One of Lasn’s favorite words is “meme,” as in: “Adbusters floated the meme of occupying the iconic heart of global capitalism.”
The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term: A meme is a unit of cultural information spread among people like a gene. Spreading radically subversive memes is Lasn’s avowed mission.
He has written a new Adbusters book, Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics. It is a lavishly illustrated collection, with photographs, drawings and essays that exhort university students to become “meme warriors” and revolutionize the field of economics. Like the magazine, the book elaborates on an old theme: his belief that core economic values must shift from profit-making and GDP expansion toward the improvement of human health and protection of the planet.
Accomplishing that requires overturning economic orthodoxy and capitalism as we know it, he said.
“We have to do this. With climate change and the exhaustion of the planet’s resources. I believe the alternative is apocalypse,” Lasn said.
Despite these portents of doom, “the waves of global activism that we’ve been seeing — with Occupy and everything else — this fills me with more optimism than I’ve felt for many years,” he added.
The magazine is published by the nonprofit Adbusters Media Foundation, of which Lasn was a co-founder in 1989 with a close friend, Bill Schmalz, a wildlife cinematographer. As Schmalz recalls it, Adbusters arose from a battle over conservation that the two men were waging against a Canadian logging company.
“Basically, they were cutting too many trees for the forest to regenerate,” Schmalz, 71, said in a telephone interview. “We wanted that to stop.”
The men met at work. In those days, Lasn, like Schmalz, was a documentary filmmaker working on projects for the National Film Board of Canada. He had moved to Canada with his wife, Masako Tominaga, so that he could leave advertising behind and embark on a film career.
What influenced him to head in that direction? He said it was the politics of the 1960s, combined with the movies of the era, especially the social satire The Graduate. Lasn says he identified with its young star, Dustin Hoffman, who played a newly minted college graduate about to take up a career in what was then the hot new corporate field: “plastics.” He rebels instead.
“In his own way, he was a revolutionary,” Lasn said. “In his own way, he stumbled through life and had some epiphanies and seemed to come out OK at the end.”
Schmalz and Lasn collaborated on a 30-second television spot on the log-cutting controversy, but they were denied airtime. They started a long, inconclusive legal battle for the right to broadcast their “uncommercial” and decided to start a newsletter, Schmalz recalls. In 1992, it became Adbusters magazine.
Even then, the focus was on protecting the earth’s battered environment, fighting against overconsumption and jousting with corporate giants, Lasn said.
Lasn set the tone.
“Kalle’s a feisty guy and that comes across in the radical voice of the magazine,” said Schmalz, now semi-retired. “Some of what you’re seeing and hearing is really just attention-getting.”
Adbusters became a multimedia platform for barbed social and political critique. The ad industry has been a favorite target. A series of satirical print “subvertisements” uses what Lasn calls “jiujitsu” to turn a company’s own ad campaigns into a liability. He terms this approach “culture jamming.”