“High-profile individuals attract eyeballs, so it’s always great to have them engaged in our work and bring attention to important environmental issues”, says Courtney Hamilton, Natural Resources Defense Council communications assistant.
Famous artists such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Maya Lin, Robert Redford, and James Taylor notably sit on the organization's Board of Trustees.
These days, conspicuous “Eco-Celebs” routinely partner with NGOs, generating buzz for a specific campaign or benefit.
Actor Harrison Ford calls for stopping deforestation on a Conservation International public service announcement. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi collaborates with the Nature Conservancy to promote sustainable materials in the clothing industry.
And the list goes on. In fact, stars’ green endorsement is so common that entire websites are devoted to the phenomenon: Ecorazzi.com delivers the latest news on celebrities supporting the environment.
This increasing celebrity engagement in the conservation movement so highly intrigued Dan Brockington that the University of Manchester researcher decided to explore its ramifications in a new book: Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation.
“I got started on the topic when I was wondering why there were so many rather similarly larger than life white conservationists in East Africa. This lead to a consideration of the roles of charisma, publicity and celebrity in conservation and it sort of spiraled from there”, he wrote in an e-mail.
In the course of his analysis, the author distinguishes three celebrity categories: there are the popular stars who lend their glamour to environmental causes, the wildlife film presenters who relay to audiences an image of the wild, and conservationists who have reached fame through their field work.
In each of these arenas, Brockington maps out the different uses and abuses of celebrity.
Drawing from social sciences studies, he shows that what the public opinion deems as authentic is actually socially constructed. He highlights the contradiction in heralding a Hollywood star as a role model when that person’s lavish lifestyle invalidates the imperative to curb consumption.
As for wildlife films, according to him, they cater to western demands of a mediagenic pristine wild viewed through the eyes of a heroic white figure, only encouraging passivity instead of interaction with nature.
Brockington’s most adamant point of contention with how conservation is represented in the mainstream is that it fails to mention the social injustice that the movement has sometimes brought about. He points out that the setting up of national parks has sometimes involved the eviction of native people and economic displacement.
Celebrity and the Environment touches upon many issues that are well worth considering. By uncovering the hidden realities behind some conservation endeavors, the book helps to forge a more nuanced and honest overview of the field, and should rightfully spark some debates.
This critical analysis is welcome, especially since few people question what lies beyond the celebrity fueled publicity for a “good cause.”
Yet the books leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied when in the end Brockington seems to dismiss most of his arguments by recognizing that the trend he is probing is unavoidable.
“Most mainstream environmentalist manifestos hinge on continued economic growth. Only a few voices in the wilderness like George Monbiot are urging that we leave the carbon unburnt in the ground, as a simpler alternative to digging it up, burning it and offsetting its use," Brockington writes.
"Conspicuously, consuming celebrities are the public image of a deeper set of contradictions in the global economy. Contemporary environmentalism is largely about altering consumption patterns and not reducing them, and celebrities are some of the best people to make that happen.”
With a hint of defeatism, the author concludes that the pervasive celebrity culture in the conservation movement is just a symptom of the ever-closer intertwining of conservation and capitalism.
Celebrity and the Environment contends that celebrity culture benefits green business and consumerism, but harms the anti-corporate conservation agenda - an observation that begs for a deeper discussion on what alternative approaches would be better for the conservation movement to take to solve the severe ecological problems that the planet faces.
--by Cécile Lepage