Do celebrities help or hinder environmental causes?
- Published: 15 May 2010
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Celebrity-ridden media events produce images of the world for sale to publics, but while celebrities can bring development issues onto the news agenda, what they can say is constrained by their predominantly white audience. And this may do more harm than good, writes Dan Brockington.
The satirical British paper Private Eye recently reported the following collection of headlines from Yahoo:
‘Suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan
Clinton wants Lockerbie bomber to stay in jail
Ransom demand made for missing ship
George Michael whams trucker in rear.’
There will be three common responses to this collection. Some will find it funny. Others will be annoyed that the sober matters of international affairs should be rendered trivial by the invasion of celebrity gossip. A third set will ask ‘Who is George Michael?’
People asking the latter question will be many, but will also feel uneasy that the media presume readers should know him (he is in fact a musician). They will fear that everyone knows apart from them.
Celebrity often arouses resentment and uncertainty when mixed with the serious business of life. Yet many worthy causes are attracted by the power of celebrity over the news.
Examples are proliferating within development: Chris Martin (a musician) advertises Fair Trade foods; Colin Firth (an actor) publicly supports Oxfam; Angelina Jolie (an actress) speaks out for injustice overseas and Bindi Irwin (a child presenter) supports the Wildlife Warriors.
The work of celebrity in good causes demands reflection.
My own enquiries into celebrity began with environmental issues in Africa. The conservation landscape there is well populated by prominent characters who share one unusual characteristic: they are almost all white.
Some even appear to be aping Tarzan with no apparent loss to their credibility. So I set out to study how fame and charisma work in African conservation, and this quickly lead to a broader study of celebrity and its role in environmental causes.
My first problem, however, was learning to recognize celebrities who work in environmental affairs.
I have long kept shy of media matters, and while I had some familiarity with George Michael, that was about it. When I asked for advice and suggestions I received long lists of names I had never heard of before.
Later, however, I learned a typology of celebrity interactions with environmentalism. There are those who are famous already and lend their fame to environmental causes, those who present natural history films and those for whom it is their living because of their conservation work.
It is the latter two who, in the media domain, are so overwhelmingly white in Africa.
I began to delve into the strange worlds of the rich, famous and charismatic though their writings, biographies and press reports. I was struck by the power of particularly repellant people, liars who were venerated long after their lies were exposed and others whose visions were just bizarre and ridiculous, yet which transformed reality.
This was a world where fans wrote in defense of paedophiles, film presenters wrestled big cats (or rather their corpses), tigers were released into African wildlife ranches and Englishmen enjoyed extremely successful careers as representatives of Canada’s First Nations.
The key to understanding all this lay in the celebrity literature. This is a vibrant body of writings, much of it Australian, which is analyzing the growth and development of celebrity.
From this it is clear that, in its present form, celebrity began nearly 100 years ago and was a consequence of the emergence of cinema and media industries who discovered that promoting stars sold more tickets.
Celebrity endorsement and product placement further oiled marketing juggernauts. The celebritariat exist in order to sell things to audiences. The success of people like Steve Irwin (a natural history film presenter) was not just so much his style and panache before the camera, but the commodity-producing machine that accompanied him.
To understand the success of celebrity in environmental affairs, one had to understand the way that celebrity is produced, and the audiences which consume them.
If selling column inches, or some other product, is the main goal then it is easy to see how the bizarre, ridiculous and repellant could become so successful and otherwise ordinary affairs are rendered exotic.
Once I had understood this point it became easier to sift through some of the common myths that surround celebrity, for they do not withstand much scrutiny.
First, and most surprisingly, celebrity may not be that popular. Despite the high visibility of celebrities, a great many people are not interested in celebrity at all.
Celebrity’s prominence in most media does not mean that the majority of people are buying celebrity products. Their domination of the media field means does not translate to a more general social domination. Only a tiny proportion of the population actually buys celebrity magazines for example. Many of us live our lives without celebrity as reference points.
Second, celebrities’ eagerness to remain in the spotlight while giving to charity can be odious, but the criticism that celebrities are somehow benefitting from their support is absurd. Of course they are.
A celebrity is a commercial product whose job it is to be seen and heard. One might as well complain about the visibility of advertising hoardings.
The more important question is, does it work for the cause? I found that charities insist that they generate more money, and publicity, with celebrity supported events.
Third, celebrity can dumb down public affairs, drowning substance with style. This is certainly true, but it is not a property unique to celebrity.
Rather style is vital in all aspects of politics. Politicians are only listened to if they have the right style. When David Cameron (the newly elected UK Prime Minister) urged listeners to ‘keep it real’ in one of his earlier popular radio interviews he was trying, and failing, to find the style his audience needed to be able to understand him.
However, while I found these complaints inconsequential I also found more serious issues that do not attract so much comment.
Celebrity-ridden media events produce images of the world for sale to publics. The natural world is rich in visual capital which can be married to the symbolic capital of celebrity and its associated wealth, beauty and power to produce things, (clothes, tourist destinations, good causes) which people will buy (see image).
Another way of putting this is that in conservation the incursions of celebrity are part of a deeper embedding of conservation within capitalism. The strategies of selling nature may well work, in the sense that they serve conservation goals, they also extend the reach and power of market relations.
However, conservation’s celebrity spectacles are not just images conforming to our notions of what the world looks like, they actively transform the world to fit that image.
In wildlife conservation this is clearly visible in the way they support (northern) visions of what landscapes should look like. This can mean raising money for policies which depend upon the eviction and exclusion of rural residents from lived landscapes turning them into wilderness and pleasure grounds for tourists.
The more general problem facing celebrity in development is the weight of market demand which renders the stereotypes and prejudice surrounding international poverty so durable.
People tend to follow the news to have their views confirmed. We watch television to relax, not to be challenged.
Celebrities can bring development issues onto the news agenda, but what they can say is constrained by their audience.
The power of audience demands explains the whiteness of conservation celebrities working in Africa. White conservationists play to (white) northern publics who expect to see such figures saving African environments.
It is part of these publics’ identity and mythology. There is simply not such a market for black African conservationists, and consequently few of them appear in northern media.
Conversely in places like India, where the conservation audience is much more home grown, there is much less space for white conservationists, and many more prominent Indian nationals on the scene.
The dilemma is best summed up by Oscar Wilde (wit and author). Wilde was fascinated by fame and lived just before the dawn of celebrity as we know it now. Writing to his lover from prison he said: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’
This statement would normally be applied to the followers of celebrity. I think we can reverse it, for what celebrities may say can be limited by the demands of their audience. These are commercial relationships and they (the people in the broader celebrity production machine) have to be able to sell their products.
Such an apparent morass of self-affirmation is all rather depressing. There is, however, some good news in all of this.
Relationships between celebrity and audiences are not stable. Those who study them find unexpected challenges and developments arising. How the relationships between celebrity and its audiences will shift over environment and development issues, and at whose behest, is the challenge we must now explore.
This article is based on Dan Brockington’s recent book Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation, published by Zed Books, London.
Dr Dan Brockington is a lecturer in the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester. His explorations into celebrity conservation are part of broader research project examining the politics and social consequences of conservation policy. He is also the author (with Rosaleen Duffy and James Igoe) of Nature Unbound, published in 2008 by Earthscan, London.
Image: Models, in elephant-skin like velvet, pose with elephants during Thailand’s national elephant day. The identities of all participants have been concealed. Courtesy of the author.