Swans Commentary » swans.com February 23, 2009  



Hollywood's Corporate Conservation Collaborators


by Michael Barker





" He flies to the rescue, treks through jungles, dodges snakes, and saves rare treasures -- and that's just in his private life."
National Geographic, 2008.


(Swans - February 23, 2009)   Popular with people of all ages, Harrison Ford is an archetypal swashbuckling movie star whose handiwork with both laser guns and bullwhips has made him the worst nightmare for all manner of Hollywood evil-doers. Not being one to hang up his fedora on or off screen, Ford is a high-profile crusader for a free-market environmental operation known as Conservation International (see my recent article "When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder"). Ford is also an uncritical supporter of the State of Israel; last year he was one of many A-list celebrities who created a personalized video greeting, "wishing Israel a 'Happy Birthday!'" -- instead of commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) that led to the creation of the Jewish State -- which was then "broadcast on both the Nasdaq and Reuters electronic billboards in Times Square." This article will surmise some of the most glaring problems associated with Conservation International, examine some of Ford's other conservation interests, and investigate some of his ties to the Zionist "conservation" community in Hollywood.


Saving Forests or Legitimizing Plunder?

Conservation International provides an excellent case study of the serious problems associated with free-market environmentalism. Formed in 1987, they boast of being the first environmental group to do a debt-for-nature swap, and they count among their corporate partners well-known environmental exploiters like Alcoa, Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Cargill, and ChevronTexaco. Not surprisingly, Conservation International's chairman and cofounder, Peter Seligmann, simultaneously serves on the executive committee of a "humanitarian" organization that is ironically called the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa. The Executive Director of this Partnership, Julie Howard, serves on the advisory board of the "agricultural counterpart of the World Economic Forum," the World Agricultural Forum, and is a board member of the Alliance to End Hunger -- a group that counts among its four honorary co-chairs Obama's new head of the CIA, Leon Panetta.

Ranked alongside government agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian International Development Agency, Conservation International is a patron of the World Wilderness Congress -- an organization which work is closely tied to the US national security apparatus. Moreover, the group managing the World Wilderness Congress (since 1977) is the WILD Foundation, and information obtained from their Web site in January 2007 demonstrates that their board of directors included the wife of the president of Conservation International (Cristina Mittermeier), and two people connected to the Scowcroft Group, James Dunlap (the former special advisor to the assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the US State Department, 2001-03), and Francine Kansteiner (the wife of Walter Kansteiner III, the former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs).

Sadly, such military affiliations are not an anomaly for Conservation International, thus serving alongside Harrison Ford as vice chairs of the group are Lewis Coleman (a board member of the arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman and president of DreamWorks Animation), Nicholas Pritzker (the former chair of the biotech corporation Eos Biotechnology), and Meredith Auld Brokaw (who is the wife of Tom Brokaw, who in turn is a board member of the Henry Kissinger-linked "humanitarian" group International Rescue Committee). Similarly, as I note in my full-length critique of Conservation International, their former board member and present executive director of their marine programs, Sylvia Earle, served from 1999 until 2006 as a board member of the oil and gas resource company Kerr-McGee Corporation. Here it is interesting to observe that the lead director of Kerr-McGee during this time was William Bradford, the former chairman of Halliburton. (Halliburton's former CEO, Dick Cheney, left the company in 2000, the same year that Bradford left.)


Harrison Ford as Planetary Protector

In addition to waxing his chest to protect forests, Ford can often be seen patrolling the shores of the Hudson River (near his home) at light-speed in his gas-guzzling Millennium Falcon (I mean helicopter). This is because he valiantly "serves as the first 'airborne watchdog'" for another environmental group known as Riverkeeper. Initially launched as the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, this group is currently headed by Alex Matthiessen, who prior to joining the Riverkeepers in 2000, had been special assistant at the US Department of the Interior, "focusing on matters of special importance" to Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Riverkeeper's board present an interesting mix of elite do-gooders which range from board chair George Hornig (the chief operating officer of Credit Suisse First Boston Private Equity) to Hamilton Fish (the president of The Nation Institute, the foundation associated with The Nation magazine).

