What is Mental Environmentalism?

A brief history of "The Journal of the Mental Environment."

The core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society, is mental environmentalism. And for seventeen years, since the seventh issue of Adbusters was published in 1993, the subtitle of the magazine has been "The Journal of the Mental Environment". But, what exactly is mental environmentalism?

Adbusters was founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz, a duo of award-winning documentary filmmakers living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since the early 1980s, Lasn had been making films that explored the spiritual and cultural lessons the West could learn from the Japanese experience with capitalism. One film in particular, Satori in the Right Cortex (1985), anticipates the culture jammer emphasis on sparking life-changing epiphanies. The experience of satori, the Buddhist word for a flash of intuitive enlightenment, became a founding tactical insight for the culture jammer movement.

In a 2001 interview with the Kyoto Journal, Lasn explained the importance of this film on the theory behind Adbusters:

"When I was shooting a film in Japan called Satori in the Right Cortex, I asked the head monk of a Zen monastery in Kamakura if I could take footage of his disciples meditating. Yes, he said, but first you must meditate. When I emerged after a few days of physical and psychological torture, something really had happened to me. The monk had forced an interruption of my easy routine, and I came out the other end humble, euphoric and changed. Maybe only when you are shoved into a new pattern of behavior like that, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the way life could be. Culture jamming is based on the same concept. It's a way of stopping the flow of the consumer spectacle long enough to adjust your set."
Likewise, Adbusters itself was born out of a life-changing epiphany.

In 1988, the British Columbia Council of Forest Industries, the "voice" of the logging industry, was facing tremendous public pressure from a growing environmentalist movement. The logging industry fought back with a television ad campaign called "Forests Forever". It was an early example of "greenwashing": shots of happy children, workers and animals with a kindly, trustworthy sounding narrator who assured the public that the logging industry was protecting the forest.

Lasn and Shmalz were outraged by the blatant use of the public airwaves to deliver deceptive anti-environmentalist propaganda. And they fought back by producing the "Talking Rainforest" anti-ad in which an old-growth tree explains to a sapling that "a tree farm is not a forest". But when the meme warrior duo went to buy airtime on the same stations that had aired the forest industry ad, they were refused. Adbusters was born in the startling realization that citizens do not have the same access to the information flows as corporations. One of our key campaigns continues to be the Media Carta, a "movement to enshrine The Right to Communicate in the constitutions of all free nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

For Adbusters, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public's access to the airwaves. Although these are worthwhile causes, Adbusters instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism.

If a key insight of environmentalism was that external reality, nature, could be polluted by industrial toxins, the key insight of mental environmentalism is that internal reality, our minds, can be polluted by infotoxins. Mental environmentalism draws a connection between the pollution of our minds by commercial messaging and the social, environmental, financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity. Mental environmentalists argue that a whole range of phenomenon from the BP oil spill to the emergence of crony-democracy to the mass extinction of animals to the significant increase in mental illnesses are directly caused by the three thousand advertisements that assault our minds each day. And rather than treat the symptoms, by rushing to scrub the oil soaked beaches or passing watered down environmental protection legislation, mental environmentalists target the root cause: the advertising industry that fuels consumerism.

Our minds are polluted by an overwhelming propaganda assault that colors our beliefs, desires and perception of reality. Fighting back is thus far more difficult that protesting in the streets or clicking a few links. This brings us back to the concept of satori. Breaking out of the consumer mindscape takes a fundamental shift of perspective, an epiphany, after which everything is seen with new eyes.

Mental environmentalism is an emergent movement that in the coming years will be recognized as the fundamental social struggle of our era. It is both a unifying struggle ? among mental environmentalists there are everything from conservative Mormons to far-left anarchists ? and a struggle that finally, concretely explains the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us.

To escape the mental chains, and finally pull off the glorious emancipatory revolution the left has so long hoped for, we must become meme warriors who, through the use of culture jamming, spark a wave of epiphanies that shatter the consumerist worldview.

Micah White
09 Dec 2010