Not 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.
Ironically, 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!