During the night between December 2nd and 3rd of 1984 the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal India released methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the air resulting in what has been estimated as between a low of 2,259 to as many as 15,000 immediate deaths. Now more then twenty-five years after the initial gas leak the 390 tonnes of toxins remaining on the site continue to leak into the surrounding ground water resulting in birth defects, ongoing medical problems and death among those living adjacent to the plant. With Union Carbide now being owned by Dow Chemical, the chances of any real restitution being made to those who suffered from the initial leak, those who are being born sick, or the mess even being cleaned up sufficiently to prevent any future damage appear non-existent.
So the world was shocked to hear a Dow Chemical spokesmen, Jude Finisterra, appearing on a BBC World News special commemorating the twentieth anniversary in 2004 announcing the company was going to immediately liquidate Union Carbide and use the money from the sale, around twelve billion dollars, to clean up the site and properly recompense all those who were suffering because of the spill. With their share price plummeting, it fell 4.2% in twenty-three minutes for a loss of around two billion dollars, Dow was quick to release a statement denying they had any such plans and that the person who made the statement wasn't their employee. Who was Jude Finisterra and how did one of the most respected news agencies in the world come to believe he was actually a spokesperson for a huge multinational corporation?
Well, the folk at the BBC shouldn't feel so bad, for according to a new documentary being released on April 1st on DVD by Docurama Films, The Yes Men Fix The World, they weren't the first, nor the last, to be fooled by the brilliant activist duo known as the The Yes Men. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have been travelling the world posing as everything from special assistants to the head of HUD, the arm of the American government responsible for public housing, to representatives of the World Trade Organization in their quest to fix the world. While they have had some great successes dating back to their early days working separately with Mike switching the voice boxes of Barbie dolls with GI Joes and Andy hacking images of men kissing into violent video games, this movie might just put an end to their personal involvement in any future actions.
You can't go as public as this and tell everybody how you've been so successful in the past without at least somebody out there taking notice. They've let the cat out of the bag and now people aren't going to be as easy to fool. It will probably require more than just a web site saying you're part of Dow Chemical before they invite you to appear before a television audience of over 300 million.
In the movie the Yes Men describe their two most dependable methods for attending conferences or being invited to speak at an event. The first is the setting up of websites which give a visitor the impression it is affiliated with the company in question. In the case of the Dow Chemical announcement they had set up a web site called DowEthics.com designed to look like a real Dow site that dealt with issues just like Bhopal and a BBC producer contacted them with an invitation to appear on the twentieth anniversary show.
In other instances they would find out about conferences they wanted to attend - lets say a meeting of over 500 oil industry representatives in Calgary Alberta Canada - and they would contact the organizers and ask them if they would like the head of Exxon to come and speak. At the last minute he won't be able to attend and his special assistant will be flown in to give the presentation and speak in his place.
Which is exactly what they did to get invited to an oil industry conference in Calgary Alberta in order to introduce Exxon's newest bio-fuel - candles made from dead bodies. As there were going to be thousands of corpses caused by global warming - why not take advantage of this supply of raw materials? They even came with a sample candle and a video of the loyal Exxon employee who upon discovering he was terminally ill had volunteered himself for rendering.
Aside from detailing some of their more elaborate stunts, they've also included interviews with those voices who represent the free market system. These men, representatives of some of the biggest conservative think tanks in America, make no bones about what they stand for and boast about their achievements. One of them takes great pride in saying how if it wasn't for his group America would have signed the Kyoto accord.
Part of the campaign they ran included a commercial, paid for by Exxon, whose tag line was: "Carbon Dioxide - they call it pollution, we call it life." Their logic being since such things as trees and plants breath carbon dioxide the exhaust their industries create support the growth of plant life. Of course they make no mention of the fact that industry has been responsible for such massive deforestation there aren't nearly enough trees left in the world to absorb all the carbon dioxide being produced these days.
The Yes Men aren't afraid to take their lumps either, and throughout the movie they play clips of the media response to their stunts as well as relaying official statements from various politicians who have been duped by them. Its quite amazing how many times they are accused of playing cruel tricks upon people by creating false hopes. When they went to New Orleans and announced that HUD was changing its mind and would re-open all the public housing instead of tearing it down - public housing that had survived Katrina intact - or announced on world wide television that Dow Chemical was going to finally do what was right - the response was identical. Yet who were the ones who were doing the damage in the first place, who caused all the pain to begin with? Weren't those who made the decision to tear down public housing in New Orleans depriving people of a place to live being cruel?
Wasn't the fact that Dow Chemical announced that it had no intentions of making restitution to the people of Bhopal or cleaning up the Union Carbide plant more of an insult to the people living there than anything either of the Yes Men could have said?
To find out Andy and Mike went to Bhopal and met with the people who run the community health clinic for those affected by the leak and with a journalist who not only broke the story, but for five years prior to the leak tried to warn the government the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. The journalist and the head of the Sambhavna Clinic both agreed that while they were obviously disappointed that the offer wasn't real, they thought it was a brilliant way to make the world aware of the ongoing situation and how Dow Chemical was shirking its responsibilities.
The truly scary part of The Yes Men Fix The World is the number of times people have taken them at face value. Whether they're explaining to people how to factor loss of human life against potential profits in order to figure out a projects net value, explaining how corporations should be allowed to buy people's votes in order to stream line democracy, or demonstrating an outrageously silly survival suit to insurance adjusters, nobody blinks an eye and merely want to exchange business cards. They were trying to shock people and ended up shocked themselves. The only times people got upset is when they made announcements about doing something positive for people who were suffering. What does that tell you about the world we live in?
While the feature documentary runs almost ninety minutes, the special features include records of even more stunts the Yes Men have pulled off, as well as going into more depth on some of the projects that were included in the main part of the documentary. For those wanting to know more about the two minds behind the Yes Men there's also some biographical details provided as well as some early attempts at Internet and video activism.
While there are moments of hilarity through-out the The Yes Men Fix The World, and they do their best to end on an note of optimism, it's hard not to feel pessimistic after watching it. Thinking of the literally billions of dollars that are spent annually in order to perpetuate the myth of the free market in the end its hard to believe, no matter how many people take to the streets, no matter how often corporate greed and duplicity are exposed, that business as usual won't continue to be business as usual. Until there comes a time when that changes, nothing much else will. As long as we continue to place a higher value on profit than we do on life that's not going to happen.
(Originally posted March 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.