Does the Environmental Movement Need New Messengers?


John Minchillo / Climate Action Network
The People’s Climate March in New York in September 2014. With over 300,000 marchers, the march proves that the environmental movement perhaps no longer needs mascots, and instead should invest itself in the power of the people.

Al Gore is routinely identified as a leading environmentalist, the public face of the environmental movement.1 Some might even view him as a modern-day Rachel Carson. His efforts to “build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change” won him the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.2 At the 2017 Sundance film festival, Hollywood celebrity and festival founder Robert Redford introduced Gore and his new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.3 Gore recently stepped in to fund the Climate and Health summit,4 originally to be organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but abruptly canceled by the Trump administration.

Leonardo DiCaprio is another prominent messenger of the environmental movement. In September 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while designating DiCaprio as a UN Messenger of Peace, noted that, “Mr. DiCaprio is a credible voice in the environmental movement, and has a considerable platform to amplify its message.”5

But is there a down side of Gore and DiCaprio being the most visible messengers of the environmental movement? This is a critical issue now more than ever, given the sustained attack on the credibility and motives of the movement. With the Republican Party in control of the U.S. Congress, and the arrival of the Trump administration with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental groups must ensure that they are perceived as credible actors, devoid of hypocrisy and seeking to selflessly protect the public interest. The movement must carefully consider what sorts of individuals ought to be embraced, celebrated, and thereby anointed as the de facto public faces of the movement.

Social movements are credible when they are perceived to be working for the public purpose. This is where the effectiveness of their messengers, the public faces of the movement, comes in to play. Social movements hope that the visibility of the messenger will have a positive impact on the endorsed issue or the organization.

They also hope that messengers will enhance the movement’s reputation and credibility. Messengers enhance the movement’s credibility when their lifestyles and behaviors demonstrate their deep commitment to the movement’s cause.  In the language of marketing, brand ambassadors must have a persona and lifestyle that coheres with the image a brand is trying to construct.  Daniel Craig, the contemporary James Bond, probably fits the brand personality of a flashy automaker such as BMW or Audi, rather than a perceivably less exciting car, such as a Toyota Prius.

The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia
Al Gore delivers keynote remarks at The World Affairs Council National Conference in 2009.

Think of the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi to the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi personified the movement’s efforts to attain freedom from British colonial rule through simplicity, self-reliance, and non-violence. He dressed in a loin cloth, lived simply, and would spin his Charkha (wheel) every morning to weave his clothes. He was an effective messenger because he embodied the ideals of the Indian freedom movement.

The contemporary environmental movement has its own unofficial messengers: Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio are two examples. Both are outspoken advocates of environmental causes and have received numerous awards for their environmental advocacy. Even Donald Trump, seeking to burnish his environmental credentials, invited them to visit his “Tower” for a conversation before he was formally sworn in as the U.S. President.

Gore and DiCaprio’s advocacy efforts have focused public attention on environmental problems, especially in regards to climate change. They have brought glamour and star power to environmental issues. Yet, these messengers also hurt the movement in important ways.

As a general principle, a reliance on celebrities can lead social movements to lose touch with their grassroots. They begin to focus more on organizing galas and glamorous events and less on connecting with the people working on the ground. Importantly, the visible presence of Hollywood celebrities can create a perception of elitism and partisanship.

But a more serious issue is when the messengers do not live up to the movement’s ideals; worse still, their lifestyles contradict the core messages of the movement.

How do Gore and DiCaprio fare on the Gandhi authenticity test? Do they walk their environmental talk? Fossil fuels are some of the greatest enemies of the climate change movement. Indeed, Gore rails against the oil and fossil fuel industries. And, tragically, he profits from them. Recall that in 2013, he sold the TV channel Current Network (in which he had 20 percent stake) to Al Jazeera, which is owned and financed by Gulf oil money.6 In the process, he earned a personal profit of US$100 million.7

Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio has gained notoriety for his rather large carbon footprint. He was severely criticized for taking a private jet for an 8,000 mile trip from Cannes to New York (and returned back the next day) to collect an environmental award at the Riverkeeper Fishermen’s Ball.8 He also hosts the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Annual Gala to Fund Climate and Biodiversity Projects in the French Riviera, which attracts Hollywood celebrities who travel cumulatively up to 12,000 miles round trip in private jets.9  To top it off, he rented the world’s fifth largest yacht, owned by a United Arab Emirates oil tycoon,10 to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Do Gore and DiCaprio undermine the credibility of the environmental movement? Arguably, the environmental movement did not appoint any messengers; Gore and DiCaprio have simply emerged as the most visible faces of the movement. And one might even question our focus on Gore or DiCaprio—why not talk about Pope Francis, who has emerged as another outspoken and global environmental messenger?