Speaking of Millennium Falcons and interplanetary space travel, Ford (not Hans Solo lest you were confused) is a member of the "Open Space Council" of another free-market environmental group, the Jackson Hole Land Trust. Here Ford is joined by Peter Seligmann (the cofounder of Conservation International) who serves on the Trust's advisory council, while their group's executive director, Laurie Andrews, before coming to her position at the Trust was the director of philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy -- an organization described by Jeffrey St. Clair and Bernardo Issel (in 1997) as follows:

The titan of green groups, the Nature Conservancy sits on nearly a billion dollars in assets and is awash in cash, thanks to a tidal wave of corporate donations, much of it from notorious polluters such as Arco, Archer-Daniels-Midland, British Petroleum, DuPont, Shell and Freeport-McMoRan. The group eschews political work in favor of the relatively noncontroversial project of buying land. Calling itself "Nature's real estate agent," the Nature Conservancy purchases private land and then sells it to state and federal agencies, often, according to its critics, at a considerable mark-up. Last year, the group violated its apolitical policy to concoct the compromise rewrite of the Endangered Species Act with a secret coalition of corporations and trade associations, including the National Homebuilder's Association and timber giant Georgia-Pacific. The group is led by John Sawhill, former energy aide to Nixon and Ford and a fanatical proponent of nuclear power, who has enjoyed lucrative positions on the boards of Procter & Gamble, North American Coal Company and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Finally, it is befitting of Ford's corporate credentials that in 2002 he was the recipient of Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment's Global Environmental Citizen Award. Indeed, the corporate council of the Center lists five corporations, 3M, BP, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, and Swiss Re; and the year after Ford's "environmentalism" was celebrated, the influential elite environmentalist Jane Goodall was rewarded with the same award. (See my article "Jane Goodall's Elite Monkey Business".)


"Humanitarian" Hollywood Propaganda

As one might expect, Harrison Ford is not the only member of Hollywood to be involved in "conservation" work, but one media giant that shares Ford's environmental concerns is DreamWorks. Indeed, the aforementioned president of DreamWorks Animation, Lewis Coleman, is the vice chair of Conservation International; DreamWorks board member Judson Green serves on the board of directors of Conservation International; while Roger Enrico, the chairman of DreamWorks Animation (and former CEO of PepsiCo), sits on the board of directors of the free-market environmental group Environmental Defense Fund and the National Geographic Society (which is currently involved with IBM in the controversial Genographic Project). Here it is relevant to note that Conservation International representative Sylvia Earle is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, as is WILD Foundation trustee Michael Fay.

Now considering that Ford is a known supporter of the State of Israel, it is fascinating to note that one of the cofounders of DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg, is considered to be a "prominent Hollywood Zionist." Similarly, one of the other two people who cofounded DreamWorks in 1994, David Geffen (the founder of Geffen Records), is also involved in anti-Palestinian "philanthropy." As Muhammad Idrees Ahmad observes: "David Geffen's 'philanthropic' ventures include funding Jewish immigrants from former Soviet Union and Ethiopia to help them settle on illegally occupied Palestinian lands." One might also note that the "$500 million in seed money" to launch DreamWorks was provided by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. This is significant because, as William Blum notes, the Israeli military ranks among Microsoft's most important clients; and in 2002 "the company erected enormous billboards in Israel which bore the Microsoft logo under the text 'From the depth of our heart -- thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces', with the Israeli national flag in the background."

Microsoft, along with its philanthropic counterpart, the Gates Foundation, ranks among the long list of corporate supporters of Conservation International. Consequently it is intriguing to recognize that the present CEO of Microsoft, Steven Ballmer, has links to a controversial Zionist group known as the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Here Ballmer serves on their World Chairman's Council, a council that is composed of a "select group of people who have demonstrated an enduring commitment to Israel and JNF" by donating over $1 million. This group was formed in 1901, and mistakenly it is widely considered to be an environmental organization, which as their Web site notes has "planted over 240 million trees, built over 180 dams and reservoirs, developed over 250,000 acres of land, created more than 1,000 parks throughout Israel and educated students around the world about Israel and the environment." However, this benign sounding apolitical description warrants closer scrutiny, especially when it is known that JNF's president, Stanley Chesley, also serves on the executive committee of the main arm of the Zionist lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Indeed, as Illan Pappe observes, although "throughout the Jewish world the JNF is seen as a highly responsible ecological agency" in actual fact, "JNF was the principal Zionist tool for the colonization of Palestine." In a recent interview Pappe put it like this: JNF is simply a "colonialist agency of ethnic cleansing." This information raises important issues about the link between tree-planting and imperialism. (1)

Here it is fitting to reflect upon the politics of some of the major movies in which Harrison Ford has starred. Thus just before completing George Lucas's initial Star Wars trilogy (1977-83) as Hans Solo, the interplanetary smuggler/superhero, Ford went on to become the world renowned archaeologist, Indiana Jones, in the Lucas/Spielberg production Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). On the first trilogy, Michael Parenti writes that in the...

series of motion pictures, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983), the subject is an evil cosmic power that is challenged by individualistic heroes... As usual, right wins through might, with an assist from guile and technology. The evil military officers in The Empire Strikes Back have odd accents and wear Soviet-style uniforms; these touches earned the praise of right-wing commentators, who were pleased to point out the resemblances between the futuristic evil empire in the film and the 1980s evil empire in Moscow. (2)

