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Yes Men Affiliates Prank Peabody Energy [UPDATED]

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KIDS KOAL
CoalCares.org/Coal is Killing Kids

It appears that a merry gang of agitprop pranksters associated with the Yes Men have pulled a fast one on Peabody Energy, the self-described "world's largest private sector coal company."

The prank took off in earnest Tuesday, when the following press release was published by PRNewswire:

Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) Announces “Coal Cares™” Initiative, New Nationwide Campaign Against Stigma of Childhood Asthma

ST. LOUIS, May 10, 2011 / PRNewswire via COMTEX/ — Peabody Energy today announced the creation of an innovative new public health initiative designed to combat the stigma of asthma among American children ages 0-18. With Coal Cares™ (www.coalcares.org), Peabody will offer free, custom-branded inhaler actuators to children living within 200 miles of a coal plant, along with coupons worth $10 towards the purchase of the asthma medication itself.

“Too many young Americans face daily schoolyard taunting and bullying because of a condition over which they have no control,” said Gregory H. Boyce, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Peabody Energy. “By re-branding the inhaler as a cool, individualized, must-have accessory, Coal Cares™ will empower children to tell bullies: ‘suck it up.’” Children can choose from a variety of youth-themed inhaler cases, from tween faves like “the Bieber” and “My Little Pony,” to the “Emo” and “Diamond” inhalers for older, style-conscious youth. There’s even “My First Inhaler,” for tots.

Coal Cares™ launches today in commemoration of Asthma Awareness Month, the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to call attention to rising asthma rates, especially among children. Coal Cares™ and its Puff-Puff™ line of inhalers is the first, and most ambitious, market-friendly public health initiative of this scope of any privately-owned American company, and testifies to the energy industry’s commitment to the well-being of all citizens, including the youngest.

“Our actions are guided by a singular mission: to be a leading worldwide producer and supplier of balanced energy solutions, which power economic prosperity and well-being,” said Boyce. “Coal Cares™ brings this mission to life, empowering children everywhere to take control of their destinies, beginning with their own lungs.”

“Coal Cares™ is emblematic of the return to self-reliance that healthy entrepreneurship demands,” said James Miasmus, Vice President of Government Affairs at Peabody USA. “Costly ‘scrubbing’ technology, on the other hand, is an untested and heavy-handed intrusion into our still-vulnerable economy. At Peabody, we’re thinking globally but acting locally, and locating preventive action at the point of consumption, where it belongs.”

“Coal Cares™ isn’t just the name of a campaign,” said Kevin Briesslau, Vice President of Communications at Peabody Coal. “It’s a philosophy, a way of doing business in harmony with the community we are a part of. After all, coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world. We’re part of America’s heritage, and we’re here to stay.”

To learn more about Peabody’s Coal Cares™ initiative, visit: www.coalcares.org.

If the press release seems a little strange, just try the website, which delivers on the promise of Justin Bieber- and "Twilight"-themed asthma inhalers ("made with eco-friendly recycled plastic, as well as with coal ash, a by-product of combustion from our plant smokestacks"). The site goes on to describe the many ways that solar and wind power are going to destroy us all:

So-called “solar energy,” on the other hand, refers to the direct use of the violent fusion reactions occurring deep within our nearest star. As you might expect, this kind of “solar energy” naturally comes with a host of dangers that coal’s million-year buffering is designed to avoid. Some scientists refer to so-called “solar energy” as “mainlining the sun”—and it doesn’t take an Einstein to see an overdose looming.

[...]

There are so many varieties of existing solar energy technology, and so many more proposed, that the number and variety of disasters possible simply boggles the mind. The only reason we don’t see more incidences of death and injury from solar today is because it comprises less than 1% of our national energy portfolio. Increasing this amount would only heighten the potential for tragic accidents.

I have to give the pranksters special props for their hilarious invocation of the "butterfly effect" as an argument against windmills:

Every science student has heard of the so-called “butterfly effect” from aptly-named “Chaos Theory”: namely, that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the wilds of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, can set off a massive, community-shattering tornado in Bunker Hill Village, Texas. If, as scientists state, a mere butterfly can cause a tornado so many thousands of miles away, imagine what a hill-full of wind turbines can do.

Actually, a simple calculation shows precisely how much. Suppose a butterfly flapping its wings, producing about 12.5 W of energy, can unleash a tornado producing approximately 100MW of energy. By this measure, a large wind farm—producing 781.5 MW of energy, or the equivalent of approximately 63 million butterflies—could unleash the equivalent of 63 million tornados, or over 6 quadrillion watts of energy. That's still less than one one hundred millionth the energy of an asteroid hitting the earth, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either!

Classic. And the prank forced Peabody Energy to put out their own press release disowning the spoof site. But is this the work of the Yes Men, or of their affiliates? As it turns out, yes:

The Coal Cares™ hoax was devised by a group called Coal is Killing Kids (CKK), a small environmental and public health group that aims to challenge Big Coal’s expensive lobbying against sensible updates to the Clean Air Act. “We don’t have their millions, but we do have a knack for incredibly tasteless jokes,” said Veronica Tomlinson, a pediatrician and member of CKK. CKK worked with the Yes Lab, which is a project of The Yes Men to help activist groups carry out media-savvy creative actions on their own.

"Sure, it’s kind of tasteless to say that ‘Bieber’ inhalers are a solution to childhood asthma," said Janet Bellamy, a spokesperson for CKK. "But it's a great deal more tasteless to cause that asthma in the first place, as coal-fired power plants have been proven to do." Added Justin V. Bond, another spokesperson for CKK: “It’s even more tasteless to disproportionately kill poor people.” Coal-fired power plants are very often built in areas populated by low-income citizens, who then bear the brunt of the health effects.

In a typical Yes Men prank, the comedian-agitators labor to infiltrate conferences and media events under the guise of corporate factotums, then give voice to the idealized policies that they wish those organizations would support. This typically forces those actual organizations to walk back the news the pranksters manage to make, which helps to expose the difference between the actual and the wished-for policies. They call this practice "identity correction," and the best example I can show you is when Yes Men founder Andy Bichlbaum appeared on "BBC World News" impersonating an official from Dow Chemical, apologizing for the Union Carbide disaster and promising to fund a full remediation.

Tuesday's prank, which was carried out as a part of the Yes Labs project, an incubator for Yes Men-style pranks, is more obviously zany, but nevertheless strives to cause a major corporation some amount of public embarrassment while raising awareness of the issues related to coal production.

UPDATE, 6:41pm: As noted earlier, Peabody Energy was compelled by this prank to issue a press release of their own. That press release contained this paragraph:

Peabody is proud to help hundreds of millions of people live longer and better through coal-fueled electricity. A growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life. The United Nations has linked life expectancy, educational attainment and income with per-capita electricity use, and the World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer.

Michael Oko, the Director of Media Relations of the World Resources Institute emails me to say that the "WRI never did the analysis that they attributed to us." They have released the following statement:

The following statement was released today by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in response to a press statement by Peabody Energy:

“In a press statement today, Peabody Energy falsely attributes a conclusion to the World Resources Institute. The incorrect reference is likely drawn from information found on a blog post by the “World Climate Report,” which is not affiliated with WRI.

“The press statement asserts that “the World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer.” First, WRI has never made such an assertion and has never done analysis to that effect. Second, this conclusion ignores critical factors related to energy production and human health.

“WRI’s long standing support for a global transition to cleaner, low-carbon energy is well-documented. WRI does not support Peabody’s press statement or the related conclusions drawn from this data.”

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