What he said: celebrity voyeur edition


Although he probably wouldn’t bill himself this way, I kind of think of David Roberts as the voice of irritated common sense in the green blogosphere. Here he is displaying irritated common sense on the deeply pointless topic of celebrity “hypocrisy,” a subject that for reasons unclear to me continues to get plenty of play in our own blog comments from seemingly well-meaning people.

There are a lot of people out there — people of all political leanings — who feel that celebrities, however defined, are somehow important. Some of these people further think that when celebrities behave in a less than exemplary fashion, their behavior discredits the causes to which they attach their name. Other people disagree and are able to marshal all sorts of points about human fallibility and the importance of raising awareness and so on and so forth.

All of the people on both sides of this argument should take a long walk, or call a loved one they haven’t spoken to in a while, or work on a chapter of that novel they’ve been putting off. Because this whole debate over celebrity hypocrisy is just so damned dull and irrelevant to anything that actually matters.

It doesn’t matter if Barbra Streisand uses a fleet of coal-powered Hummers to transport her concert entourage. It doesn’t matter if Al Gore relaxes on weekends by clearcutting Amazon rainforest. Mind you, these things would surely be bad, even unforgivable. I certainly wouldn’t defend these actions, and I grant that they would undercut the effectiveness of Babs & Al as environmental spokespeople. But this stuff still wouldn’t, in a cosmic sense, matter.

Here’s what I mean by doesn’t matter:

None of the carbon bills currently jostling for attention in Congress specifically mention Barbra Streisand by name, or make any of their provisions contingent on Streisand’s 2008 concert schedule.

Of the 960 scientific studies of climate change published in peer-reviewed journals in the last ten years, 0 base their conclusions on the size of Al Gore’s swimming pool.

Technological advances have revealed sources of clean energy and low-emissions transportation that are commercially viable today regardless of the location of RFK Jr.’s summer home.

A recent survey taken at the TerraPass water cooler reveals the following breakdown of conversational topics:

  • Voluntary carbon standards: 22.8%
  • Greenhouse gas mitigation strategies: 14.7%
  • Climate change policy: 11.9%
  • Where to have lunch: 8.3%
  • Bumper sticker design: 1.2%
  • New ways to haze our intern: 42.1%
  • Celebrity carbon footprints: 0.0%

Do we avoid discussing celebrity carbon footprints because of an environmental conspiracy of silence? No, we avoid it because it’s an uninteresting topic. Anybody who raised it would quickly be uninvited from lunch and barred from hazing the intern.

Believe me, I’ve heard all of the arguments about why celebrity footprints do, in fact, matter. “If Al Gore is going to tell the entire world that they should live in grass huts, then…” Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t do anything because Al Gore tells you to. You should do stuff because the actual issue at hand is important, and because of all the nice scientists and NGOs and businesspeople doing meaningful work on the problem, and because you’re concerned about the consequences of inaction. And, by all means, feel free to hate on Barbra Streisand for being an energy-sucking hypocrite, just like you might hate on Paris Hilton for being, well, you know. Just stop trying to suggest that Barbra actually matters any more than Paris does.

Some argue that if environmental groups don’t want people attacking their messengers, they should stop using celebrities as spokespeople. This is, in effect, an argument that environmentalists should be stupid:

A phone rings at the headquarters of an environmental advocacy group.

Earnest environmental advocate: Hello?

Leonardo DiCaprio: Hi. My name is Leonardo DiCaprio. I’d like to promote your cause.

EEA: (suspiciously) What’s your carbon footprint?

LD: I don’t know. But journalists follow me around like a pack of hungry puppies. I could put in a good word for you.

EEA: Do you use low-flow showerheads?

LD: Um, I’m not sure. Which house–


There are so many things in this world to worry about. Isn’t it refreshing to know that you can remove the environmental impact of celebrity lifestyles from the list?

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  1. Tree Frogger - August 28, 2007

    Interesting. So you don’t find it hypocritical when, say Jimmy Swaggart espouses clean living, but is paying for hookers? Well, he has apologists as well.
    Those of us in the real world understand that our leaders must pass the stink test. If it stinks, it doesn’t lead us. Al Gore and Company are leading you guys down the merry path, getting unbelievably rich along the way. Oh, and spreading his carbon footprint as well.
    Character DOES matter.

  2. Adam Stein - August 28, 2007

    I kind of knew this post was going to be a reading comprehension test. Sigh. Here goes:
    Jimmy Swaggart is indeed a hypocrite. Also, it doesn’t matter that Jimmy Swaggart is a hypocrite. Both of these things can be true…at the same time! For my next trick, I will neither apologize for Jimmy Swaggart nor scorn him. Instead, I will simply ignore him, as I have been doing for the last three decades. Shazam!
    Swaggart’s behavior probably matters a lot to his wife, but it sure doesn’t affect me or anyone else I know, nor does it reflect one way or the other on the values that Swaggart pretends to uphold. See how this works? In the real world where you live, is it OK to cheat on your wife with a prostitute because Jimmy Swaggart did it? Did Jimmy Swaggart discredit the entire Christian faith that he preached, or did he just discredit himself?

