The agony and the ego of the eco-celeb
04 July 2008
It has been an excellent few days for that new and thoroughly contemporary form of self-promotion, green exhibitionism. Neil Young, the grizzled rock veteran currently on the festival circuit, has been telling anyone who will listen about his environmentally friendly 1959 Lincoln Continental. A vast machine, six metres long and weighing 2.3 tonnes, it can run on electricity. To Neil, it is more important than music itself. “You can’t change the world with a song,” he says. “But we could change it with this car.”
Another hero of environmentalism, Sir Paul McCartney, has also been doing his bit for the planet, accepting a sleek Lexus LS600h, worth £84,000 and with a large V8 engine, as a gift from its manufacturers. Rather good at ingratiating themselves with celebrity moralists – Sir Bob Geldof is another fan – Lexus sponsored McCartney’s 2005 American tour and have now supplied a luxury motor to his specifications: relatively low carbon emission and, out of respect for animals, no leather.
There was only one drawback to this perfect tale of Lexus and the green knight. The car had to be flown 7,000 miles from Japan to England for “marketing reasons”. It was not the future of the planet that mattered here but the future market share of Lexus.
When big companies and celebrities express concern for the environment, a neat synergy of self-interest is at work. Rock stars like big, flashy cars but want to appear responsible; car manufacturers are in the image business, too, for their own financial reasons. Both sides flag up their environmental virtue so that the most obvious fact – that a luxury car is an absurd symbol of planet-awareness – is forgotten.
Green exhibitionism is all about the marketing and image. As a general rule, the louder that celebrities or large companies, trumpet their own virtue, the more likely it is that something bogus is going on.
At this week’s big publishing celebration, the annual summer party of the publishing multinational HarperCollins, it was announced with some pride that the firm would be the first book publisher in the country to be carbon-neutral. One small inconsistency may have niggled at one or two of the guests. The invitation to the party was not on card or paper, but on a slab of elegant Perspex, almost half an inch thick – as environmentally sensible as flying an eco-car from Japan. Yet still the green message was there: a note on the plastic reminded guests to bring their invitations so that they could be recycled.
A sort of madness is setting in. Elsewhere at the same event, an American guest explained how her flat is Manhattan was so sustainable that the timber for the flooring was flown in from foreign parts. An author expressed his bewilderment that the cover of his novel bore a marketing flash announcing that it had been printed on 100 per cent recycled paper. He wondered when it was that the way a book was printed became part of the promotional plan. Would someone buy his book because of the paper on which it was printed?
It was, of course, not the book being promoted but the publisher puffing its own good practice. Green exhibitionists, whether corporate or individual, probably believe that by boasting about their awareness, they are setting an example to ordinary folk, that the fans of Neil Young and Paul McCartney will look at the rock stars’ absurdly egotistical eco-saloons and decide to lag the loft.
The truth is that those who are really thinking about global warming tend to act in small, practical ways. Profit-loving companies and image-conscious celebrities are usually recycling little more than self-serving environmental hocus-pocus.
From the frying-pan to the fox
Even before the announcement that a batty billionaire had left $8m (£4m) to dog charities, there have been indications that when celebrities become involved with animals, something peculiar tends to happen. Following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign to make supermarkets more aware of the cruelty involved in the rearing of hens, a spate of poultry-rustling has been reported.
A new generation of chicken-lovers are prepared to pay a mind-boggling £250 for a Chocolate Orpington, and even £80 for a Light Sussex and the criminal fraternity are cashing in. Stolen from breeders for the back gardens of trend-conscious suburbanites, these birds will soon be prey to urban foxes. Is this really what Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall wanted?
* As the public pronouncements of policemen and GPs often confirm, any professional body which goes out of its way to praise its own integrity tends merely to arouse suspicion. So the fact that barristers are getting hot under their wigs about the way they are portrayed in the BBC series Criminal Justice seems likely to be a matter for amusement rather than concern.
Timothy Dutton QC has been so outraged that he has gone public with his concerns. The series was “a travesty”, he has said. “Publicly funded defence practitioners… act to the highest standards. Counsel’s first duty is to the courts and to the interests of justice.”
The writer of the series, Peter Moffatt, also a qualified criminal barrister, has replied that, like any profession, the law has “the violent, dishonest and stupid working within it”.
This sub-plot is becoming as compelling as the series itself. At the very least, it has the makings of a first-rate situation comedy.