With regard to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ella Shohat observes:

The American hero -- often cinematically portrayed as a cowboy -- is an archaeologist implicitly searching for the Eastern roots of Western civilization. He liberates the ancient Hebrew ark from illegal Egyptian possession, while also rescuing it from immoral Nazi control, subliminally reinforcing American and Jewish solidarity vis-à-vis the Nazis and their Arab assistants. The geopolitical alignments here are as clear as in the inadvertent allegory of The Ten Commandments, where a WASPish Charlton Heston is made to incarnate Hebrew Moses struggling against the Egyptians, thus allegorizing in the context of the 1950s the contemporary struggle of the West (Israel and the U.S.) against Egyptians/Arabs. That at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark it is the US Army that guards the "top secret" ark -- with the active complicity of the ark itself -- strengthens this evocation of geopolitical alliances. (3)

Interestingly, Indiana Jones's jaunt to Tibet in Raiders of the Lost Ark actually has some bearing on Harrison Ford's real life. This is because Ford's second wife, Melissa Mathison, earned an Academy Award nomination for Kundun (1997), her film about the Dalai Lama that was directed by Martin Scorsese. (4) Both Mathison and Ford are also connected to elite networks promoting Tibetan human rights, as Mathison is a board member of both Tibet House and the International Campaign for Tibet, while Ford serves on the international advisory council of the latter group. (For further details see my article "Democratic Imperialism: Tibet, China, and the National Endowment for Democracy.") These connections help explain why in 2008 Ford provided the narration for the feature-length documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance.

The Tibetan connection brings us back to the work of Spielberg's long-term friend, George Lucas, because as Simon Augustine points out: "Buddhist imagery, especially of the Zen variety, has always been an important philosophical and aesthetic element of George Lucas's two Star Wars trilogies." However, Augustine adds it was only in the most recent episode in this saga, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008), "that Buddhist thinking becomes explicit." Moreover, it is significant to observe that just after the first Star Wars film was released (in 1977) Lucas employed Jane Bay as his personal assistant -- a position she holds to this day. Bay is most famous for her commitment to the free Tibet movement. So while Hollywood stars like Ford, Mathison, and Richard Gere "have been working on behalf of Tibet longer than most in Hollywood," they now "have company" including the likes of George Lucas, Oliver Stone, and Uma Thurman (whose father, Robert Tenzin Thurman, is the co-founder and current president of Tibet House).

In a recent (2007) interview with Robert Thurman, Lucas waxed lyrical about creating a better society for all that is based on collaboration and not the regular everyday values of greed and isolated individualism (the mainstays of capitalism). Yet if Lucas is serious about creating a more compassionate world he might want to examine the people with whom the president and chief operating officer of Lucasfilm, Micheline Chau, associates. Chau serves on the board of directors of Red Hat, a corporation that boasts of being "the world's most trusted provider of Linux and open source technology"; however, despite Red Hat's ostensible commitment to computing freedom, their lead director is the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General H. Hugh Shelton, who until 2006 was a board member of the military subcontractor Anteon International -- a corporation that was bought by General Dynamics in 2006. This type of connection should not be unexpected for a movie studio that brings us movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and warmongering military-backed propaganda masterpieces like Pearl Harbor (2001), Transformers (2007), and Iron Man (2008).


Resisting the Hollywood Propaganda Model

The entertainment industry and its associated celebrities provide a fundamental service to ruling elites by helping manufacture public consent for elite interests, be they to promote free-market environmentalism, "humanitarian" interventions (e.g., Ben Affleck) , or to help bolster apathy or a militaristic mindset.

In this regard, Matthew Alford's recent research casts a ray of light on part of this equation by examining the previously under-investigated nexus between Hollywood and US foreign policy. Alford focuses on films from the 1990s and 2000s that have laid greatest claim to being critical of US power and concludes that with almost without exception even these do not challenge fundamental ideological notions, such as that the U.S. is essentially benevolent in its foreign affairs. Indeed, by accounting for all major Hollywood films across several genres between 1991 and 2002, Alford finds that roughly a quarter received full cooperation from the Pentagon (complete with the obligatory script changes) and that the vast majority promoted the idea that Americans -- particularly their political and military elites -- were more worthy of audience sympathies than any other group. He writes:

Hollywood is commonly seen as an institution that actively avoids putting politics on screen. In the narrowest sense this is a reasonable characterization: films do not tend to play party politics. But movies use politics in the broader sense constantly. In fact, it is not politics that is absent from Hollywood movies in terms of foreign policy. It is any sense of radical politics that has been carefully filtered out and the decisive reason for this is that films are produced by organizations that are closely wedded to elite power. (5)

By focusing on the people and groups associated with just one Hollywood celebrity, this article has demonstrated that the influence of the so-called entertainment industry extends far beyond merely entertaining us. For the most part a handful of large studios and their gigantic multinational parent companies selects movies that promote elite agendas, and corporate nongovernmental organizations then work with carefully filtered Hollywood mega-stars to promote capitalist friendly (non)solutions to the world's pressing problems, be they poverty or environmental destruction.