  3. Adam Stein - August 28, 2007

    As an aside, this post is really about our obsession with celebrity behavior in the abstract. It’s convenient to use Al Gore as an example because he’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy. But I do feel compelled to point out, for the record, that I personally think the guy has done a lot of good stuff, and I’m not able to get particularly worked up over his environmental transgressions. This probably is at least partly a personality thing with me — I just don’t spend a ton of energy on self-righteous fervors, whether directed at Al Gore, Jimmy Swaggart, or whomever. Life’s too short.
    But others can go ahead and get worked up. That’s fine. Just don’t pretend your fervor has anything to do with climate change.

  4. Bob Yates - August 29, 2007

    I agree with you. Why let any of these soul sucking celebrity hypocrites affect our lives with their behavior.
    I have gotten to the point that if I see a product with a celebrity name attached to it, I believe that it probably an inferior product trying to “puff up”.
    Unfortunately that is the reaction of a lot of people, no matter what the virtues of the product are. Anyone interested in David Duke’s views on Civil Rights or President Clinton’s views on how to treat women? Or, even Paris Hilton’s views on fashion?

  5. Jo - August 29, 2007

    I have a different question. What does it say about *us* (that is, Americans in general) that so many people’s first reaction to the global trends illustrated by “An Inconvenient Truth” was to fixate on Al Gore’s lifestyle and energy use? I share Adam’s lack of interest in Al Gore’s personal practices. But I am fascinated by what psychological reflex is at work when people respond to environmentalists’ messages about how our whole society is using resources by transforming it in their heads into a personal critique of their own lifestyles, and then “disqualifying” the message by bringing attention to the messenger’s lifestyle. If we could figure this out, we could learn something helpful about how to talk to Americans about global warming.

  6. Angela - August 29, 2007

    Who are celebrities? People. Just like the rest of us. Some of them trying to use the weirdness in their life to either make a personal statement or attempt to do something of value beyond the photographs we so love to see. I guess I disagree that we should ignore them, because so many of them TRY. How many people can say that they spend even 10% of the time that Leonardo DiCaprio or Bradd Pitt or Al Gore or Arnold Schwarzenegger (oh wait… I guess he may not count…) spend on furthering their environmental beliefs.
    I understand why you are tiring of the ‘celebrity hypocrisy’ discussion. At the end of the day – would anyone hold up under the scrutiny the media places these people under in the name of a story?
    Sorry – I guess it is worth 2% of my conversational day to talk about what some of these people are doing. Not because I want to bring them down, but because some of them are doing things I wish I had the resources to do. So sue me for thinking Brad Pitt is both attractive, and his green building projects in Louisiana are interesting. Guess I won’t get to drink at your cooler.

  7. Charlie - August 29, 2007

    I read your post. I understand what you say matters (ie: green bills in Congress, efforts to increase Cafe standards and the like…) How we all live our day-to-day lives matters as well. Sure, reducing the use of coal to produce electricity is vital, but it can only be done if we decrease the amount of electricity we use. We all need to take part in that and for many, examples on how to live a greener life are important. Not everyone reads this blog, Grist, or has seen An Inconvenient Truth.
    So, I have to respectfully disagree. Celebrities DO matter. They have face time in all our lives and when Brad Pit, Al Gore, Babs, Leo and all the rest allow us to see into their lives as a part of an effort to teach people to be more green in their own lives, it’s an important piece of the puzzle. Hopefully seeing what they do will help their fans see what steps they CAN take in their own lives.
    That said, if Babs gets up there and espouses green living and then drives around in coal-fired hummers, it’s a ding on her credibility (a pretty big one) and the green movement loses a valuable voice that reaches a valuable demographic.
    Saying that what the celebs do doesn’t matter is short sighted and wrong in my opinion.

  8. Anonymous - August 29, 2007

    Of course people that are already convinced of the problem are not going to care as much about the hypocracy of celebrities. But the average American is unlikely to ride the bus rather than driving simply to make available more energy for Al’s heated tennis court. People become disillusioned when the champion of a cause turns out to be part of the problem. I fail to see how this concept is difficult to comprehend.

  9. Meagen - August 29, 2007

    Plenty of people called Jesus a glutton and drunkard. They neglected to realize that eating habits had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not what Jesus preached was true. Same with Al Gore. If climate change is true, if we are all sinners whether we ride a bike to work or not, then something more needs to happen than eating at farmers’ markets. Climate change won’t stop if we crucify Al Gore. Redemption can only come from communal action and affects the entire community. A celebrity being an energy hog should not in any way determine whether or not we cap greenhouse gas emissions.

