Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno hoaxed the BBC into running a live interview in which the Yes Men claimed to represent the Dow Chemicals company offering compensation to the victims of the worst industrial accident the world had seen, Bhopal. Immediately $2 billion was wiped off the company's share price.Andy and Mike realised that it was not possible for individual CEOs to adopt environment and human rights measures for individual firms - that the free market under the ideological dominance of Milton Friedman necessitated a drive for profit. So they ask: how exactly can you fix the world?
The Yes Men Fix the World premiers in the UK tonight at the Panton Street Odeon in London. A simulcast national release follows on the 11th with a question and answer session with Andy and Mike beamed into 20 independent cinemas.
Earlier this month Andy and Mike spoke to the-sauce.org at Soho House in London about their attempts to save the world, their favourite dead economist and their fears for the future.
Have you saved the world and was that really you ambition?
Andy: I believe we saved the world, everything is fine, and that was a total accident. Seriously, we are part of a movement which is trying to save the world. If the environment movement did not exist then the world would be much more fucked than it is and there would be no hope of reducing our carbon emissions and all that.
The decision to go on BBC World and pose as a spokesperson for Dow Jones claiming they would compensate the victims of Bhopal came out of a discussion with Greenpeace and was successful in linking the name of Dow to an incident they did not want to acknowledge. The decision to go to New Orleans came from a suggestion from an activist and friend who is working down there with people locally.
Everything we have done has been through working with activist groups which are following these issues in a longer term way. We have this position and way of working with the media and getting stories into the international press and finding creative ways of doing that. We do what we know how to do to contribute to the bigger movement.
When you perform a hoax, is your intention to influence the conference audience or company named or to the film the event for the press?
Andy: It's both. Ultimately, it's about the media release and alerting the world to a bigger problem. These people who attend these conferences are not taking on board these very horrible messages which we are trying to get across. When we hoaxed the SurvivaBalls from Halliburton we were trying to say this was a very individualist approach in which the richest people would be protected from the climate change catastrophe which their carbon intensive companies had caused. Yet we had people coming up to us afterwords and congratulating us on the product.
This is about getting the message in the press. This is about getting people to become involved in the movement and acting on the issues we have tried to raise. We want the people in the room to watch our presentation and think: we are really going down the wrong path here, our companies are going to cause a lot of deaths and millions will not survive. But that never seems to happen.
Sometimes when you are actually doing the hoax, when you are at the conference, you find yourself caught up in the moment and you are agreeing with these people yourself. These can be particularly nice people and you forget you're amongst people that are destroying the planet.
When you are an actor you have to suspend people's belief and you are not really yourself for a moment. With the interview at the BBC about Bhopal I was completely devastated with stress. It was absolutely nerve wrecking. It is also very thrilling. As soon as the interview started it is no longer scary because I was just repeating answers that we had been rehearsing for a week. It is basically what PR professionals do all the time. They have a certain set number of answers and they just stick to those answers.
How do you explain the fact Dow has not come back to bite you?
Andy: It is just intelligence on their part. There is the famous McLibel case where McDonald's took two people to court for handing out leaflets about deforestation and it was a PR disaster. McDonald's learned from that. What happens when you react badly and lash out at activists? It does not look good. From what I can remember they were a postman and a teacher and immediately your sympathy would be with them.
When Dow failed to respond we were a bit offended. So we issued a press release on their behalf condemning what we did - and to this day some people think that statement is genuine. First of all, there is nothing which is clearly illegal about what we have done. Even if they were looking for us, the risk of getting arrested or anything is minimal compared to the risk of a dead planet. As soon as I start thinking, 'I am going on TV and the police might come' then I remember the people of Bhopal who have been fighting for 25 years and have watched their children die with congenital deformities. It is really not a big deal.
In the film you are seen being interviewed and seem genuinely worried you have upset the people of Bhopal - was this a concern?
Andy: We were absolutely thinking that. We had been on the BBC saying the people of Bhopal would get compensation and then we thought those people could have been watching. I really didn't have an answer for that. That was really what was going through my mind when Jon Snow asked the question. It was a month after that that we found out from the Bhopal victims themselves that they were delighted to see our hoax, that the world was paying attention.
Has the Bhopal prank actually done any good?
