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Planet Waves: Which Way is Reality? 

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On Thursday, June 14, oil industry officials from around the world gathered at the GO EXPO (Gas and Oil Expo ‘07) in Calgary, Canada, and heard a presentation for an innovative, sustainable replacement for petroleum: a new technology called “Vivoleum.” The presenters represented themselves as executives from ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council (an industry organization) and were among the keynote speakers before 300 oil business leaders.

They proposed that the bodies of climate change victims, who they said now number about 150,000 a year, could be rendered into a burnable product, particularly as combustion of fossil fuels sped up ecological disasters. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, they distributed candles throughout the audience, which were allegedly made of the stuff. The candles were lit, and the oil execs passed the flame from one to another.

A presenter named “Shepard Wolff,” claiming to be an NPC representative, told the audience that current US and Canadian energy policies (notably the massive, carbon-intensive exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands, and the development of liquid coal), are increasing the chances of huge, global calamities. But he reassured the audience that in the worst-case scenario, the industry could “keep fuel flowing” by transforming the people who die into oil.

The “o” in the Vivoleum logo was a drop of blood.

“We need something like whales, but infinitely more abundant,” said “Wolff,” before describing the technology used to render human flesh into Vivoleum. Three-dimensional animations of the process brought it to life. The executives watched and listened attentively.

“Vivoleum works in perfect synergy with the continued expansion of fossil fuel production,” said “Florian Osenberg,” claiming to be an ExxonMobil representative. “With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum. Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left.”

The two then showed a video tribute to an ExxonMobil janitor, “Reginald Spanglehart Watts,” who had purportedly died of toxic exposure after a chemical incident at a company facility. Before passing away, the kindhearted worker had donated his body to be made into one of the candles, so that he could do some good and be useful to others after he died. “Osenberg” lit the candle made of Watts’s flesh and held it up.

The tear-jerking tribute to “Reggie Watts” (with “You Light Up My Life” sung out of tune by Reggie as its theme song, as he mopped and swept) finally pushed the presenters’ credulity a shade too far. At that point, realizing the presentation was a hoax, Simon Mellor, commercial and business development director for the company putting on the event, walked up and physically forced the two imposters from the podium. The police were called, but the pair could only be charged with trespassing.

Meet the Yes Men—Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin—most recently using the aliases Michael Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum. They specialize in messing with the heads of capitalism and its leaders, often impersonating representatives of the World Trade Organization or some multinational company that it represents: McDonald’s, Dow Chemical, Halliburton, or ExxonMobil.

In a world where you often need a passport to rent a motel room and where some airports check your ticket before you can purchase a bottle of wine in the duty-free shop, the Yes Men exploit, indeed, they have discovered, a vast opening in reality: If you claim to represent a company or industry organization, then that must be true. It follows that no matter what you say, no matter how cruel, absurd or lacking any semblance of humanity or political correctness, most people (including the most educated) believe what you’re doing is real; “Suspension of disbelief,” as it’s called in literature, is facilitated by the profit motive. In other words, if something makes money, it’s not necessarily good; but it’s most definitely real.

In one presentation at SUNY Plattsburgh, they impersonated McDonald’s and the WTO, and proposed the recycling of hamburgers into what they called reBurgers. In particular, they proposed to a lecture hall full of economics students, that feces from Americans be rendered into food for developing countries, based on the scientific fact that people only absorb about 20 percent of their nutrition and excrete the rest. They presented a 3-D animation of sewage being stamped into patties and served in McDonald’s to people wearing turbans and other non-Western attire.

Some audience members objected to the concept, making intellectual arguments against it or objecting on humanitarian grounds. After more than an hour, some students started heckling the presenters. But for the most part, the concept was received as authentic, if immoral.

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