«They tell me I can save the world… the orang-utans, the dolphins, the oceans, the rain forest, and even humankind–all I have to do is buy sustainable and fair products. But that’s a lie.»
– Werner Boote, The Green Lie
(opens in a new window)The brainchild of Austrian film director Werner Boote (known for his films Plastic Planet and Alles Unter Kontrolle) and Kathrin Hartmann, German environmentalist, and expert on sustainability, The Green Lie reveals the bitter truths behind environment-savvy consumerism and designates ethical consumerism as the latest kind of brainwashing, namely “greenwashing”. The film was financed by the Austrian Film Institute, the Vienna Film Fund and the Austrian public service broadcasting organization, ORF. With its humane, first-person narrative approach, it’s meant to appeal to an art cinema audience as well as to the majority of contemporary consumers. Similar to its funding, its audience will be wide and all-encompassing. Rightfully.
Contrary to its broad-ranging topic, the film has a fixed dramatic structure with two main pillars. One is the protagonist who undergoes a serious change during the film. The other is the narration, structured in contrasts. The portrait of the protagonist–an enlightened and caring European consumer who, at the very start, defines himself as someone who had a happy childhood, learned to be a good boy, to be polite, to avoid arguments, and, in general, is striving for harmony–is depicted in the contrasts to his antagonists: Kathrin Hartmann, his female colleague, environmentalist and co-author of the film, and other experts that the couple encounter within their exploration and who gradually help Hartmann unveil the unpleasant background of Boote’s comfortable consumerist beliefs.
Due to this firm narrative structure and the excellent cinematography by Dominik Spritzendorfer and Mario Hoetschl, the examples of greenwashing selected for the film are intertwined with dialogues between Boote and Hartmann and their interviews with experts, activists, and protagonists into an informative journey around the world.
«The film reveals the bitter truths behind environment-savvy consumerism and designates ethical consumerism as the latest kind of brainwashing, namely “greenwashing”.»
These examples, too, are presented within contrasts. During the field exploration of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the protagonist, carrying M&M chocolate candies in his pocket, is astounded by the barren, black, smoking land where the rainforest was burned down to make space for the palm tree plantation used to produce the key ingredient in his candies. While the activist explains how certificates of sustainably produced palm oil are used to “clean up” the oil produced on this devastated land, at a Palm Oil Industry Conference the children and elderly in traditional attire are dancing to traditional music, creating the atmosphere of an exotic wellness centre.
The petroleum industry survey starts with the story about BP and its 200 million USD investment in a PR operation to change its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. It is accompanied by shots of a vast sandy beach, and this with shots of gigantic red flames, documenting how on April 20, 2010 an oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing nine people and resulting in oil burning for 87 days straight.
An electric car as an alternative to the traditional fossil fuel vehicle becomes a contrast to itself. The pleasure of Boote in driving it, as a lived consumer experience, is contrasted with hard facts. You do not see dirty gas coming out of it, you hear no noise, there is no pollution, and so you can keep enjoying the consumption. However, you can only do this if you forget that it takes enormous amount of energy to build an electric car, the lithium is mined in ecologically sensitive areas, and so much water is consumed that none is left for local farmers and indigenous people. As an electric car silently moves along the two-lane road, an harmonious landscape of green fields, blue sea, and clear sky gradually transforms into its opposite: a ravaged landscape of brownish-grey raw ground, with pools of dirty water and dry residues of yellowish dirt on the sides. In this largest opencast coal mine in Germany, the coal for electricity production (needed to run ecological cars) is mined. Description of the contamination caused by the fine coal dust, from respiratory diseases to increased cancer rates, is accompanied by the publicity for RWE, the owner of the mine, showing a huge green giant fixing the world.
Green Is Just a Colour
The initial point, that most of the time consumers accept the solutions provided by the industry too quickly (“Green is just a colour”, says Hartmann), is elaborated by the experts. Raj Patel defends the consumers who are empowered by all kinds of information, but who are often given too much info and don’t know how to decide. The decisions such as not to exploit children, not to kill dolphins or not to damage the environment should not be reduced to individual consumption decisions in the first place. Similarly, Noam Chomsky advocates for institutional change that will remove the necessity for green lies by placing power systems under popular control. It is by no means hopeless, but the change will not come by itself.
«The decisions such as not to exploit children, not to kill dolphins or not to damage the environment should not be reduced to individual consumption decisions in the first place.»
Thus, through the course of the film the polite, argument-avoiding consumer undergoes a change. In the peaceful scene of the two filmmakers traveling by train, the consumer himself starts discussing the fear to change and concludes that people have to be willing to make changes or nothing will happen. Here we see that the structure, putting the two filmmakers into various opposing roles, provided the possibility to present critical ideas from various perspectives, to show the need to be inclusive, to tackle doubts and fears and opposing opinions. The film does provide a more tangible solution at the end, but according to this reviewer, the greatest insight provided by The Green Lie is that, whatever the solution, it needs to be inclusive.
The Green Lie is thus an excellent documentary, and also a timely warning message–an appeal to the enlightened consumers of the Western world who, determined to protect the common planet, often harm it unknowingly. Is there anything such as ethical consumption? Or do we need, if we want to stop causing the damage, to abandon the consumerism altogether?