5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda

You know how political ads are supposed to end by saying who paid for them? Some would say there's no need for that. A message is a message, and if it convinces you, it isn't any less true just because it's endorsed by Tramp Stamps For Refugees. But sometimes, finding out exactly who's been pushing messages in your face tells you everything you need to know ... 

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5
Plastic Recycling Is A Big Fraud Designed To Sell More Plastic


When you drop plastic in a dedicated recycling bin, it's probably never going to be recycled. The recycling center that receives all that plastic is probably instead going to pile it on a ship and try selling to some foreign country, where poor scavengers will loot what they can from it, while the rest of it will be burned, buried, or dumped in the sea. If no other country will take it (China has stopped accepting plastic), it will be burned, buried, or dumped domestically. And the industries that have been urging you to recycle your plastics always knew this.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a petroleum processing plant
Adbar/Wiki Commons
Wait, you mean to say Exxon, Chevron, Dow, and DuPont AREN'T the good guys?!
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The problem: plastic is very different from, say, aluminum. With metals, you can melt them down into atom soup then mold that pure stuff back into anything you like. But plastic has long chains of complex manmade molecules, and when you try melting it, you're probably going to degrade it. And if you haven't totally sorted plastics before melting, you're going to mix the wrong kind of molecule chains and make a horrible Frankenstein brew no one wants. 

The other issue: It's really cheap to make plastic from oil, and we have just so much oil. We have so much oil that we can burn billions of gallons every day, and we're only stopping that when it turns out we can get energy other ways even cheaper -- rather than when, as apocalyptic stories used to predict, we run out of oil and have to switch to a slaver-raider economy. Expecting a factory to turn a truckload of household plastic into usable stuff is like expecting your waiter to wash dishes by distilling water from your leftover gravy when he can just turn on the tap.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a bin of plastic waste
Mmich/Wiki Commons
"We're not going to waste time and reuse stuff and end up with crap. We're not 5-Minute-Crafts."
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So where'd this idea come from, that we all recycle plastic? The plastics industry. They realized decades ago that people were rising up against the sight of litter, and legislation might soon make single-use plastics history. So they looked into whether large-scale recycling would work as a solution, and ... discovered it would not. But they pushed the idea anyway, so we'd all go on buying plastic, now falsely believing the stuff is getting recycled so no longer hurts the environment. Recycling did actually work for one item -- plastic soda bottles -- but even that soon failed, because of this:

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - plastic recycling symbols
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That's the resin identification code, which labels types of plastic so you can separate them. But most people who saw the symbol just interpreted it to mean "recyclable" regardless of the specific number in the symbol, and so bins were soon clogged all kinds of different plastics, making recycling harder than ever. The plastics industry were the ones who came up with the idea to place some version of the symbol on all plastics, even ones that can't be recycled. The goal wasn't to increase recycling. The goal was to convince consumers that plastic is environmentally friendly. 

And this is hardly the only example of greenwashing by the plastics-oil industrial complex ... 

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4
You Worry About Your Personal Carbon Footprint Thanks To ... BP


A little earlier, we mentioned two reasons the world might want to burn less oil: because alternative energy's cheaper, and because oil is finite. But there's another reason of course -- burn enough oil, and you clog up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, gradually reverting the Earth to the Permian era and replacing all humans with bird-lizards. The total amount of carbon that goes into the air matters. You also might be concerned with how much carbon you're individually responsible for, your "personal carbon footprint." This concept exists in the public consciousness thanks to the unlikely advocacy of oil giant BP.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a pelican covered in oil
Louisiana GOHSEP
Ah yes, that company famous for lubricating the Gulf of Mexico
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At the turn of the century, BP launched a campaign encouraging people to calculate and reduce their carbon footprints. They were rebranding themselves as "beyond petroleum" rather than British Petroleum, as they were now a green company. This was just marketing rather than a long-term shift in attitudes, according to the ad man behind the campaign -- it's now been 20 years, and if they really wanted to move beyond petroleum they probably could have made slightly more progress than they have. But calling it a PR move is actually the nicest thing you can say about the plan.