UN Photo / Mark Garten
Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening of the UN Climate Summit 2014.

These are fair points. But Gore and DiCaprio have been embraced and celebrated by the environmental movement on multiple occasions. Unlike Pope Francis, they are single social issue celebrities. Gore, in particular, is routinely listed among the most influential environmentalists.

Arguably, Gore and DiCaprio’s flaws are not indicative of the moral fiber of the movement; after all, we should not confuse the anti-fossil fuel message with the fossil fuel compromised messenger. Climate change is real and poses an enormous threat to this planet. Even flawed messengers are useful if they are able to focus public attention on this crucial issue.

This is a fair point, but it hides a more complex problem. Most movements need public faces that epitomize their core ideals. The environmental movement has a profound moral message. It portrays the fossil fuel industry as its main enemy. It asks banks not to make loans to fossil fuel firms, lobbies pension funds, institutions, and even universities to divest their fossil fuel stocks. Gore and DiCaprio, with their large carbon footprints, are therefore poor climate change mascots. In fact, they undermine the movement’s moral message. While the movement cannot “disown” them, it needs to be more circumspect in embracing them.

Messengers can do two things: they can strengthen the loyalty of supporters, and they can attract wavering actors to the movement. Gore and DiCaprio probably strengthen the loyalty and enthusiasm of environmentalists who ignore their contradictions. But the crucial challenge for the environmental movement is to expand its base and attract more actors into its fold. These messengers probably do not serve this function well. In addition, the association of the movement with Gore tends to accentuate the partisan divide on climate change, an issue that the environmental movement must confront.

Perhaps, the environmental movement no longer needs mascots because it is no longer in its infancy. We believe it is time for the movement to renew its focus on grassroots mobilization by leveraging the strong public reaction to the anti-environmental policies of the Trump administration. The movement needs to draw strength from the power of the people, not from the appeal of celebrities. This is an inconvenient truth that the environmental movement must tackle.

References

  1. Top 5 Most Influential Environmentalists The Conservation Institute [online] (2016). http://www.conservationinstitute.org/top-5-most-influential-environmenta....
  2. Al Gore- Facts. Nobelprize.org [online] (2007). http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2007/gore-facts.html.
  3. Wilkinson, A. Sundance 2017: Robert Redford says the festival isn’t political. Its opening night gala starred Al Gore. Vox [online] (January 20, 2017). http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/1/20/14333964/inconvenient-truth-sequel-....
  4. Dennis, B. CDC’s canceled climate change conference is back on — thanks to Al Gore. Washington Post [online] (January 26, 2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/26/cdc....
  5. Secretary-General designates Leonardo DiCaprio as UN Messenger of Peace. United Nations [online] (September 16, 2014). http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/2014/09/secretary-general-designa....
  6. Milford P., Sherman, A. & Wells, K. Al Gore Sues Al Jazeera Over $500 Million Current TV Deal. Bloomberg [online] (August 15, 2014). https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-15/al-gore-sues-al-jazee....
  7. Bercovici, J. Current TV Sold To Al Jazeera; $500 Million Deal For Al Gore and Co. Forbes [online] (January 2, 2013). https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/site....
  8. Alexander, H. Leonardo DiCaprio criticised for taking private jet from Cannes to collect environmental award. The Telegraph [online] (May 21, 2016). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/21/leonardo-dicaprio-criticised-....
  9. Simpson, R. What planet are you on, Leo? DiCaprio flies his LA friends 6,000 miles around the world so they can listen to his speech on GLOBAL WARMING. Daily Mail [online] (July 4, 2016). http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3671903/What-planet-Leo-DiCaprio....
  10. Rapier, R.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Carbon Footprint Is Much Higher Than He Thinks. Forbes [online] (March 1, 2016). https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2016/03/01/leonardo-dicaprios-carbo....