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Caveat Lector

July 2024
2min read

Inevitably, but with unseemly haste, the advertising avant-garde has infiltrated the conservation crusade. Madison Avenue, the Maginot Line of the industrial establishment, is now artfully camouflaged in the current mode to resemble an innocent outpost of the Audubon Society; and many of its corporate clients are coming on like long-lost cousins of Henry David Thoreau.

The new recruits have come up with some ingeniously beguiling campaigns. If we are to believe recent ads, oil refineries are bird sanctuaries in disguise, highways are adornments to hillsides, and an endless army of saplings in military formation is a facsimile forest.

Typical of the propaganda offensive (and the offensive propaganda) is an ad from Potlatch Forests, Inc., that ran earlier this year in such magazines as Fortune, Time , and Natural History , ecumenically proselytizing the true believers along with the heathen. The ad (reproduced at right) is baited with a supercolor vision of nature primeval in Idaho: wild water, blue-clean, frenzied white over the shoals, running free between forested banks. The chest-thumping headline—“It cost us a bundle but the Clearwater River still runs clear”—and the self-congratulatory text—“Potlatch people, more than most, have demonstrated total commitment to pollution control. …”—unequivocally imply that this paradise is ours compliments of the Potlatch folks; that the alluring photograph shows the condition of the Clearwater after Potlatch Forests, Inc., gets through using it. No such luck.

In fact, to find Potlatch’s riverside paper plant you must follow your nose through this sweet air half a hundred miles or more downstream from the scene of their photograph, almost to Lewiston, Idaho, at the confluence of the Clearwater and the Snake, where the breeze wafts a different perfume.

According to local reports, and despite Potlatch’s efforts to control its wastes, a 1963 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare report is still true: “A rotten cabbage odor prevails in the Snake River below Potlatch Forests, Inc. waste discharge point.” While the air gets its odor from Potlatch’s smokestacks, the water gets its pollution from Potlatch’s submerged sewer, which daily adds millions of gallons of dilute alkaline waste to the river’s ecosystem. The aesthetic effects of Potlatch’s effluent are evident; any effect on the health of the local citizenry —bass, steelhead trout, and chinook salmon, as well as people—is a longneglected mystery.

Boasting of its conservation efforts .on the Clearwater, Potlatch claims, “The same continuing effort goes on at all our operations against all pollution. Our commitment is clear.”

Not to be outdone in ecological orthodoxy by a competitor, the International Paper Company chimed in soon after Potlatch with an ad of its own, trumpeting “A $101 Million, Four-year Plan to Combat Pollution.” In the form of an unctuous letter from International’s president, Edward B. Hinman, the ad claimed that the vaguely specified plan puts International “in the forefront of those taking positive, constructive measures to solve the problem of environmental quality. …”

In the face of a $101,000,000 pledge toward redeeming an industry so steeped in pollution, it might seem punctilious to quibble: to insist on public confession of past sins, for which $101,000,000 (half of which would have gone in taxes anyway) is easy penance; or to suggest that International’s plan springs not from any generous impulse toward responsible public service, but from the insistent goading of emergent law and public opinion in defense of the environment.

Such cynical notions would hardly prevail against International’s hardcash commitment were it not for another almost simultaneous ad from the same company. Titled “The Story of the Disposable Environment,” this ad envisioned an imminent Utopia made of throwaway paper: paper diapers, paper sheets, paper pillowcases, paper furniture—paper everything, “an entire paper world.” This, smugged International, is “the kind of fresh thinking we bring to every problem. Nice to know it’s at your disposal, isn’t it?” Obviously, if the “fresh thinking” in this ad is any ingredient of the “positive, constructive measures” in the other, then the International Paper Company is schizophrenic, proposing to be at once part of the problem and part of the solution. To a world smothering in paper, at a tremendous cost to the environment in its initial manufacture and eventual disposal, and to the human spirit in between, International offers—more paper, a nightmare of paper. (“You’ll throw it away,” says the ad.) You don’t have to be in the “forefront” of the conservation movement to know what many nursery-schoolers know, that we suffer a surfeit of paper: of boxes and bags, of paper towels and paper napkins and paper handkerchiefs, paper milk containers and paper plates; of memos and Xerox copies and press releases and posters—and, more than anything, of advertisements like these.

Let the reader beware.

—Anthony Wolff



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