“They basically are in the business of selling doubt,” says James Hoggan. “They” are fake grassroots organizations set up “to influence or stop public policy by confusing the public.” Whereas most of their names sound generically patriotic (like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity), Hoggan points to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group whose essential lie is proclaimed in its name.
Lies like this—and the organizations that disseminate them—have become increasingly powerful in the American governing system, according to Greedy Lying Bastards, a documentary whose own title makes very clear its target and intention. In this case, the fake grassroots groups function as the promotional and lobbying branches of other bastards, namely, fossil fuels companies—including ExxonMobil, Chevron Corporation, BP, and Koch Industries.
The map of organizations offered in Greedy Lying Bastards is well known. But that doesn’t make it any less insidious or effective. As filmmaker Craig Rosebraugh draws this map, noting the corporations and their PR and lobbying arms, he notes as well another division of influence, directly related to the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, its “political brother, the Tea Party.” Again, this relationship is not news, but the film lays out the links among and effects of each element in the machinery, noting especially its increasing influence in the US political, economic, and—especially for the purposes of Rosebraugh’s movie—environmental policies.
To that end, Greedy Lying Bastards opens with a montage of environmental consequences, including wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, and floods. This collection of chaotic moments leads to some harrowing amateur footage of the 2012 wildfires in Colorado, as a young woman’s voice can be heard over footage taken while she was driving away from the fires, leaving behind her home. “It’s so bad,” she cries. “This isn’t fucking real.” The thick smoke and the bright orange flames do indeed look as though they’re background in a disaster film, and in its own way, Greedy Lying Bastards offers excitements and assertions as rousing as a Hollywood production.
While this might be expected in a film with such a title (see also: Al Franken’s 2004 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), the explicitness is its own argument, that confusing people in order to win—an argument, an election, anti-regulatory legislation—is in itself the primary problem. Lies and other evasive tactics have been refined and expanded over time. It’s one thing for corporations such as Koch Industries or Halliburton to pursue profits, market advantages or even favorable legislation; it’s another thing that they lie to achieve these ends. Worse, these lies are used to convince people to support policies that are against their own interests, interests like breathing.
To make such basic concerns visible, Greedy Lying Bastards uses some basic techniques: along with charts and graphs and dramatic disaster imagery, you also hear testimony from environmental experts and regular citizens who have lost homes or are losing livelihoods. “The last two years are the worst I’ve ever seen, in the lack of precipitation,” says Kansas wheat farmer Kurt Maddux. His brother Kent demonstrates, setting up a hose to pour full force into one of the many deep cracks in his land, a soaking that goes on for long minutes—with the camera cutting back to the hose as the Madduxes and other farmers describe their experiences with increasing costs and climate changes—and still the flow doesn’t fill the crack to the point that water rises to the surface.
It’s a small-scale sensational moment, of an emotional and political piece with scenes where families pick through the burned remains of their Waldo Canyon homes or an Alaskan tribal member stands on a shoreline, observing, “We’ve lost pretty much half the ground that we walked on when I was a little boy.” Such stories are absorbed into Rosebraugh’s own, as he follows the example of other recent environmental activism films—Chasing Ice, You’ve Been Trumped, Sun Come Up, The Island President, and of course, An Inconvenient Truth—here serving as outraged guide through a mess of bureaucracy and obfuscation, here, dclimate change denialistis.
The film provides numerous examples of denialists on TV, including Myron Ebell and Lord Christopher Monckton, framed by scientists and researchers who point out the spokesmen’s lies. That they have access to “major media” (Fox News imagery shows up several times) makes these liars especially daunting, as they run campaigns based on strategies once used by the tobacco industry. Archival footage shows Philip Morris Science & Technology Vice President Helmut Wakeham insisting he can’t tie cigarettes to smokers’ deaths: “The people who eat applesauce die, the people who eat sugar die, the people who smoke cigarettes die. Does the fact that the people who smoke cigarettes die demonstrate that smoking is the cause?”
In the face of even more aggressive evasiveness and cynicism today, Rosebraugh also takes up a familiar agitator’s stance. Like Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore, or You’ve Been Trumped‘s Anthony Baxter, he appears here on the phone, trying to get through to executives who won’t talk to him, in this case ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. When he determines to question Tillerson at the ExxonMobil shareholders’ meeting, he buys a few shares and brings along a hidden camera, then shows Tillerson on the stage from a distance that seems miles away, not answering Rosebraugh’s question about the company’s funding of denialist organizations. Ah yes, Tillerson answers, climate change poses a “serious risk,” and so ExxonMobil is “beginning to be actively engaged in that debate.“As Greedy Lying Bastards points out, the “debate” is painfully and patently false.