If you are old enough to remember the 1970s, you will remember this ad.

A man who appears to be an American Indian in braids and buckskins is navigating a river at dawn in a birch-bark canoe. As the sun comes up we see there is litter in the water and he’s paddling past smoke-belching factories and more trash.

Finally, he is standing on the shoulder of a highway and a bag of garbage flies from the window of a speeding car and lands right on his moccasins.

As the music reaches a crescendo, the announcer says with a grave voice, “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

Meanwhile, the Indian character looks up at the camera, and we can see a single tear running down his cheek.

The ad first ran in 1971, about the time of the first Earth Day and the start of the modern environmental movement. It ran for years, and was adapted for billboards and print ads.

I remember watching it as a 3rd grader and being filled with shame for my role in making him so sad.

Fifty years later, the ad makes me feel more angry than ashamed.

For one thing, the actor, Iron Eyes Cody, was not an Indian, but an Italian-American who made a career out of playing an Indian chief in a Bob Hope movie.

And the ad was not the environmental call to arms that it appeared to be. It was paid for by an organization called Keep America Beautiful, which was funded by leading beverage and packaging companies. Disposable containers were still fairly new items, and people were noticing that used ones were not only stuffing landfills but piling up in roadside ditches, and there was pressure on Congress to pass laws that would hold the manufacturers responsible for the waste they produced,

The Keep America Beautiful group wanted us to think that it was not industrial pollution littering our highways but the work of individual “litter bugs,” so the answer was better behavior by each of us and not regulatory changes like a national bottle bill.

We all know who won. Only a handful of states passed bottle bills, and the world is drowning discarded plastic for which the industry that produced it bears no responsibility

The “Crying Indian” ad is discussed at length by climate scientist Michael Mann in his book “The New Climate War.” His work deals with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not soda bottles, but he sees the same dynamic in place.

The fossil fuel industry and others who don’t want to address climate change (Mann calls them “inactivists”) try to cast the problem outside the realm of environmental regulation and politics. They want us to believe that it’s all about the choices that individuals make.

We’re encouraged to think about our personal “carbon footprint” (a concept first popularized by British Petroleum) instead of addressing pollution at its source.

“Demand-side pressure by consumers can certainly influence the market,” Mann writes. “But consumer choice doesn’t build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a price on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change.”

Just as with littering, polluters want us to think that we are the problem, not them. And just like the “Crying Indian,” shame is the point.

The “inactivists” want us to believe that addressing climate change means accepting a vow of poverty. We all will have to give up our cars, stop flying in airplanes and become vegans. And anyone who advocates for change and still gets around in a car or eats a cheeseburger is a hypocrite. The ones who make lifestyle sacrifices for sake of the climate are used as examples of the kind of deprivation that awaits us all if we take action.

It would probably be good for my health if I ate less meat and walked more, but the truth is that I would have a much bigger impact on the climate by writing letters to my members of Congress and making sure that they push for the strongest climate legislation possible.

Right now, the best hope is the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan, which is subject to opaque negotiations in the U.S. Senate, subject to the whims of two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and nothing can pass without their approval. What’s proposed is a system of bonuses for electricity producers who cut emissions and penalties for those that don’t. The idea is to smooth the transition from burning fossil fuels toward a clean-energy economy.

Pushing through a law like that would move us toward meeting our climate goals. Failing to pass the bill could mean another wasted decade – time we don’t have.

Fossil fuel-burning industries started global warming and only government has the power to stop it. Let’s not get fooled again.


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