Should I Care About the Carbon Footprint of Celebrities?
Outside’s ethics columnist weighs in
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Dear Sundog: Periodically, celebrities get blasted for flying their private jets all over the place or committing some other kind of wasteful, climate-hurting action. Should I care? —Papa Rossi
Dear Papa: The hand-wringing over celebrity excess is, for many, yet one more reason to be anxious and outraged about the state of the planet. You’re referring, I assume, to last year’s expose that a batch of A-listers including Taylor Swift, Jaz-Z, and Steven Spielberg, with their private jets, are burning carbon at a rate 480 times that of regular mortals. A flak for Taylor swiftly denied this, claiming that the jet was often loaned out to others, but nonetheless the premise of the ultra-rich flapping around in personal airplanes while we proles fester in traffic jams and TSA lines smacks of a dystopic future already arrived. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Keven Hart, Sly Stallone, and others were accused of breaking drought water laws by using too much of it. Every few years, it seems, a new crop of rich people are slammed for their climate hypocrisy.
The good news, Papa, is that this is one eco-crime that you can stop worrying about. Not to say that these people aren’t wasteful. Hell, they might even be evil. And if you’d like to register your discontent by no longer watching their movies or listening to their records or buying their products, then I encourage it. But if your goal is to save the planet then you can safely avert your eyes from this brouhaha and instead keep them on the big picture, which is forcing government to take action at the policy level.
These journalistic jabs at the hypocrisies of the rich and famous, though perhaps informed by good populist intentions, in reality serve as a type of “what about-ism” that distracts and weakens the urgency of real reform. For example:
You: 33 million people were displaced in flooding in Pakistan!
Them: Yeah, but what about Jay-Z’s private jet?
You: 160 species of animals went extinct in the last decade!
Them: Yeah, but what about Stallone’s swimming pool?
You see how it goes. Americans, deprived of a queen and royal family to worship, tend to deify Hollywood stars and then long for their disgrace and comeuppance. It’s a fairly harmless pastime—Sundog thinks we should all resent the rich as a matter of principle. But don’t confuse it with climate action, and consider the opportunity costs of how else moral energy might have been expended.
What’s most insidious about being upset about the excesses of the stars, is that it accepts the frame that one person’s individual habits are what is causing the crisis—and what sill solve it. But it won’t. The only way we’ll solve it is by the government passing laws and building infrastructure that will take us out of fossil fuels: laws that require higher MPG vehicles, laws that end coal-burning power plants. Obsessing over our individual carbon footprint may make us feel guilty—or virtuous—but it won’t solve the problem.
The concept of a personal carbon footprint was invented by a PR firm representing British Petroleum with the explicit goal of shifting the blame of global warming away from the oil industry and onto individual consumers. It was a dazzling success: the phrase “individual carbon footprint” has entered the lexicon and its various free online guilt calculators are provided from everyone from the Nature Conservancy to the EPA to the New York Times, generally without a hint that they are repeating BP’s propaganda. The greatest trick the oil industry ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
I’m not saying that you should therefore feel liberated by Taylor Swift to guzzle the most gasoline possible. Sundog prefers to run errands on bicycle rather than in his eight-cylinder pickup truck, but he’s not deluded into thinking he’s saving the planet. Rather he’s saving his own peace of mind: he gets to be outside, he doesn’t erupt in rage while stuck at red lights or circling the block for parking places. While a good argument can be made that those positive vibes alone are doing some work toward a more just world, it’s not a replacement for real infrastructure like more bike lanes and paths, public transportation, and redesigning cities so we don’t live so far away from the places we need to get—like offices and schools and stores.
As for the soon-to-be-ubiquitous electric vehicle that will allow the Global North to continue its exact behavior and still save the planet, Sundog suspects this might be a case of allowing the people who created the problem to try to solve it, and the consequences of scaling up coal-fired electricity and lithium mining to match current levels of gasoline-fueled cars appears daunting, but that’s the subject for another column.
Sundog recalls that when he was camped for months at Standing Rock to help the Lakota block the Dakota Access Pipeline, a frequently uttered barb by the oil biz was that Water Protectors were a bunch of hypocrites because they drove gas-powered cars across the nation to protest an oil pipeline. Here you see the wicked effectiveness of British Petroleum’s campaign of personal responsibility: We use oil just as much as anyone so we have to keep our mouths shut and not say a bad word about it.
Focusing on footprint makes us blame ourselves for the fact that virtually all cities and towns built since World War II were designed to accommodate, encourage—and depend on—driving a car. While it’s true that millions of people liked—and to continue to prefer—this design, that doesn’t mean that they designed and built it. That was the work of government policy, heavily influenced by the oil and automotive lobbies. And we the people can reverse that only by outward action, not inward self-blame.