Greedy Lying Bastards, or how not to make a difference


I had the pleasure of seeing Greedy Lying Bastards recently, the new documentary from local filmmaker Craig Rosebraugh about the climate change denial industry. I knew with a name like “Greedy Lying Bastards” that it wasn’t likely to be an even-handed, balanced treatment of the subject matter (and so it proved), but as I was already pretty solidly on the side of the director, I figured that it would at least be entertaining, if not actually informative.

Sticks and stones...
Sticks and stones…

It turned out to be both. While not exactly an original construct—the movie took cues from all the expected places: Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, An Inconvenient Truth—it was obviously heartfelt. With an endless stream of facts and dizzying infographics, it had plenty to say to people who already agreed with the fundamental premise: that climate change is real and there are many powerful people who have everything to gain by denying that it is a problem.

This isn’t a review of the movie. You can find that in other places. What struck me when watching the movie was what seemed to be a giant hole in the movie’s argumentation, an “elephant in the cinema” as it were.

At the end of the movie, there was the requisite “call to action.” Keeping within the spirit of the movie, it said (paraphrasing), “Let’s boycott Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. Together, we can stop these bastards.”

That sounds nice, but I wanted to ask the director: “how come every scene in the movie that showed you going somewhere involved a car?” Many of the director’s soliloquies were staged while driving in his Toyota. With all the damning evidence of the oil companies, why was no one talking about car dependency?

Land-use and oil, a love story

I believe that boycotting ExxonMobil is a fruitless and empty gesture. There are two reasons for this:

  • Why single out ExxonMobil? Even if you believe they are “evil” because they fund climate change deniers, is there an oil company that doesn’t have the same interests? Is there an oil company that’s going to move out of oil? Would they still be an oil company then? Why single out ExxonMobil just because they’re the biggest player? After all…
  • People still need gas. In the US at least, and in increasingly many other parts of the world, we have built our cities and towns to all but require the use of an automobile. This implies gas (unless you’re wealthy and can afford an electric car, but that’s not viable for most people and sidesteps the larger problem). If people pass the ExxonMobil station to get gas from the Shell or BP or Chevron station across the road, what exactly have we accomplished?

I was amazed that no discussion touched on perhaps why the oil companies are so rich (and therefore powerful). Is it American’s built-in, genetic, immutable love of the automobile? Is it because of our pioneer roots that cause us to want to own a three acre, 2,500 square foot house 30 miles from the city center?

Hardly. It’s land-use planning.

Death by strip mall

We subsidize sprawl. We have laws in place that make it easy for developers to put in strip malls with chain stores on the arterial highway that leads out of town while we penalize those who want to put a local shop downtown. We have “parking minimum” laws that make downtown shops less viable and much less pleasant for the pedestrian. Many may want to own a small compound on the edge of town (where it’s “safe”) so developers build farther and farther out of town to accommodate them. And when the built environment is spread out and low-density, then it becomes impractical to move about except with a personal automobile. And that means gas.

With more people driving, the arterial roads get choked with traffic, so the “obvious” solution is to widen the roads, to put more lanes in. The net result is that the built environment becomes even less friendly to any mode of transport aside from the personal automobile. After all, you can’t put public transit in an area that’s so spread out that you have to live three miles from the nearest station. You’ll end up driving there, and if you’re already in your car, well, why not just continue driving all the way?

When we ensure car dependence, we also perpetuate the enrichment of ExxonMobil and all the other oil companies. As long as we live in places where we “have” to drive, we will drive. And driving takes gas. And that means a perpetual revenue stream for the oil companies. Bravo.

The free market isn’t free

Do you think this is just the “natural way of things?” The free market at work?

Hardly. I repeat again, it’s nothing more than the laws on our books about land-use and zoning, which is nothing more than municipalities setting the “ground rules” for what they wish to encourage and discourage. The free market takes over from there using those ground rules, but those ground rules themselves are not inviolate. They’ve been changed before (we did originally build all those downtowns once, after all) and they can be changed again.

Here’s probably the greatest graphic I’ve ever seen on the cycle of car dependence.

