Long-termism for the planet…

….and the contrast with UK Government and Corporate Behaviour

By Sally Campbell

When I read the daily updates on the world, I get depressed and especially now with the advocates in the UK of a free market, massive oil, and gas expansion, to include fracking; the Government is threatening a bonfire of important environmental regulation; huge profits for the few and huge debts for the many. All for more short-term economic expansion under the misused label of growth at any cost. To get re-elected in 2 years. To quote from Amory Lovins;

“The markets make a good servant but a bad master, and a worse religion”.

And a free market even worse when politicians, companies and CEOs only think of short- term company profits, and shareholders, not the communities, environment and the future of our life on this planet. That is composed of people, environment, ecosystems, and climate.

William MacAskill (2022) makes the case for long termism. “Humanity is in its infancy, and our future could last for millions of years or could end tomorrow. We approach a critical juncture in our history: we can make profound moral decisions about how humanity’s course plays out and create positive change for future generations. We can improve our moral values, navigate Artificial Intelligence and climate change more fairly for generations to come. The challenges we face are enormous, but so is the influence we have. If we choose wisely, our distant descendants will look back on us fondly, knowing we did everything we could to give them a world that is beautiful and just.” MacAskill, a moral philosopher, born and raised in Glasgow, makes the case for decarbonisation. Although this is not the main focus of his argument. Instead, he uses the climate crisis as a proof of long-termism, “We all contribute to a problem today, that literally has effects for hundreds of thousands of years”. We need to ask ourselves what have we contributed today, in the last month, last year that will affect those generations centuries ahead?


Geological Timeline circle. Published jointly by British Geological Society and the National Museum of Wales.


It seems as if most of us do live in the moment. We have been infused with short-termism. An entitlement culture to do as we please, now: Encouragement to consumerism on a massive scale. What do we do today that may affect the long- term future of generations yet to be born? Perhaps a sceptical outlook when we are fed the PR about our lifestyles, our food, our holidays and local economic development. Permission to spend and make money, be consumers, fly in planes, go on cruises, all proved by someone, somewhere, that we are not harming the future of generations yet to come, or our planet.

Jennifer Jacquet (2022) in The Playbook. How to deny Science, tell Lies and make a killing in the Corporate World – takes us for a ride through the corporate ways to literally “pull the wool over our eyes” about their products. We all know now about tobacco’s risk to our health, but it took 40 years to make the public aware. When evidence emerged that smoking was linked to lung cancer, tobacco companies formulated a clear strategy. By investing in doubt and even denial, as Jacquet puts it, “they delivered delay”. They suggested that the case was not yet watertight, that factors other than smoking were involved or that we needed more research, put off the day when governments insisted on warning labels, consumers changed their buying habits and companies faced legal challenges. In the same way, eye-wateringly expensive efforts to deny – or cast severe doubt on – the clear conclusions of climate science have delivered huge “payoffs” for interested parties such as oil companies, including what the book describes as “effectively zero legally binding international policy”. But we have all colluded in this. Climate science was warning us; these shifts may be natural, but since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels (like coal, oil and gas), which produces heat-trapping gases.

Jacquet has found a brilliantly effective way of revealing just how extensive and systematic such corporate strategies are – by creating a Machiavellian, secret guide for executives worried about what the latest science might mean for their business.

In many ways we have seen problems in Scotland that mirror her chapter headings. For years communities and organisations up the west coast have challenged the salmon farming industry over their siting of farms, waste pollution (faeces, waste food, chemical) directly into inshore waters, disease of fish, massive reductions in wild salmon and trout fisheries, and their long carbon footprints bringing fish to world markets by air; also the sustainability of its feed source, for example using krill from Antarctica, and then certifications to convince us, the consumer, all is well, such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Organic, RSPCA Assured and the latest Aquaculture Stewardship Council ASC. All tick box certifications which do not look at cumulative damage to ecosystems because they are tick box on a single salmon farm.

The stages are well illustrated in The Play Book:
1. Denial: A Fiduciary Duty: Use Focus on short term, use a group of opposition to any evidence.
2. The Arsenal Use: Expert opposition, to include Trade Associations, Law firms, Consumer groups etc. Even government collusion.
3. Recruiting University Experts. Claim independence. The food industry excellent at this strategy to prove obesity not due to their food. University departments receiving government research money.
4. Strategic Communication: By every means through communication products. Supporting /funding everything from community buses to shinty clubs.
5. Challenge the Problem: There is no problem, and if there is then not our fault. Due to others etc.
6. Challenge Causation: Deny evidence, bad mouth opposition, problem caused by other influences.
7. Challenge the Messenger: Legal intimidation, claims of bias, all the fault of those NIMBYs
8. Challenge the Policy: More policy research required, policy hurts the poor, any excuse.
9. Outside Opportunities: problem the result of nature, social change happens slowly,
10. Near Term Threats: University disclosure policies, lawsuits, student activism, community rebellion.

We can place climate change denial, reality due to fossil fuels, smoking harms health, into all of these stages, which has delayed real positive action to change. The fossil fuel industries have devoted billions of dollars into denial and we collude in much of this. At present certification of Offsetting is the next big area of organised “deceit” as business attempts to change as little as possible except to buy offsetting of their carbon emissions to reach the Net Zero target. That is about Number 4 on the chart.

I have written previously on Greenwashing (Greenwashing is all the Rage Voice for Arran October 2021) and Offsetting (Carbon offsetting and the Loss of Scottish Land Voice for Arran July 2022). Any industry with high energy costs in production, haulage distances, are now all waving the “Offsetting” claim; Real Zero might be a better option. Environmental NGOs need to be careful that they are not seduced into colluding with big business by receiving funding to plant trees or grow kelp, restoring inshore seagrass beds of having re-wilding projects.

A recent survey in 2020 by The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer which surveyed 34,000 people across 28 different markets on their trust in business, government, NGOs and media, reported that business is seen as competent but unethical and 75% worry about fake news being used as a weapon. More than half of the people surveyed agreed with the statement “Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world”. The UK expressed the lowest trust ever in all aspects of life, and as a country, only Russia expressed more distrust. Interestingly 58% of US adults trusted scientific research findings less if financed by industry and trusted government research twice as much as research funded by industry. “Playbook” lays bare the techniques of manipulation and disinformation now so prevalent across industries, food companies, and politics. Is it any wonder many people feel so disillusioned in the present world of precarious employment, fear of the future and the lack of strategic vision for a better, cleaner environment? Only we can make things change so we need to get going!

Jacquet, J. (2022) The Playbook. How to deny Science, Sell Lies, And Make a Killing in The Corporate World. Penguin Random House
MacAskill, W. (2022) What we owe the Future. A Million Year View. One World Publications

Sally Campbell
October 2022

Featured image credit seasideradio.co.uk