Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Film Review: Merchants of Doubt: An Ecotheological Perspective

Film Review by The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

            What voices do you listen to?  Are they voices filled with curiosity and truthfulness, or dripping with sarcasm and criticism?  What is the timbre of those voices?  Are they shrill and accusing?  Or forthright and honest?  When you listen to those voices, do they fill you with hope about what is possible, or do they cut off conversation with an edge of anger or cynicism?  The voices that fill our ears also fill our hearts and shape our mental responses to the world around us.  The voices we listen to can have an incredible effect on who we are, what we believe, and how we act.
Naomi Oreskes,
Professor of the History of Science and
Affiliated Professor of Earth and
Planetary Sciences at Harvard University  
Merchants of Doubt, based on the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Bloomsbury Press, 2011) is a well-executed documentary illustrating the phenomenon of the “spin” industry that has arisen to drown out the voices of scientists and researchers calling our attention to the dangers of everything from tobacco smoke to flame-retardant chemicals in furniture, from pesticides to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.  Using the metaphor of the sleight-of-hand magician who creates illusions that distract an audience from reality, the film uses this through-line to effectively explain how public relations firms, advertising teams, lobbyists and industry front groups have distracted the public from the dangers of a long list of harmful products and polluting industries, including cigarettes, DDT, extreme energy extraction, and climate change.  As magician Jamy Ian Swiss explains in the film, “There’s a difference between magicians and the liars and charlatans. It offends me when someone takes my skills to distort and manipulate people.”  The use of Swiss to help narrate the film and provide the “huckster” hermeneutic through which to interpret and frame the stories of deception is one of the documentary’s strengths.  The film is visually and narratively compelling, leaving the viewer both angered and yet emboldened to take action to raise their own voice on behalf of the truth.  “Once revealed, never concealed,” as Swiss observes.
I would recommend this film to professors of environmental ethics to help students understand the alarmingly effective tactics used to sway public opinion about environmental issues, particularly climate disruption.  The film would also work well for environmental ministry teams at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship looking for a captivating example of the moral and ethical dilemmas we face during this time of Creation-crisis.  I also encourage local environmental groups to host showings of the film in order to for citizens to understand the history of industry manipulation and begin to more critically engage those voices that claim to be “experts” in a given field, but, in fact, have little to no scientific credentials.
I was invited to view the film and be part of a panel discussion at the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, PA, sponsored by Susquehanna Valley Progressives and the Rivertown Coalition for Clean Water and Clean Air.  As a pastor concerned with justice issues – particularly environmental threats – I viewed the film through an ecotheological lens.  As I watched the parade of “spin-meisters” and their successful attempts to either distort the truth about the dangers of extreme energy extraction, cover up or minimize the horror of the damage, or tell outright lies about the science of climate change, I was reminded of the words from Isaiah: “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” (Isaiah 6:5). We live in a time of manufactured realities peddled by these Merchants of Doubt who are profiting enormously from their brilliant tactics of deception.[1] I, myself, have to admit to my own “unclean lips” in my complicity as a consumer of goods and energy that lulls me into uncritically engaging in an economic system from which I benefit, while millions in impoverished communities bear the costs of my comfortable lifestyle.  The “unclean lips” in the movie gleefully admitted to the tactics they used to mislead the public and create illusions of doubt about the veracity of science.  It’s a pattern that, thanks to Oreskes and Conway, is being brought to light through careful and exhaustive research.
The scene from Isaiah continues with the prophet feeling the searing, yet cleansing, heat from the fiery ember of the altar fire placed on his tongue.  In the face of the world’s deception, a voice of divine authority asks Isaiah, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" To which we – individually, collectively, and as people of faith – can boldly answer in the prophets words: "Here am I; send me!" In other words, we can answer the call to announce the prophetic truth – that God is indeed the sovereign over all Creation, and we are called to be servants in this Earth-temple.  And that we, as the beloved Children and caretakers of this temple of Earth, will be held accountable for what we have done and what we have left undone.[2] 
Dr. James Hansen, climatologist
One particularly compelling figure from the film was the climate scientist Dr. James Hansen who reminded me of the prophet Isaiah.  Dr. Hansen worked for the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in 1988.  An unassuming, soft-spoken science-geek, his research indicated that our planet was experiencing the same kind of greenhouse effect as Venus.  All the carbon dioxide being released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels was like putting a blanket around the planet holding in the heat and destabilizing the atmosphere.  The warming climate draws in more moisture from the seas in what’s known as “positive feedback,” which intensifies the hurricanes and typhoons that form over the seas and oceans.  At the same time, the seas are rising because the polar ice caps are melting at a rate fast enough to inundate coastlands and swallow entire islands.
