New Internationalist

Interview with Mike Bonanno

Issue 425

Mike Bonanno is a cultural activist and one half of the Yes Men. Five years ago he and sidekick Andy Bichlbaum were invited on to BBC World News pretending to represent Dow Chemicals, whose environmental legacy included the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. Live on air, they made a promise which caused the company’s share price to drop by $2 billion overnight. This scene introduces their new film, The Yes Men Fix The World, a side-splitting but urgent take on the dangerous confluence of the economic status quo and the realities of climate change. Here Mike talks to Simon Bateson, director of the Take One Action Film Festival, of which New Internationalist is official media partner.

How did you get into this strange terrain playing with the social space that’s occupied by corporations? Was there a clear ideology behind your journey?

It was sort of by accident, but it was born out of frustration with late capitalist culture. I lived in a monotonous suburb in upstate New York. So I was already doing mischievous things in my youth. I used to go to the mall with friends and try to interrupt what was going on. One of us would climb in a suitcase and someone else would drag it past everybody while they were inside screaming.

When I went to college my eyes were opened big time. I met kids from the city and from places like San Francisco who knew so much more than I did. I thought, ‘So this is what’s going on!’ You see, back then the city wasn’t corporate hell like the suburban malls were. Urban life was actually affirming. But the environmental movement had already seen what was coming, the disconnection starting to creep in.

The Yes Men use a kind of irony to show what’s really going on in the world…

Yes, we’re messing with the signs. In Portland, they were trying to expunge Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and rename it Union Avenue. So we created a media story by changing all the street names overnight to Malcolm X Street. This was when I started to get more politicized and apply these kinds of thing to serious issues. Next there was the Barbie Liberation Organization, where a bunch of us decided to comment on what corporations were pushing on to kids. We switched the voice boxes on 100 Barbie and GI Joe toys and put them back on the shelves. When people bought them they’d hear the Barbies saying ‘Dead men tell no lies’ and the Joes saying ‘I love to shop with you’. It was stuff like that which taught us what the media would pick up on.

In the first Yes Men movie you and Andy created fake websites to get invited to various conventions where you would pretend to speak as official delegates of organizations like the WTO or Dow Chemicals. Is your new film doing similar things?

It’s kind of like the old Yes Men film, very, very funny, but the issues are different and more urgent. The movie opens with the Bhopal catastrophe, the largest industrial accident in history. Everybody knew this plant, which Union Carbide had built in India, was going to have an accident. The great tragedy when the plant finally did explode and killed 10,000 people in the first 72 hours, and 20,000 over the following years, was that everyone was expecting it. For us, this is a natural parallel for what we’re seeing now in terms of climate change. Everybody knows it’s going to happen, it has been well publicised, but we’re heading down the same track unless we do something. This idea of endless economic growth for a handful of people just doesn’t fit the situation. But the film winds up with us providing a solution to everything! It ends with us giving away thousands of fake copies of The New York Times showing a fantastically positive world: multinationals are paying their dues, radical climate change laws have been passed. And people start asking themselves, ‘Why not? Why isn’t this happening?’

Do you think the US election has opened the door to the kind of hopeful engagement that’s necessary to deal with climate change, or with the corporate stranglehold on society?

I’m optimistic that Obama has the will, but I don’t think it will happen unless we put pressure on him. His economic advisers are the same as Clinton had, whose policies were all about the trickle down. Freedom for everyone as long as you have the money. In the end we re-cut the closing scenes of the movie to take it beyond Obama, because we were beyond the euphoria and had this hindsight. The film returns to the idea of protest, to the need to keep demanding change. We have this very concrete goal with the release. We’re trying to sign up as many people as we can who are willing to put their butts on the line in the name of climate change. We’ve launched the website, Beyond Talk, where you commit to joining in with local civil disobedience if or when the politicians at Copenhagen don’t deliver what’s needed. We’ve built this massive machine, and if we are going to take that apart it’s going to take a lot of people power.

Do you think it’s dangerous to rely on the internet for social change?

I think there’s a lot to be said for the ability to communicate fairly cheaply and with a lot of people through social networking. So the technology is great for protest right now, but whether the corporations succeed in commodifying it, I don’t know. And the collapse of the newspapers is interesting. It’s both a problem and an opportunity, because democracy relies on an informed citizenry, but now we have this chance to revisit who exactly is doing the informing. I just came off the phone to Fox News about the Beyond Talk site. They’ll probably end up doing a bad report, but it still serves a purpose. Some people are going to act on it. Of course the best journalists are those who really analyse what’s being said, who don’t just repeat it, because at the end of the day no one can compete with the volume of PR that a company like Exxon Mobile or Coca Cola can churn out. We need journalists who can see the bigger picture.

For details of this year’s programme at the Take One Action Film Festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow visit www.takeoneaction.org.uk

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