Corporations faced with proof that they are hurting people or the planet have a long history of denying evidence, blaming victims, complaining of witch hunts, attacking their critics' motives, and otherwise rationalizing their harmful activities. Denial campaigns have let corporations continue dangerous practices that cause widespread suffering, death, and environmental destruction. And, by undermining social trust in science and government, corporate denial has made it harder for our democracy to function.
Barbara Freese, an environmental attorney, confronted corporate denial years ago when cross-examining coal industry witnesses who were disputing the science of climate change. She set out to discover how far from reality corporate denial had led society in the past and what damage it had done.
Her resulting, deeply-researched book is an epic tour through eight campaigns of denial waged by industries defending the slave trade, radium consumption, unsafe cars, leaded gasoline, ozone-destroying chemicals, tobacco, the investment products that caused the financial crisis, and the fossil fuels destabilizing our climate. Some of the denials are appalling (slave ships are festive). Some are absurd (nicotine is not addictive). Some are dangerously comforting (natural systems prevent ozone depletion). Together they reveal much about the group dynamics of delusion and deception.
Industrial-Strength Denial delves into the larger social dramas surrounding these denials, including how people outside the industries fought back using evidence and the tools of democracy. It also explores what it is about the corporation itself that reliably promotes such denial, drawing on psychological research into how cognition and morality are altered by tribalism, power, conflict, anonymity, social norms, market ideology, and of course, money. Industrial-Strength Denial warns that the corporate form gives people tremendous power to inadvertently cause harm while making it especially hard for them to recognize and feel responsible for that harm.
Introduction: A Dangerous Phenomenon
1. A “More Pleasing Representation”: The Alternate Reality Crafted by the Slave Lobby
2. “A Wonderful Stimulant”: Radium, Risk, and Responsibility
3. “The Nut behind the Wheel”: Carmakers Avoiding Blame for Highway Deaths
4. “How Wrong One Can Be”: Bias, Tribalism, and Leaded Gasoline
5. “Our Free Enterprise System Is at Stake”: CFCs, Ideology, and Manipulated Uncertainty
6. “Psychological Crutches”: Tobacco’s Mass Production of Denial
7. “Bottom Line. Nothing Else Matters”: The Financial Crisis and a Culture of Exploitation
8. A “Deceitful, Hysterical, Out-of-Control Rampage”: Fossil Fuels, Climate Denial, and Distrust Building
Conclusion: Shifting the Social Norm toward the Public Interest
Major Works Cited in Notes
Barbara Freese is the author of Coal: A Human History, a New York Times Notable Book. She is an environmental attorney and a former Minnesota assistant attorney general. Her interest in corporate denial was sparked by cross-examining coal industry witnesses disputing the science of climate change. She lives in St. Paul.
"A must-read for anyone wanting to understand the truth about corporate-created untruths, this engaging, painstakingly researched, and elegantly written book is crucial for helping us see through profit-driven narratives designed with the explicit aim of distorting and deceiving. Industrial-Strength Denial reveals the cynicism, manipulation, and hypocrisy of corporations seeking to rationalize patently destructive (though profitable) practices, such as slavery or selling toxic chemicals, tobacco, and fossil fuels."
– Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
"How much easier it would be to change the world if it weren't for the endless, organized lying of companies that make their money from the indefensible. This is such a useful chronicle for anyone trying to understand the shape of our world."
– Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
"This book's originality is in Freese's use of psychological theory and insights to explain corporate behavior that seems simply venal or self-serving."
– Gerald Markowitz, Distinguished Professor of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York