February 08, 2007, 0:00 a.m.
A Mine is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Mine Your Own Business exposes green hypocrisy.
By Peter Suderman
It's not often you find environmentalists staging a protest outside of
National Geographic. But in mid-January, a handful of them gathered
outside the magazine's Washington, D.C. headquarters to rally against
the organization's decision to rent out a theater for the Washington
premiere of the documentary Mine Your Own Business, a movie that
tracks the efforts of environmentalists to stop the development of
mines that promise to invigorate flagging economies in destitute
regions across the world.
With stacks of photocopied handouts and hand-scrawled poster board
signs bearing slogans like "Full Disclosure," the motley crew of
activists stalked the streets pushing papers at passers by and
engaging in heated debate with free-market counter-protesters and even
the filmmakers themselves. Nor were they the only ones going after the
film. Earlier, Greenpeace released a statement urging National
Geographic not go forth with the showing and comparing the movie to
pornography and Nazi propaganda. This was despite the fact that
National Geographic was not endorsing the showing, but merely renting
out their theater space.
The rhetorical overkill of the response was telling: The environmental
movement is clearly afraid of this film, and they should be. Mine Your
Own Business, Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer's clear-eyed look at the
true impacts of mining and the nefarious tactics of its opponents,
exposes the self-satisfied delusions of the environmental Left,
putting lie to a host of deadly, anti-growth canards and revealing the
smug elitism of many green advocates.
This is, perhaps, not all that surprising. The ideas espoused by many
greens are farcical enough to begin with. But even for someone used to
their whoppers, it's almost shocking the lies, misrepresentations, and
condescending behavior that McAleeny manages to catch on film. With
great care and thoroughness, the movie deconstructs the Left's
anti-growth narrative of pastoral tranquility and replaces it with
something truly shocking: actual local sentiment.
Mine Your Own Business looks primarily at ongoing efforts to stop
Canadian company Gabriel Resources from building a gold mine in Rosia
Montana, Romania. The region is poor, with many people still residing
in tiny, Communist-era block apartments and forced to use outhouses in
a place in which freezing temperatures are common. Most anti-mine
activists, of course, live far away, surrounded by modern comforts.
But despite this, they claim to know what the locals want.
McAleer, on the other hand, figured the locals might be in a better
position to explain their needs. In the film, he walks the streets of
Rosia Montana and two other potential mine locations conducting
interviews with area residents. Every one of them repeats a variant on
one idea: What they really want is to work, and the mines would
provide them that opportunity. By talking directly to locals, and by
airing their ideas rather than claiming to speak for them, McAleer
beats supposedly pro-local environmentalists at their own game.
Environmentalists, of course, talk endlessly about preserving
traditional ways of life, but locals don't want to preserve poverty
and hardship. They want a chance to provide a more comfortable
existence for themselves and their families. McAleer catches Francoise
Heidebroek, who works with an anti-mining NGO, claiming that Rosia
Montana residents would "prefer to ride a horse than drive a car."
When McAleer asks locals if they'd prefer to clop about in freezing
temperatures on a horse, they just laugh at him. Heidebroek, it's
useful to note, sequesters herself away in the modernized capitol city
of Bucharest. If she wants to saddle up every morning, well, I say
good luck. But there's no reason that her equestrian whimsy should
force actual Rosia Montana residents to do the same.
But Heidobroek's wistful fantasies about poverty are nothing compared
to those of the World Wildlife Fund's Mark Fenn. Fenn opposes a
proposed mine in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar on the grounds that it would
destroy "the quaintness, the small-town feeling" that he so admires.
Of course, while Fenn, who boasts on camera of his $35,000 boat and
the foundation of his new beachfront home, luxuriates in first world
comfort, most of the town's residents live in dire poverty. When asked
why locals should be denied the economic opportunity that would come
with the mine, he calmly explains that, although they might not have
terribly good healthcare, or shelter, or nutrition, they have a
stress-free life that can be valued by — I kid you not — the number of
times they smile per day. Even if they did get money, he explains,
they wouldn't know how to spend it. As he tells it, they tend to blow
their cash on parties, booze, and stereo systems. Not everyone, it
appears, can have his taste in beach houses and catamarans.
Fenn's attitude isn't just witless, it's sickening, and it's
indicative of the general level of smug, out-of-touch elitism that
haunts the environmental movement. "Regional character," "simple
life," "quaintness," "small-town feeling," "local history" — these are
just warm, fuzzy phrases trotted out by anti-growth environmentalists
to deny wealth and opportunities to residents of poor regions. And, as
in Fenn's case, they're often markers of ugly condescension toward
McAleer, on the other hand, treats the locals in the areas he visits
with respect. He asks one Fort Dauphin resident what she'd do with the
money she'd get for a job, and she says she'd buy an item at a low
price and sell it for a higher price — a line that drew much applause
from the audience at the premiere.
Before venturing into the world of documentary film, McAleer worked as
a journalist for the Financial Times and the U.K. Sunday Times. The
experience shows. Mine Your Own Business works in no small part
because of its smart, thoughtful storytelling, its expertly edited
juxtapositions of activist claims and local realities, and its strong
characterizations. Nor is it burdened by any of the lazy boosterism
that infects so much documentary filmmaking. Instead, it's a
compellingly rendered journalistic narrative that casts a skeptical
eye on many of the dubious claims of the environmental Left.
McAleer, of course, has his biases. The film begins by explaining that
much of its funding came from Gabriel Resources, the company that
wants to put in the mine. But McAleer also makes clear that he took
the money on the condition that the company would have no editorial
control. In a question and answer session after the film, he claimed
to come from a liberal background and said that, on his first trip to
Rosia Montana, he had intended to tell a typical story about big bad
corporations. The facts of the story, however, were too obvious to
Before the film began, Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Motion Picture
Institute, an organization devoted to aiding in the creation of films
that promote a free society (and one of the groups responsible for the
film's production), introduced it by noting the protesters outside and
the virulent reaction from Greenpeace. "To people who are intolerantly
devoted to their own views," he said, "this is pornography — political
pornography." The comparison is strong, but apt. As Mine Your Own
Business makes clear, the left's environmentalist fringe sees nothing
as more revolting than the truth.
Full disclosure: The Washington, D.C. premiere I attended was
partially sponsored by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)
which, at the time of showing, was my employer. Neither I nor CEI had
any input or involvement whatsoever into the film's production.
— Peter Suderman is managing editor of NRO.