(c) Todd Litman, 2013. "Smart Congestion Relief - Comprehensive Analysis of Traffic Congestion Costs and Congestion Reduction Benefits". Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Via Whew.
(c) Todd Litman, 2013. “Smart Congestion Relief – Comprehensive Analysis of Traffic Congestion Costs and Congestion Reduction Benefits“. Victoria Transport Policy Institute, via Whew.

I believe there is only one way to break the cycle, and that’s not by adding more lanes. The answer is that we need to start building in instead of building out. We need to reconfigure our spaces to be denser. That doesn’t mean that every place needs to be a multi-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. Houses can be dense too. But it means street grids instead of cul-de-sacs. It means designing the location of commercial areas such that you can walk to the store to get your groceries, take a bike to your favorite restaurant, and take a bus or train to get to and from your job. Public transit works and can reduce car-dependency, but it only works if the built environment is designed to favor it.

So don’t boycott ExxonMobil. Instead:

  • Talk to your local municipality. Tell them that you want livable, complete streets, and housing that facilitates the building of communities, not exurban compounds.
  • While you’re at it, don’t buy a house in an exurban compound. Find an house or apartment closer into town, near transit lines, near where jobs and grocery stores are. They are out there, I promise.
  • Lobby for more transit-oriented development. If there’s no political will to build for increased density and better neighborhoods, maybe you should join the city council and fight for it yourself.

And finally, if your city is so decentralized that there just isn’t any place you can go that’s not car dependent, and there’s no political will to do anything about it, then move somewhere else if you can. The benefits and quality of life increases are huge, and this has nothing to do with boycotting any oil companies. After all, the best protests are the ones where you don’t have to sacrifice to win.

Optimally, we would change the laws and subsidies that currently favor the development of sprawl. But being a civilian, I have no idea how we would do that. All I can do is make my own choices, and encourage others to do the same. We do have choices, after all.

So if you really want to stick it to ExxonMobil, don’t gas up at Shell. Instead, develop a less car-dependent lifestyle. If more people did this, the oil companies wouldn’t have as much money to throw around bullying scientists and spouting falsehoods.

I guess I just wonder why the director of Greedy Lying Bastards didn’t make this point, considering it was staring at him from the logo on his steering wheel.

But enough about me. How has your living situation affected your car dependence? And what do you suggest we do to reduce our car/oil dependency?


  1. Nicole

    Great post! I am surprised he didn’t include a discussion of urban planning and creating less car-centric communities and and other policy issues (besides just boycotting) in the movie. I didn’t know about the parking minimum laws; reminded me of the current hullabaloo here in Portland over the new apartment buildings on Division that don’t come with additional parking spots (b/c they are trying to encourage biking, walking, and public transit use – at least I think that was one of the reasons) but the neighbors are pissed and vocal about it (less parking for them). Anyway I definitely agree one of the best quality of life indicators for me is the walkability of my neighborhood! My current apartment has a walk score 92, which makes me very happy. Although honestly I wouldn’t be able to afford living here if my building weren’t low income. Definitely the more desirable (walkable) neighborhoods tend to have higher rents, and that’s been the case in every city I’ve lived, which is unfortunate.

    • Mike

      Hi Nicole. Thanks for stopping by! The whole parking situation in SE Portland is an interesting one, though not unique. Homeowners are not happy that they are now having to compete with newcomers for parking in their neighborhoods. And while I feel for them, homeowners don’t actually own the street in front of their house. They have no right to parking, free or otherwise. That part of Portland appears to be in a transition from single-family homes toward multi-family dwellings. That transition is going to be difficult for some, but I think in general it’s indicative of a healthy and prospering city.

      I do support residential parking permits if done correctly. If nothing else levying a small fee could fund street improvements and help manage demand.

      And as for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods being more expensive than car-centric areas, I agree that it is a problem, possibly the largest planning challenge of our generation. I believe we’re witnessing the reversal of the flight-to-the-suburbs that our parents were part of. Now it’s those with limited means who are going to be stuck out there. I recognize the inequity, but I wish I knew what to do about it.

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