Climate activists now instead call the carbon footprint idea "effective propaganda." Much like how earlier anti-litter campaigns successfully distracted people from passing actual laws, personal carbon footprints taught people the path forward for stopping global warming lay in individual action rather than lobbying for major structural change.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - shot of an airliner from beneath
Nathan Hobbs/Unsplash
Good job driving instead of flying! The plane still took off without you, though.
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"But if everyone stops consuming, doesn't that make a difference?" you might ask. Well, sort of. Most people won't stop consuming, though. And yet when an activist walks to the store instead of driving, they subconsciously multiply their contribution by 7 billion when they imagine how much good the switch accomplishes.

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And also: no, everyone changing their activity doesn't make that much of a difference. We got the biggest illustration of that during this year's lockdowns. People reduced their activity far beyond what we can ever expect them to do to preserve the climate, and despite all the memes about nature healing, the environmental gain was negligible. Little reductions are all very well, but nothing you do in your daily life will change the way electricity is generated or how products are manufactured.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - an arc reactor
Z22/Wiki Commons
Unless you invent an arc reactor, in which case we stand corrected.
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So, companies would rather new laws don't pass. They're also busy making laws of their own ... 

3
Schoolchildren Get Milk Thanks To Lies From The Dairy Lobby


Giving kids milk must seem like the most uncontroversial good deed out there. Milk is good for kids, right? That's why we give it to babies and kittens. But while kids do need to get calories and nutrients in a form they can digest, they have plenty of ways of doing that, and milk offers nothing unique. You can get all that calcium from other stuff you eat (where do you think cows get it?). Ditto the protein. Lots of people choose not to drink milk at all. Plus, lots of people can't drink milk thanks to lactose intolerance. 

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a food of plate with milk and carrots
USDA
Well, they can if they pour on some enzymes then chug, but it's not worth the trouble.
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And yet all school lunches must include milk, by law. That's kind of a specific regulation, isn't it? There's no law saying lunch has to include an apple, or always must have turkey, but all school lunches must have milk -- even if many kids who receive milk along with their sloppy joes never open those cartons and instead just chuck them in the garbage. This law is hugely lucrative for the dairy industry. They get some 8 percent of all their milk sales this way. 

The National Dairy Council is a lobby for America's tens of thousands of dairy farmers, and we have them to thank for making milk mandatory. They're also behind a bunch of studies insisting that lactose intolerance is entirely imaginary, a conclusion that the American Medical Association strongly rejects. Incidentally, the vast majority of the maybe 70 percent of the world who can't digest milk are non-white. If we opened this article by telling you that milk is white supremacy, you'd think we'd gone off the deep end, but actual white supremacists gleefully claim milk as a symbol, so at least some people agree with that idea. 

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a hand pouring a pitcher of milk into a glass
Eiliv-Sonas Aceron
White power?
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The Obama administration dialed milk's push into schools back a little, arguing that at least, school lunches shouldn't come with flavored milk. Meaning, chocolate or strawberry milk, discount milkshakes really -- surely THOSE don't make up part of a healthy lunch, right? But the dairy lobby got the stuff back, by arguing that without chocolate milk as an option, kids would drink less milk overall. Which is correct of them, but less milk overall isn't a bad thing (for anyone but the dairy lobby).

You may find that hard to swallow if you grew up being told that dairy is one of the four basic food groups. Thing is though, "food groups" don't really exist. People just made them up. As much as milk supremacists rebel against the idea that food groups are a social construct, the fact is ...

