Al Gore’s environmental activism is designed never to threaten the supremacy of the market

Al Gore’s environmental activism is designed never to threaten the supremacy of the market

John Harris
Saturday April 21, 2007
The Guardian,,2062314,00.html

According to Vanity Fair magazine’s second Green Issue, he is “the man of the hour” – photographed by Annie Leibovitz at Iceland’s Jokulsarlon glacier, and pictured on the cover next to a Photoshopped-in polar bear cub named Knut. His cherubic features etched with a half-beard and hardened into an expression of concern, 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, musicians such as Alanis Morissette and Jack Johnson, and a motley assortment of scientists, activists, fashionistas and entrepreneurs. Elsewhere, there is a fawning feature about our own Charles Windsor – “a prince whose time has come”, transformed “from eco-scold to green hero”.

Recent headlines about the greening of US politics still look distinctly premature, but in the last two years or so the country’s newsstands have undergone a real transformation. With the US’s collective weather-eye opening ever wider, that great climate-change denier George Bush falling fast and US celebrities noisily expressing interest in the issue, its media class now at least know what time it is. Given its symbiotic bond with the metropolitan liberati, Vanity Fair can perhaps be discounted, but the kind of 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, there lies the latest international edition of Newsweek, acknowledging the onset of climate change, but brazenly making the case for its upside, as in the claim that as polar ice melts, “for the foresighted, the Arctic is a new Klondike, ripe for exploitation”. Almost as comical was a recent Time cover feature dedicated to the “51 things we can do”, ranging from adjusting countries’ airspace “so that planes can fly in as straight a line as possible”, to the incisive advice of tip number 47: “If you must burn coal, do it right.” An article admiringly cited such corporations as Wal-Mart (these days “the darling of greens”, apparently), 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 the saintly Al Gore, currently readying this July’s Live Earth, the star-studded event aimed not just at capitalising on the media’s new green appetites and pushing climate change into the American foreground, but also confirming that his leadership holds the key to keeping it there. Green activists who think top-down politics played a large part in getting the planet in this mess should look away now: 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”. If it finds any time for political specifics, 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 who are “not only introducing a fuel-efficient car” but also “buying carbon offsets globally for everyone that buys the vehicle” (it looks like being DaimlerChrysler, the world’s second biggest car maker); and Pepsico, promising “2bn cans for messaging”.

To be fair to DiCaprio, his green stance seems more thoroughgoing, though at Live Earth his kind of celebrity advocacy – more Sean Penn than Madonna – looks like being drowned out by corporate jockeying, and the feelgood fuzziness that hard-bitten campaigners know as greenwash. At the risk of sounding sniffy, there is something about the conjunction of American optimism, pop culture and a political cause that tends do this – witness the 1988 Wembley concert held to decry the fact that Nelson Mandela was behind bars on his 70th birthday, rebranded “Freedom Fest” by US network TV and filleted to prevent the broadcast of anything controversial.

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 a crowd of G8 officials at Downing Street and marvelling at how agreeable this new kind of activism-cum-philanthropy seemed: “He didn’t fall into the trap of haranguing them. He simply asked them to think of this as the most important moment of their lives.”

That moment, you may recall, swiftly passed, and the few advances enshrined in the Gleneagles accords are unravelling at speed. 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.

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