The weather forecasting system is an obvious example. We can adjust our day or travel plans for safety reasons. The addition of a strong, foul-smelling substance to natural gas which would otherwise be colorless and odorless is another example. The odor allows us to detect a gas leak with nothing more than our noses. The feedback system of every personal computer tells us whether what we are doing is working or whether we have done something in error.

On a larger social scale the media provides a mechanism for people in open societies to judge the policies and practices of governments, corporations, nonprofits and other groups. But it is in the media especially that some special interest groups have succeeded at subverting this important feedback mechanism by putting a coin in the fuse box so to speak.

Perhaps the most famous of all subverters are the tobacco companies which withheld reports on the dangers of smoking and which planted false information in the media to confuse people about the link between smoking and illness. So effective was this campaign that it took decades before the tobacco companies were made to stop lying. In the end, they were even made to pay for some of the damage they caused to smokers as well as some of the expenses they foisted on government which had to pay for the medical treatment of many with smoking-related illnesses.

On the issue of global warming large sums have passed from fossil fuel giants such as Peabody Energy and ExxonMobil into the coffers of groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute which runs the so-called Cooler Heads Project, The National Center for Public Policy Research, the Greening Earth Society and the American Enterprise Institute. The purpose has been to finance a public relations campaign designed to make the public think that there is genuine scientific controversy about global warming.

A similar, but to date more feeble, coin-in-the-fuse-box campaign has begun with regard to world peak oil production. Cambridge Energy Research Associates which has many wealthy patrons in the oil business has launched a few broadsides against the peak oil movement including this recent, but rather weakly argued piece. Part of the reason for the lackluster campaign is the continuing low profile of the peak oil issue. Since peak oil is not yet much in the public mind, there is little need for the oil companies to spend much money or time rebutting it.

In addition, the fossil fuel industry is not unanimous in its views. Most notably Chevron with its Will you join us? campaign has broken with the oil industry to discuss the problem of future oil supplies. And, the coal companies are absolutely giddy about the prospect of taking a larger and larger share of the energy pie.

All of this means that policy makers and the public are not getting the feedback they need in order to make informed judgements about such issues as peak oil and global warming (though the global warming issue finally appears to be close to steamrolling the deniers because the scientific evidence is so ironclad.) The deniers' agenda isn't so much to convince people that their own views are correct; rather, they seek to confuse the public into inaction in the same way that a coin in the fuse box confuses an electrical system into continuing to run higher than advisable amperages.

The trouble is people who put coins in the fuse box tend to get a rather nasty side effect: Their houses eventually burn down. By subverting the feedback we need concerning global warming, peak oil and a host of other environmental problems, those engaged in this public relations game of confusion risk letting the equivalent of a house fire occur in the biosphere. But, unlike a burning house from which one can conceivably escape, there will be no escape from the biosphere if it becomes uninhabitable--not even for the clever people at public relations firms and think tanks who stalled any action until it was too late to prevent the worst.

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