The stunt generated 600 articles in the US media which would not have otherwise been published according to research. It was also the first time in history that a corporate company had gone on television and done right by its victims. The fact this turned out not to be the case has got to get people thinking about the way companies behave. This action was part of a movement which is making change.
Mike: We were asked to become involved in the Bhopal issue by campaigners. I had read a few articles about it. And I remember it being on the news when I was young. Certainly at that time it was the biggest industrial accident we had ever seen. That is if you don't consider the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam as an industrial accident. My mother was also living in India during the 1950s and she had friends who were living not so far from there.
Andy: It was not really big in my consciousness until we had been doing impersonations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for a number of years. A friend of mine from Greenpeace said something about Dow and Bhopal. Dow had bought Union Carbide and Bhopal was really a word they didn't want to be associated with. That is when we really started thinking about it more. Our intention was to make sure that people always associated the name Dow with Bhopal.
You do not touch on the credit crunch too much - although there is a mention on Lehman Brothers and discussion of market forces. Will the recession make corporate responsibility less likely?
Andy: We really hope that the recession will make it more likely that people will see and understand what is happening. It is because of irresponsible lending and inadequate laws and financial rules that allow them to do these crazy things and run these pyramid schemes. We would like to see government bringing in new laws that prevent this from happening again. The CEOs of the four biggest companies which received bailouts in the US - there is a maximum salary for these people. There used to be a maximum wage in the 1930s because of the mass depression. Everything over a certain level used to be taxed by over 90 percent and Roosevelt wanted it to be 100 percent.
There is much to fight for because this is a chance to reconsider and do things differently. Companies can't really claim now that they are acting in our interests. The idea of corporate responsibility - we do not hear that phrase any more. However, that was always the problem with voluntary standards - if you gave them an inch they would take a mile. The public must be mobilised to make this change happen. It is not going to happen because the corporations act unless we force them.
Does it discredit neoliberalism in that putting profits before people failed to... produce profits?
Andy: The argument for the last 30 years was the more profit people made the better it was for everyone, for ordinary people. The financial crisis is now going to cost all these people their homes. We were told that there was trickle down and we got Milton Friedman on the television saying we were "free to chose" - that was the dogma. When I was growing up at school we didn't get religious lessons but we did get Milton Friedman.
Mike: For a while Milton Friedman was popular and always popping up on PBS, the public service broadcaster. So he was as popular as an economist can get. There were only four TV channels at that time and this was public service so it showed all the quality programmes and it was the channel that our parents would let us watch.
Friedman is a male, gray haired economist who is now dead. Are there any other dead, male gray haired economists you do like? Marx? Keynes?
Andy: Keynes probably. There are some very simple things we can do now, things which are common sense. For example, if we could just eliminate corporate lobbying from Washington and introduce a tax based on how much damage is done to the environment. When it comes to gasoline we should just be able to tax it the way they do in Europe. There would be a million miles less driven every year. This is just common sense legislation that can make a really big difference - not allowing corporations to carry on at the expense of everything else.
Do you think Obama will make a significant difference?
Mike: This is a very difficult area but there is a lot of hope. There has to be a lot of action and campaigning on the ground - much more than there has been for the last eight years. In the United States under George Bush we could have shouted however loudly we wanted and the government would have carried on and done what it wanted. More action or support from us probably wouldn't have made any difference. Now, the more pressure we assert on Obama the more likely he is to enact the laws that we need to protect the environment. This is a good moment to be encouraged to act - and that is global. It is not just a question of Obama, but there is considerably better political will towards him internationally than the previous president.
This is a really desperate time. The way I see it, this is make or break time. This is it. This is the moment when we decide whether or not we have a future. But everybody keeps carrying on. It's like everyone has their eye on the next pay cheque and on themselves and their own family. This is why these people are not bad people. In their own lives they would prefer to do something different. We need to make laws that define what is possible for this world. The market is always going to do whatever makes the most profit. The market left alone will not make what we need it to make.
Andy: We cannot just look to Obama because he is limited by what is around him. The legislature is the other part of the equation, he has to deal with the house of representatives and the senate. What we have to do is force the government to make legislation. We believe in taking direct action to get the message across. Obama will not be able to do these thing alone. There will be a lot of people lobbying and pressuring him. So we have to take action.
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