  10. Anonymous - August 29, 2007

    I think this fixation over celebrity hypocrisy has deeper roots in our general population’s poor education in critical thinking. Most people don’t have the skills necessary to discern what is true or false about a message, so they rely too heavily on the messenger. It also works in the reverse, which is why ad homenim attacks work so frighteningly well.

  11. Janet - August 29, 2007

    Good thing the demographic for “Celebrity Energy Waster” is a few hundred people in comparison to the MILLIONS of regular people that, if educated on the issue, can make a real impact in reducing our country’s carbon footprint. We may not be famous, but we outnumber ’em!

  12. MNWalleye - August 29, 2007

    I think everyone is preaching to the choir, the problem is you’re trying to SELL a message. After watching the movie Inconvenient truth, the message was pretty clear to me, unless we change our lifestyles in some serious ways; life on this very planet looks really bleak.
    When I grew up, we used to say “actions are stronger then words” To me this meant the best way to get people to listen and follow you is to set your own example 1st. In my humble opinion, people who don’t live by example actually make it WORSE. How? Because of their own actions the message other people really hear is, yea it’s a problem but it’s really not that big of a problem, otherwise why would they continue to live the way they do?
    Unfortunately we have “hypocrite deniers”. People who continue to give a free pass to some simply because they say the right things.
    2 Classic examples in the news today;
    Greenpeace Cape Wind ad targeting Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Delahunt for opposing clean energy that reduces our energy independence and fights global warming. Can you say NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard.
    Second one, John Edwards saying people should sacrifice driving SUV’s while living in a 28,000 sq ft mansion. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20487065/
    Hope you all rode your bikes today,

  13. Charles Barton - August 30, 2007

    I have called David Roberts many things, but saying that he has common sense is not one of them. Roberts is guilty of distorting the costs of new nuclear power plants, claiming that they cost up to four times what the manufacturers have actually agreed to sell them for. Roberts ignores the real costs of recent reactor construction in France and China. Roberts has paper over the numerous problems of renewable energy, for example ignoring that there is a nation wide absence of winds during summer months, when demand for electrical power for air conditioning peaks. Roberts fails to not the mechanical reliability problem of wind generators, and the proven high costs and numerous problems of off shore windfarms. Roberts also favors the use of pump storage to solve the unreliability problem with wind and solar energy, even though pump storage facilities are as expensive as nuclear plabts to build, and can be expected to provide far less electricity on an annual basis.

  14. patrick - August 31, 2007

    I think Eleanor Roosevelt rightly said that “Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.” People make for good discussions because they are inherently flawed and are good for scandals. High-profile people will continue to make news, and others will pay attention to them no matter how unqualified their opinions may be.

    That said, exposing a hypocrite championing a cause should never spell the death of that cause unless every last supporter of that cause turns out to be a hypocrite. Likewise, if you’re involved in a cause simply because you’re following a charismatic leader, you likely won’t be in it as long as those who embrace the actual ideas behind the cause. Finding out that someone you looked up to wasn’t walking the walk is always a little demoralizing, but that damages the credibility of the person, not the cause itself.

    One final point: you often see ad hominem arguments when opponents can’t find major weaknesses in the message itself. Attacking Gore in order to discredit global warming happens because the point is sound enough that junk science contesting global warming doesn’t have a leg to stand on. When you see tactics like that, it usually means your point is pretty sound.

  15. MNWalleye - September 3, 2007

    To borrow from Patrick who wrote;
    “I think Eleanor Roosevelt rightly said that “Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.”
    How do you discuss global warming without talking about people? Maybe you could have a new slogan that just says “Global warming happens”
    If it were only Al Gore or John Edwards being a hypocrite that would be one thing. The problem is it’s an epidemic of arrogant rich celebrities and politicians preaching to us that I take such offense too.
    John Edwards is right on one point, there are 2 America’s,one for the privileged rich that can buy their way to environmentalism and the other America that’s expected to make all the sacrifices.
    I hear soon to be former Senator Larry Graig might be looking for work soon, with all the coverage in the news this past week, he might be the one to delivery the global warming message since he’ll probably have plenty of time on his hands. It’d be an interesting phone call.

  16. Patrick - September 10, 2007

    How do we discuss global warming without talking about people? By discussing statistics related to global warming, mostly. Yes, people are an invariable part of the equation, but we can easily discuss global warming and other larger issues without talking about how specific celebrities who embrace the cause measure up to the high standards they promote. No matter how much someone does to live responsibly, there will always be something that someone will criticize. Nobody’s perfect. The point is that we should discuss global warming based on the facts, not who is for or against it. The Republicans who reject global warming simply because Gore has become one of the most prominent voices are looking for an excuse not to think or risk having to change.

    I think the biggest shame here is that many people like to champion popular and/or noble causes but don’t realize how much of a disservice they do by not upholding the cause they give lip-service to. Unfortunately, it does have an impact on people who don’t have the time or interest in actually study the facts.