Immediately after testifying to this truth in Congress, Hansen and other scientists like him were attacked for their research.  Over the past 25 years climate scientists have received threatening and hate-filled emails, been mocked and lampooned in the press and on the Internet, and had their integrity as scientists questioned – an effort led not by other respected scientists but by lobbyists, so-called “think tanks,” PR firms, and industry front groups financed by the fossil fuel industry.  For many years, Hansen and other scientists shied away from these attacks, avoided any media altercations, and trusted that as their research was studied and shared with policy makers, steps would be taken to address the problem.  Instead, the amount of carbon dioxide has sky-rocketed as the public, industry and governments did either nothing or very little to respond to the data.
After years of keeping quiet, however, he realized that if he did not speak up, the truth simply would not be heard.  In an uncharacteristic display of boldness, Hanson has emerged as one of the primary voices speaking the truth and leading the movement to address the dangers of the climate crisis.  Like Isaiah whose tongue was seared by the burning ember, Dr. Hansen has joined climate protests and marches, speaks at events, and no longer cowers from the attacks of those with unclean lips.  He has consistently and forthrightly voiced the truth about the challenges we face. In his efforts to draw attention to this crisis, he has even been arrested during nonviolent demonstrations of civil disobedience. “You just have to say what you think is right,” Hansen has said in response to his critics. In other words, “Here am I.  Send me.” 
The other compelling figure in the film is Bob Inglis, a six-term Republican congressman who had been a climate-change denier until he witnessed first-hand the rapid changes in ecosystems across the globe due to the greenhouse effect and examined the ice core samples in the Arctic that tell the history of human-induced climate change.  
Bob Inglis, 6-term Republican Congressman
Like Paul in the book of Acts who experienced a conversion after hearing the voice of the risen Christ, Inglis experienced a “climate-change conversion”  and has taken the message of climate change to his constituents – and suffered the consequences.  Because this message did not square with the “tribe” of conservative Republicans and their ideology, Inglis was ousted from his seat and ostracized from the Party. 
What Inglis discovered is just how effective the frame of “freedom” is in swaying Americans away from heeding the message about danger.  When regulations against cigarettes were on the horizon in the 60s and 70s, the message was: we can’t let them take away our “freedom” to smoke.  This ideal of freedom is at the heart of what it means to be American and has been brilliantly maneuvered into galvanizing the public against regulations that would actually be in their best interest.  As the film shows, any regulation that aims to protect public health and well-being (but threaten corporate profits) can be spun as an infringement on freedom.  This has worked for gun regulation, climate regulation, air pollution regulation, nutrition regulation, and every other attempt to reign in those industries that off-load the true costs of their businesses (loss of health, property, clean air, water and land) onto the public.  Ironically, as Inglis points out, people who don't like big government are going to get more of it.  Billions of dollars will be spent by the government to deal with catastrophic weather events, climate-refugees, and wars over access to land, water and resources – all of which are directly affected by climate disruption.  “People are going to die - that's why it matters,” says Inglis. “We're running out of time to prevent a train wreck.”
The film does end on a note of hope and empowerment, with the message:  you don't have to accept things the way they are.  “The lie is that we can't innovate, that we have to rely on fossil fuels,” says Inglis.  “I want to be part of saying:  We did rise.”  Sometimes the voice of God comes to us in unexpected ways, saying unexpected things.  Sometimes the truth is hard to say, and even harder to hear and accept.  But when that truth is spoken in love, when it is spoken with an open heart and mind, with no agenda other than to share that truth and make things better, it has incredible power. 
The Good News is that the voices of the prophets, the voice of Jesus, inspire us to raise our own prophetic voice.  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” as the Teacher said (John 8:32).  Of course, the truth is going to hurt like hell first.  But only by acknowledging this truth can we get down to the hard work of healing and rectifying the wrongs we have done.  The divine voice is not calling for us to run and hide, or lie about the truth, or be cynical and jaded about this world.  The voice of divine authority calls us into relationship with each other, with Creation, with our community.  Whether that voice comes to you through the words of a climate-converted politician, or the soft-spoken words of a scientist, or the tough-love words of a pastor – God’s voice is still speaking.  And with the courage of Isaiah we can respond:  Here am I – send me!  Send us!

[1] See also the short documentary film by Josh Fox, The Sky is Pink, recounting the deliberate attempts of the fracking industry to deceive the public about the dangers of shale gas drilling:
[2] See Pope Francis’ injunction against those who harm God’s Creation:  “God Will Judge You on Whether You Cared for Earth”  


  1. Great review. I felt very moved my Inglis and I am glad they focused on him toward the end of the film. Thank you for taking the time to review the film. I will be sure to share it with folks. And you need to come back to Climate Stew soon!

  2. Thanks, Peterson! It was great to be with you Glen and Jack on the panel. As always, your insights were thought-provoking. I'll look forward to doing another Stew with you soon!


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