When Exxon used Mickey Mouse to promote fossil fuels

The oil industry has a long history of creating pro-fossil fuel material for children, even when they knew their products caused climate change.

Hello, and welcome to Day 3 of HEATED’s week-long series on climate education in public schools.

We kicked off Day 1 by shining a light on the positive impacts of comprehensive climate lessons in the classroom. We cited research showing that schools can be essential breeding grounds for climate-conscious citizens.

On Day 2, we showed how American classrooms are currently not creating climate-conscious citizens. Futher, we showed how the oil industry is creating and spreading pro-fossil fuel propaganda for teachers that either omits climate science entirely or selectively in order to influence young minds.

Today, Drilled News editor-in-chief Amy Westervelt is back to do what she does best, and lead us on a journey into the past—this time through some the industry’s historical efforts to create pro-oil material for kids.

The below article is a sneak peek at a series in the works between Drilled News and HuffPost about the various ways the fossil fuel industry has influenced education in U.S. public schools. I’ll of course let you all know when that series comes out in full—there’s so much more wild stuff than what’s in today’s newsletter. But the stuff here is pretty wild, too.

Anyway, enjoy!

Another favorite PR strategy of the oil industry: Get ‘em while they’re young

By Amy Westervelt

The fossil fuel industry has been weaseling its way into educational materials and public schools for decades.

It’s been happening at least since the 1960s, according to Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and professor emeritus at Drexel University, oft-cited in this newsletter.

“Pretty much from World War II on, [the American Petroleum Institute] has been actively pushing outreach to schools, and really trying to get their viewpoint about energy and petroleum into schools,” he said. “Certainly they were doing that a lot by the 60s and those efforts continue to this very day.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, however, that the effort really started to ramp up. (Note from Emily: You might remember, oil companies knew about climate change since at least 1977. Is that the reason the effort started to ramp up? Who knows!)

The photos below are from a comic book that Disney put out in conjunction with Exxon in the 1980s, at the same time that Exxon was sponsoring the Universe of Energy Center at Epcot. Both were aimed at shaping kids’ understanding of energy and the economy.

This one has an energy conservation theme—and also makes the point that solar and wind are, you know, meh

Exxon’s Universe of Energy Center was at Epcot from 1982 through 1996. That’s fascinating, because that’s the exact time span that Exxon went from researching climate change to explicitly denying it. (Exxon’s denial started in the late 80s and picked up steam throughout the 90s).

And this exhibit touting fossil fuels—which again, was to KIDS AT DISNEYWORLD—opened in the same year that Exxon’s manager of environmental affairs, M.B. Glaser, sent a memo out to company executives about the greenhouse effect. This memo noted that fossil fuel combustion, along with clearing of virgin forests, were the primary contributions to the warming trend.

The memo added: “Our best estimate is that doubling of the current concentration could increase average global temperature by about 1.3 degrees celsius to 3.1 degrees celsius.”

Despite that knowledge, the comics and Epcot center explicitly promote fossil fuels as a method of environmental conservation, noted Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“[Exxon] put out these in conjunction with Disney to teach kids about renewable energy and energy conservation and environmental concerns,” he said. “And it's perhaps unsurprising that what children learn from Mickey and Goofy about energy conservation and environmental concerns was we really need gas, we really need fracking, we win. Nuclear energy is fine. There are a lot of problems with wind and solar. It may work out eventually, but thank goodness for this bountiful resource of oil, gas and tar sands.”

Exxon wasn’t the only one using comic books to reach the youths. In the 1970s, Amoco put out a wildly racist comic book about “The Mochans,” a “primitive” people who wanted to do unseemly things like use renewable energy. The comic was released as part of a study guide for 7th to 12th graders studying economics—which Amoco graciously provided 40,000 copies of to Indiana public schools. 

“The industry was teaching kids to be skeptical of regulation, skeptical of the agendas of environmentalists or people who were socially concerned, from their very earliest ages,” Muffett said, “and [they were] constantly emphasizing that anyone who talks about the environment, who talks about human health, should immediately be weighing that and defending it against the economic costs.” 

Sound familiar? It should. These are the same refrains the industry uses today in its various attempts to shape the minds of young people, both in schools and in the media. And it’s reflected in the way most political pundits seem to think about what’s possible for climate action. You want to preserve a livable world? Well, how much will it cost?

Here’s one more example of the oil industry getting into teaching economics: Phillips’ Petroleum’s American Enterprise educational film series—hosted by none other than William Shatner. (I got my hands on the VHS but it hasn’t arrived yet—it’s taking forever!)

The subtitle is: How Did this America, in its 200 Years on Independence, Become a Nation of Supermarkets, Stock Markets, Skyscrapers and Split Levels; A Country With the Greatest Economic Output in the World? 

I found out about this film series after Muffett pointed me to the Center for the Study of Responsive Law’s report Hucksters in the Classroom. That report notes that Phillips took a hands-off approach with the film series in order to make sure it would be acceptable in classrooms.

Instead of developing it themselves, the marketing company that produced it for them contacted economists and historians who helped them put together a five-part series that enthusiastically affirms capitalism. And the series was an unmitigated success. It was picked up by 10 different state education TV programs, and more than 50 percent of the country’s secondary schools had booked the series by 1978, two years after its 1976 release. By the end of 1978 it had been seen by more than 5 million American high school students. 

The New York Times ran a story on the series in 1976 as it was being released, calling it, “the latest contribution to the ongoing business effort to interest the American people in the free‐enterprise system.” 

No wonder these are such common ideas. They’ve been drilled into our heads since we were very young, by the same people making billions drilling oil from the ground.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

As a reminder, I’m going on vacation for the next 10 days. As a result, the newsletter will be on a limited publishing schedule for two weeks starting Monday, March 9.

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