What to do? For our part we can work to expose the insidious propaganda effect that the Hollywood military-industrial-media complex exerts over society, and help reduce its stranglehold over the global media landscape. But in equal measure we can also encourage and support the production of locally-produced movies, celebrate the ingenuity of small budget productions, and help nurture local talent (both producers and actors). In this way we can ensure that in the future we will have an entertainment industry that fosters participation and diversity (characteristics that will benefit the majority) instead of apathy and celebrity worship. The former will strengthen democracy; the latter can only weaken it.




1.  Ilan Pappe, Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006), p.208, p.17. Pappe writes that "The true mission of the JNF, has been to conceal [the] visible remnants of Palestine not by only the trees it has planted over them, but also by the narratives it has created to deny their existence." JNF's "ecological" sites "do not so much commemorate history as seek to totally erase it." (p.228, p.229)

For a critical analysis of the global tree-planting craze in the U.S., see Shaul Cohen, Planting Nature: Trees and the Manipulation of Environmental Stewardship in America (University of California Press, 2004). Cohen surmises that "One topic on which I have more overtly signaled my skepticism is the issue of global warming and the potential for carbon sequestration through planting trees. In part, this is because I am regularly struck by the abject simplification of the issue as it is presented to the public: plant trees, store carbon, slow global warming -- with the only concrete fact conveyed being that even a single tree is significant in this battle. Yet in the grand equation of emissions and sequestration, tree planting has been and will remain a relatively insignificant factor for two reasons. First, the number of trees that would have to be planted in order to significantly influence the growing accumulation of atmospheric carbon has not, will not, and probably could not be planted. Potential reforestation and afforestation for the entire planet would represent only 'about 2 percent of the annual global carbon uptake by the terrestrial biosphere.' And, despite the call for a massive increase in tree planting that came with the Kyoto Accords, carbon emissions have continued apace, as has tree planting -- that is, there has been no significant gain on the carbon sequestration front through tree planting.'" (pp.155-6)  (back)

2.  Michael Parenti, Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment (St Martin's Press, 1992), pp.35-6. Here it is worth acknowledging that the Star Wars series also works as a critique of US power though, particularly when we consider the prequels.  (back)

3.  Ella Shohat, "Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema," in Matthew Berstein and Gaylyn Studlar (Editors), Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film (Rutgers University Press, 1997), p.35.

Another Harrison Ford Film, Air Force One (1997), in which Ford stars as a heroic terrorist-fighting US president, is reviewed in Jack Shaheen's excellent book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Olive Branch Press, 2001). Shaheen notes that: "When discussing where the villains might land the plane, a White House aide remarks, 'Iraq, Libya, Algeria' -- three Arab nations. Also, several times aides say rescue forces should be dispatched to 'Iraq.'" (p.49) Ernst Giglio writes in his book Here's Looking at You: Hollywood, Film, and Politics (Peter Lang, 2005) that such depictions of the president "socking it to [Russian] hijackers who have taken over his plane... reinforce a macho image that defies credibility as well as historical accuracy." (p.120) Other movies in which Harrison Ford features that are mentioned in Shaheen's book are Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Frantic (1988), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Patriot Games (1992), and Sabrina (1995).  (back)

4.  In the 1970s, Ford obtained small roles in two Francis Ford Coppola movies, The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Mathison, his soon to be wife, acted as executive assistant on Apocalypse Now, and was dating Ford during the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Coppola was also a good friend of George Lucas, and in 1969 they had cofounded the studio American Zoetrope. Mathison is most famous for penning the screenplay for Spielberg's blockbusting movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  (back)

5.  Matthew Alford, "A Propaganda Model for Hollywood? Representations of American foreign policy in contemporary films," PhD Thesis, University of Bath, 2007, p.220. Alford acknowledges how "filmmakers are sometimes able to use their positions and financial capital to challenge US power in particular, as with the highly unusual funding provided by e-Bay billionaire Jeff Skoll who set up Participant Pictures in 2003, which financed radical films like Syriana (2005)." It is also noteworthy that many "humanitarian" celebrities have at times vocally opposed certain wars. This topic will be explored in a forthcoming article.  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker has recently handed in his PhD thesis at Griffith University in Australia. His other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published February 23, 2009