Tired Earth*

begleyrav4.jpgNot too long ago, having a celebrity at your environmental press conference was a sure way to attract the cameras and spread the word. Luckily, most of the celebs who agreed to appear were walk-the-walk types, like Ed Begley, Jr. You wouldn’t invite anyone who wasn’t serious about it. Begley would bicycle all the way from the Valley to Santa Monica to stand up for Heal the Bay or the Coalition for Clean Air. If someone had taken a satellite photo of his home, it would have embarassed neither him nor his cause. And he was never sanctimonious.

Now, the celeb phase of the environmental movement has achieved its absurd apotheosis and badly needs to be shut down. Billed as a massive teach-in on climate change, the Live Earth concerts were, politically, a train wreck. From Rasmussen Reports, a polling site:

The Live Earth concert promoted by former Vice President Al Gore received plenty of media coverage and hype, but most Americans tuned out. Just 22% said they followed news stories about the concert Somewhat or Very Closely. Seventy-five percent (75%) did not follow coverage of the event.

By way of comparison, eight-in-ten voters routinely said they were following news coverage of the recent Senate debate over immigration. Fifty-four percent (54%) said they followed news coverage of the President’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence.

Skepticism about the participants may have been a factor in creating this low level of interest. Most Americans (52%) believe the performers take part in such events because it is good for their image. Only 24% say the celebrities really believe in the cause while another 24% are not sure. One rock star who apparently shared that view is Matt Bellamy of the band Muse. Earlier in the week, he jokingly referred to Live Earth as “private jets for climate change.”

Only 34% believe that events like Live Earth actually help the cause they are intended to serve. Forty-one percent (41%) disagree. Those figures include 10% who believe the events are Very Helpful and 20% who say they are Not at All Helfpul. Adding to the skepticism, an earlier survey found that just 24% of Americans consider Al Gore an expert on Global Warming.

Given a choice of four major issues before the United States today, 36% named the war in Iraq as most important. Twenty-five percent (25%) named immigration, 20% selected the economy and only 12% thought Global Warming was the top issue.

Whatever needs to happen next to bring about a reversal of man-made global warming, that goal is now farther away, thanks to Al Gore, Madonna, Leo DiCaprio and the global concerteers, who only managed to persuade the public they received some personal benefit from their association with the issue. Neither the celebrities nor the event organizers never answered the question of their basic hypocrisy. In a TMZ/Defamer/Murdoch world, of course we’re all going to find out how much energy the movement’s stars use, how many times they fly in private jets, tour demands completely at odds with their stated positions, huge stock positions in companies that pollute the most, and the vast amounts of energy burned and pollution released by the concerts themselves.

Gore and the celebrities complain about the tabloidization of the news, and are especially bitter if the snark gets in the way of their unselfish efforts to, you know, change the world. But an intriguing NY Times Magazine piece about a neurological disorder called Williams Syndrome and its implications for understanding why the human brain evolved the way it did, contains a profound nugget of insight into why celebrities hurt the causes they seek to help, unless they’re willing to be more like Ed Begley, Jr., and less like the people we saw on those concert stages Saturday.

Bear with me, it will all make sense:

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

The sentence I emphasized suggests why a global TV event featuring movie stars and pop-music performers might be just about the worst way to convey environmental information — or in fact, any important political message. In the very same global village Live Earth sought to educate, we are consumed with gossip about the stars who pretend to teach us–the truth about how they live as opposed to what they want us to hear and believe.

Stars attract attention, but the audience’s relationship with them is complex. We’re suspicious of their motives, don’t completely buy their idealism, and are on the lookout for hypocrisy — which this group of stars gave us by the carload. The media doesn’t create this; it’s human nature.

That is why the “carbon offset” concept is not working and should be dumped forthwith. All it does is emphasize that rich entertainers can’t bear to sacrifice and will buy their way out of living their lives in anything remotely resembling the fashion the rest of us must do. It destroys any possibility of consensus on dealing with climate change.

Climate change is a scientific issue. It raises complex issues for governments. Individuals can’t do very much about it, but they are avidly interested in considering viable solutions offered by experts. Of course, we might want to know something about those experts to determine if they’re trustworthy, but we wouldn’t be bombarded on a daily basis with stories about their incredibly opulent lives. Instead, the focus would be where it belongs, on the points of debate leading toward a political solution that, one would hope, would make a difference in earth’s environment.

green-city-hall.jpgIronically, in “the entertainment capitol of the world,” there was no Live Earth concert. Just Mayor Villaraigosa, Begley, produce Lawrence Bender and a few supporting-actor types from TV like Daphne Zuniga and Sharon Lawrence, turning on some lights that made City Hall look green. I was glad the mayor mentioned that “Los Angeles recycles more than any other metropolitan city.” Hurray for the Bureau of Sanitation!

*Edited, 7/9/07

6 thoughts on “Tired Earth*

  1. “Individuals can’t do very much about it”

    To me, this is quite possibly the crux of the issue. As with most “big” problems, most individuals can make no more than a very small contribution to the problem, and a very small contribution to the solution. For many, this fact leads them to conclude that it doesn’t matter what they do one way or another, and so they decide not to change their behavior. Of course, when everyone thinks this way, the problem doesn’t get solved.

