Monday, June 27, 2011
There are exceptions, of course. Some masked people do good things. Batman, say. The Lone Ranger. But, generally, when someone won’t show you his face, you won’t like what’s going to happen next. You know this, I know this, bank tellers know this, many dogs even know this. That’s why I was overcome with such a feeling of futility as we planted the protest sign at the end of our driveway. There were no logos on it.
Our house is on the Niagara Escarpment, one of the world’s ecological treasures. And like a lot of those treasures, the Escarpment is also host to some valuable natural resources. Around here, the two most vexing are wind and gravel. Most people we know are presently engaged in a fight against one or both of a multi-thousand acre quarry that will displace millions of liters of aquifer a day, and industrial wind farms that will render vast swaths of agricultural and natural space inhospitable to life. For a lot of people, these fights have been very personal, gone on for years, cost a fortune to wage, and remained inconclusive. And, for me, it’s hard to ignore why. In the case of the wind farms, the enemies are investment banks lapping up government subsidies and trading in carbon credits, what one New York Times writer called “the next bubble.” Behind the quarry is a Boston-based hedge fund. The corporations involved in these issues don’t sell things at the mall. None of them has a brand. Thus, they have no fear of public opinion and no motivation to listen and try to work something out. They just throw lawyers and procedural chicanes at the process and continue their work unobserved in the shadows of capitalism.
It doesn’t matter what you think about either of these conflicts, not for the purpose of this post, anyway. What matters is that the process of dealing with them has been so terribly lopsided. And that’s because the anonymity of the companies involved deprives ordinary people of democratic leverage. People like to say that the problem is simply that these corporations are rich. But Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s and Nike are pretty rich, too, yet they’re a lot more circumspect about messing with us. They’ve got skin in the game.
It’s all been an interesting reminder for me – as if I needed it – of how lucky we are to live in an economy that relies so heavily on branded marketing. A brand is like a commercial Second Amendment, turning consumers into citizen militias that make tyrants think twice. A bit like fresh water and arable land, we take them for granted, but we’d miss them mightily if they weren’t there. All those silly labels staring vapidly back at you from store shelves? That’s power, baby. You don’t need to have a bulldozer in your backyard to appreciate that.
But it sure helps.