Chevron, Environmentalists, Hoaxes, and the Ethics of Dialogue

Chevron, the oil giant, rolled out a new ad campaign this week. It announced that Chevron agrees with critics and environmentally concerned Americans that it has critical responsibilities, such as reinvesting profits into socially responsible projects, seeking renewable energy sources, and taking extra steps to protect the environment. “We hear what people say about oil companies – that they should develop renewables, support communities, create jobs and protect the environment – and the fact is, we agree,” says Rhonda Zygocki, Chevron’s vice president of Policy, Government and Public Affairs, in the company’s press release. “This campaign demonstrates our values as a company and the greater value we provide in meeting the world’s demand for energy.  There is a lot of common ground on energy issues if we take the time to find it.”

The themes of the new campaign—shared concerns, collaboration, accountability and responsibility, not defensiveness, spin or contention—are ethical and laudable. Of course, they are just words so far: as Chris McDonald points out, the last oil company to trumpet its social consciousness and environmental commitment was BP. McDonald also correctly notes that the Chevron announcement can serve as a positive and responsible beginning:

“But what’s interesting here, philosophically, is the attempt to point to the underlying agreement on values. And (this campaign aside) I do think it’s important for people on different sides of any given debate to understand just how much they probably do agree on, at the level of basic values. Now, if we could just agree on how those shared values ought to be implemented, we would really be getting somewhere.”

Unless it turns out to be a sham for gullible consumers, the Chevron effort cannot be a bad thing, for finding common ground is a crucial first step in settling any dispute. Nobody should be doing back-flips of joy just yet, but Chevron’s sentiments should not be greeted with a poke in the eye with a sharp stick either.

That, however, is what a coalition of environmentalist groups chose to do, when they launched a credible fake website that anticipated the new campaign and included ads designed to make Chevron look hypocritical, dishonest, and like a mega-corporation run by Mister Potter of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It also sent out a credible fake press release, using the names of actual Chevron executives and attaching them to quotes that are designed to read like confessions of past wrongdoing or to signal present disingenuousness. Zygocki, for instance, is quoted as saying, “Chevron is making a clean break from the past by taking direct responsibility for our own actions.” The New York Times called the counter-campaign a spoof and a lampoon, which suggests that there is some humor in the effort. There isn’t. The hoax is only funny if you think it is funny to fool journalists, bloggers and the public, which the fake material did, and enjoy seeing Chevron ridiculed for an announcement it didn’t make. This is the kind of “humor” enjoyed by vandals, hackers, creators of computer viruses and scam artists.

There is every reason to be skeptical of proclamations of good will by big corporations, for we have been betrayed before. Nonetheless, the approach adopted by these environmentalist and others is mindlessly combative and destructively unfair, as well as dishonest. What sense does it make to single out for ridicule the one oil company that is, or seems to be, extending an olive branch to its critics? Here is an invitation to engage in dialogue and collaboration, and the response is to denigrate Chevron as a company of villains and liars. This is the current fashion in public discourse over policy matters, and all one has to do is to observe Congress and the economy to realize that it doesn’t work. Incivility, unfairness, dishonesty and disrespect never work, in the long run; that is why we know they are unethical.

Chevron’s new campaign represents a public commitment to ethical values; the fake campaign used to mock it represents unethical tactics, arrogance and hostility. In dueling public relations campaigns, the oil giant looks more trustworthy than the self-righteous protectors of the Earth. That’s quite an accomplishment…for both of them.

2 thoughts on “Chevron, Environmentalists, Hoaxes, and the Ethics of Dialogue

  1. Jack, the environmentalists do that sort of thing because they know—not just think, but know—that they have nothing in common with Chevron (or any oil company). They don’t like what Chevron does, period. I was a many-years member of the Sierra Club and got to know many true believers in my time there, and in other groups as well. What many environmentalists say in public is not what they say when they’ve got a friendly audience.
    Some of it is the Al Gore Syndrome. There are a great many professional environmentalists: They not only make a pretty good living at what they do, but get their egos assuaged almost daily. Likewise, they think most of us are going to have to do with less—less fossil fuels, less electricity, less population, etc.—but not all of us. Our betters will need those things, after all, in order to do all the important work they do.
    Some of it is a deep and profound mistrust, or outright hostility to, capitalist enterprises. (Oops, just contradicted myself, they do have something in common: judging by their relationships with governments, oil companies don’t trust capitalism either.)
    The rest is a deep utopian impulse. A belief that nature can easily and willingly provide everything we need.
    The preceding simplifies things a little, but not by too much. Space, however, is limited here.

  2. Jack:

    Not surprisingly, I guess, I agree. I think the spoof campaign was pretty shallow. And entirely in keeping with previous work by the same gang. Cute, but not anything that is likely to promote actual solutions to problems that are actually hard problems.


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