    On an unrelated note, I don’t doubt that Al Gore believes what he says about climate change, and I don’t doubt that he care about the issue. But the news about his $1,400 monthly energy bills certainly didn’t help the cause. On the other hand, though, none of us are perfect, and we all contribute to the climate change problem to varying degrees. It is virtually impossible to be an unhypocritical environmentalist, particularly when the issue is framed in terms of being “green” or not.

    I think the message needs to be “No one expects you to be perfect, but you can probably do better than you are currently doing. Examine your lifestyle, and identify those problematic elements that are the easiest and cheapest to improve upon, and improve upon them first. (Changing to florescent light bulbs is a good example). Then, if you’re so inclined, make additional changes that require more sacrifice. But don’t let the fact that you can’t be perfect stop you/serve as a excuse not to make marginal improvements.”

  2. Exactly right, and you don’t need the bloated and costly hype around a massive one-day event to get that kind of a message to individuals.

    Over a 40-year period, this society drove down tobacco-usage rates by a concerted effort that combined the sciences (medical, social) with the tools of advertising and PR. The ideas of cutting energy consumption and switching to cleaner alternatives can be introduced into the mainstream in the same way. No rock stars needed.

  3. There’s another way to look at the Live Earth event – that it was a huge success. If it had been as big a flop as all the thousands of corporate journalists and individual bloggers have been saying, they wouldn’t have even noticed the event. I suspect more ink has been spilled trashing Live Earth than the event itself generated. What does that mean? The Live Earth and Al Gore bashers are obviously concerned that they are on the wrong side of climate change and want badly to discredit it. This is not new. Nearly every progressive environmental step in the last 40 years has been greeted with derision. Steps to reduce CO2, sulfur dioxide, leaded gas, particulates, old growth logging, dirty coal, etc. have all suffered the it’s-too-expensive fate only to become laws eventually that save thousands of lives and make everyone else breath a bit easier.

    “DP4” is correct. Every little bit helps. The American public is, like a super tanker trying to turn, going in this direction in spite of the nay sayers. Writing about Al Gore personal energy bill comes across as meaningless and petty. Basically, it’s simply a way for people like Rush Limbaugh to make their diminishing audiences feel good about doing nothing.

    What we need is political leadership at the highest levels to encourage an Apollo style program to reduce oil and coal consumption and encourage renewables like solar energy to seriously combat global warming. The planet won’t wait for Rush Limbaugh to wake up. Al Gore’s efforts are helping, not hurting, raise awareness to move in that direction regardless of his personal utility bill or his sighs. For those who believe religiously in the free market, why not provide large tax incentives to small industry (not big oil or big coal) to start innovating? The solution probably lies in government pushing the free market. America became great once largely because of scientific innovation. It’s time to do it again.

    There’s a new documentary out called The Crude Awakening about Big Oil. At a minimum, watch the trailer – http://www.oilcrashmovie.com Anyone who wants to write intelligently on oil and its ramifications for America (and the world) needs to see this stunning film. There’s also a terrific book about the extreme dangers of coal called Big Coal. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/books/review/25powell.html?ex=1308888000&en=7583334cdd8060a3&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss Did you know that the average person consumes 20 pounds of dirty coal a day, which fouls our land, kills thousands and is nearly as bad a oil for global warming? When it comes to living in a fantasy world, it turns out that the Big Coal industry is just as good at fooling the American people as Big Oil. Shame on us.

    Bloggers and corporate media should write about that day in and day out. That’s what’s important.

  4. I don’t think it’s the case that all the critics of Live Earth are doing Big Oil’s bidding. What is true is that Big Oil is loving it that Gore has been seduced into rock-stardom, and by the childish attempts by plutocrat performers to greenwash their consciences by a grandiose show of concern. The psychology of these stars is easily detected by the public, and the public is rejecting it, in the exact same way they are rejecting the behavior of the Britney and Lindsey.

    I say this as a friend of environmental causes. My critique is strategic. If I thought Live Earth wasn’t hurting progress on this issue, I would shut up, or even praise it. But in good conscience, I can’t.

    Leaving aside the immense “carbon footprint” of these concerts, how many millions of person-hours of human effort was plowed into making the shows happen? Isn’t there something better those people could have been doing than figuring out how to make Madonna look like she wasn’t lip-syncing?

    Now, two days after the concert, what do we have to show for all that work? Nothing. Live Earth’s audience was comprised of the already-converted, who tolerated the bad music in the name of the cause; or the actual fans of that bad music, who channel-surfed around the speeches and other propaganda. There is no evidence to support a claim that minds were changed by this show. “An Inconvenient Truth” probably changed hundreds of thousands of minds, at a fraction of the cost. But Live Earth only served to remind people that Gore is himself a hypocrite and surrounds himself with hypocrites, thus muting the impact of his prior achievement.

    Go back to the Rasmussen poll results. The three big issues ahead of climate change — the war in Iraq, illegal immigration and the economy — are not propelled by giant rock concerts. The war is the perfect example. Its proponents didn’t need showbiz to launch the war, and its opponents didn’t need showbiz to turn the public against the war. Facts and effective presentation of opinion were enough. The environment as an issue is diminished by its reliance on Hollywood-type extravaganzas.

  5. Pingback: Gossip Counts the Most « From the Desert to the Sea…

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