Show #198 – Barbara Freese: Industrial Strength Denial – How Corporate Denial is Public and Environmental Health Enemy No.1


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And onto this week’s show!

I am thrilled to have author, researcher, and lawyer Barbara Freese on the show this week lifting the lid on coal, radium, leaded petrol, and more. As an assistant attorney general in Minnesota, Barbara Freese cross-examined witnesses for the coal industry who disputed the reality of climate change, pushing back as they denied facts that threatened their company’s bottom line.

She wrote her first book Coal: A Human History during that time, and then as time went on, these courtroom interactions formed the idea for her deeply researched new book, INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH DENIAL. This new book looks at corporate denial through 8 powerful and infuriating case studies. A long-time analyst of environmental policy, Freese showcases the campaigns of denial from businesses involved in the production of leaded gasoline, tobacco, the fossil fuels destabilizing our climate, and more. Freese argues that while the cases are different, the psychology of corporate denial has remained the same over centuries. When confronted with the harm they cause—whether to individuals or to the environment—corporations deny the evidence, blame their victims, complain of witch-hunts, attack their critics, and rationalize their destructive behavior. INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH DENIAL also delves into how society has fought back against corporate lies using tools of democracy like boycotts, government intervention, and media scrutiny. And the book explores the question: what is it about corporations that can foster this dangerous behavior? Drawing on years of research into how cognition and morality are altered by tribalism, power, anonymity, and of course, money, Freese sets out to answer why big business is the way it is.  

The questions I asked Barbara:

    1. What led you to be passionate about environmental causes and choose environmental law? 
    2. What events led to you wanting to write your well-known book Coal: A human history? What were you seeing as a lawyer that needed to be given a bigger voice for the public to hear? 
    3. Why do you think in recent times we’ve moved from talking about environmental justice to climate justice in terms of the ‘focus phrase’ – with a planet degraded every day by the way we farm and clear forests and we mine landscapes AND releases too much carbon into the atmosphere, it seems now, it’s an all eggs in one basket message? Is it because we feel it’s our best hope for cut through? (Just thought it would be interesting to discuss this with you given you’ve been fighting for a number of environmental injustices for decades… to discuss the change in focus/tact to all eyes on emissions and fossil fuels. 
    4. Now onto your new book: What motivated this one? How did you first become interested in what you call Industrial Denial?
    5. How did you pick the eight denial campaigns you feature in the book? and can you share one very close to your heart, with us?
    6. You have a chapter about how radium used to be used in consumer products and even sold for human consumption in a lot of “cures”. Can you tell us about that?
    7. You have a chapter about leaded gasoline and how experts warned back in the 1920s that it was dangerous to put lead in the fuel supply.  What kinds of denials did the industry respond with? 
    8. Why does it take decades to bring these denials down? What can we do to pick up the pace? 
    9. You share, so appropriately too, that the history of industrial denial contributed to today’s post-truth era. Can you talk us through that? 
    10. Where to next with the truth seeing as so many claims to be telling it? 
    11. What do you believe the most powerful things an individual can do today who wants to drive change and hand a healthier planet down to their kids?

Other helpful links:

For more deets about Barbara Freese and her works:

Grab her book Coal: A Human History at The Book Depository and the Industrial Strength Denial over at Booktopia.

The movie “Dark Waters” is also a must-check!

Join her on Instagram @thegardencontinuum and on Facebook

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