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2
The Food Pyramid Is Designed To Prop Up US Agriculture, Not Your Health


If you ask biologists to list food groups, they'll talk about proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and then a little about miscellaneous nutrients like minerals, vitamins, Lucky Charms, etc. They won't list "dairy" as an independent group, much less one of four essential ones. The food groups we know about instead come from the Food Pyramid, a guide created by the USDA. The USDA does play a role in regulating food, but they're also responsible for supporting agriculture, which can lead to a bit of a conflict of interest.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - the outdated food pyramid
USDA
For instance, they gave a no-bid contract to build the pyramid to a crony in the construction industry.
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Why did the food pyramid ask people to have 2-3 servings of dairy every day, when no one needs to eat dairy at all? Because of our old friends from the dairy lobby, of course, since dairy farmers make up an important American industry. Government guidelines before the lobby stepped in didn't suggest consuming dairy at all. 

Why did the food pyramid ask people to have 6-11 servings of "bread, rice, and pasta"? That's ludicrous based on what we know now. That amount of stuff isn't great for you, and with the exception of people who are literally starving, no one ever had to be advised to eat more of it. Well, according to Luise Light, the nutrition expert who came up with the original recommendations, her team said you should eat 3-4 servings of wholegrain cereals a day. But the USDA ballooned those numbers and expanded the category to all grains -- including the refined stuff that her recommendations specifically warned against -- for the sake of the processed wheat and corn industries

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - a shot of the sky from a cornfield
Dietmar Rabich
It's less than four years till the Iowa caucuses!
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The original pyramid has been replaced by a new chart called MyPlate, which doesn't explicitly list serving numbers. But it does still have a wedge reserved for "grains," and now dairy is emphasized with its own glass to the plate's side. What, no guidelines for drinking water? Is there really no water lobby active in Washington today? 

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1
That Huge Push For A Minimum Wage Hike Is Coming From Walmart And Amazon


Maybe you've heard the following argument before. Walmart and Amazon are underpaying their workers. Many of these workers are even on food stamps or other government assistance, paid for through taxes. That means we're subsidizing these companies, and they're resisting paying higher wages so the onus for supporting these employees falls on us instead! Well, if you buy that argument, how would you react on hearing that the companies pay above minimum wage, and have pushed for a higher minimum wage nationwide?

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - Wal-Mart exterior
Walmart
Uh ... maybe they're trying reverse psychology?
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If you're wondering why an evil company would ever pay more than they legally need to, the benign answer would be that's how much they figure they've got to offer to get people wanting to work there. Economists say that's not the case with these particular companies. Instead, it looks like they raise wages to act before unions rise out of the deep and make them raise wages even more, or to convince employees that they don't need to unionize. As for why they'd ask for everyone other than their employees to earn more too, the companies say that they, as sellers of stuff, will benefit from consumers having more money to spend.

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But there also may be something more sinister here. These companies can afford to pay more than the current minimum, while plenty of other stores struggle to make payroll. That means a higher minimum wage can drive competitors out of business. So, raising the wage to what Walmart pays hurts DanMart, the shitty store that Dan runs. Then raising it all the way to $15, like Amazon is saying we should do, would hurt DanMart even more and would also hurt Walmart too, since that's more than what they otherwise pay.

5 'Good' Ideas That Are Secretly Propaganda - Jeff Bezos looking confused
Seattle City Council 
"And did I mention the minimum wage should be paid in Amazon credit?"
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So, is the only fair solution to ignore these companies' lobbying and instead abolish the minimum wage, and indeed abolish all laws? Maybe, but there's another option, and it's one Walmart and Amazon would hate. We mentioned a couple paragraphs ago the idea of the government subsidizing paychecks like its an evil part of the companies' plans. But what if the government actually did that, openly. A sort of expanded version of something that already exists called the earned income tax credit. Unlike with a higher minimum wage, DanMart won't be on the hook to pay this personally, which is good because Dan can't afford it, since he's a screw-up. Instead, this would be paid for entirely by a tax on the most profitable companies of all, the Walmarts and Amazons, who now have to pay their own employees and everyone else's too.

Okay, that's never going to happen. But you see there are some things that would terrify big corporations a whole lot more than a higher minimum wage, right?

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

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