/ 27 April 2007

Green vs greenbacks

According to Vanity Fair magazine, he is “the man of the hour” — photographed by Annie Leibovitz at Iceland’s Jökulsárlón glacier and pictured on the cover. Leonardo DiCaprio is the Upper West Side’s new green poster boy, and in the ensuing pictorial portfolio his fellow “global citizens” line up behind him: ex-Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alanis Morissette and Jack Johnson, and an assortment of scientists, activists, fashionistas and entrepreneurs.

Recent headlines about the greening of United States politics still look premature, but in the past two years or so the country’s news-stands have undergone a real transformation. The US’s collective weather eye is opening ever wider, that great climate-change denier George W Bush is falling fast and US celebrities are noisily expressing interest in the issue. Given its symbiotic bond with the metropolitan liberati, Vanity Fair can perhaps be discounted, but publications that sit much closer to the mainstream now run environmental splashes on what seems like a weekly basis.

But what kind of awakening is this? At the most crass extreme lies the latest international edition of Newsweek acknowledging the onset of climate change, but brazenly making the case for its upside: as polar ice melts, “the Arctic is a new Klondike, ripe for exploitation”.

Almost as comical is a recent Time cover feature dedicated to the “51 things we can do”, from adjusting countries’ airspace “so that planes can fly in as straight a line as possible” to the incisive “if you must burn coal, do it right”. An article admiringly cited such corporations as Wal-Mart, BP America and the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and their realisation that “there’s money to be made in the enviro game”.

The same eco-boosterism is the chosen credo of Al Gore, who is readying this July’s Live Earth, the star-studded event aimed not only at capitalising on the media’s new green appetites and pushing climate change into the foreground, but also confirming that his leadership holds the key to keeping it there.

According to Live Earth’s publicity blurb, its essential aim is to “create the foundation for a new, multi-year global effort to combat the climate crisis led by vice-president Al Gore”. Live Earth will thus be sticking to the two key tenets of the VP’s environmentalism: that ecological collapse need not threaten the supremacy of the market and that, to quote the CEO of General Electric, “environmental improvement is going to lead toward profitability”. Gore has already outlined two of the spectacular’s sponsors: a so-far unnamed automobile company (it looks like being DaimlerChrysler) and Pepsico.

To be fair to DiCaprio, his green stance seems more thoroughgoing, though at Live Earth his kind of celebrity advocacy looks like being drowned out by corporate jockeying and the feel-good fuzziness known as greenwash. There is something about the conjunction of American optimism, pop culture and a political cause that tends do this.

And what about the rum alliance of stars, crafty politicians and an impressionable media that momentarily set its sights on making poverty history? Tony Blair recently recalled watching Bono address G8 officials and marvelling at how agreeable this new activism-cum-philanthropy seemed: “He simply asked them to think of this as the most important moment of their lives.” That moment, you may recall, swiftly passed. So, here’s the likely scenario: for Live 8, read Live Earth — and an agenda rendered so washed out that we’ll hardly be able to recognise it. — Â