Mark Milke: Why we should read scientists and ignore celebrities.
A few weeks back, 200 celebrities signed an open letter demanding that British Columbia’s government ban future logging in old-growth forests. Signatories included Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, i.e., Canadian-born William Shatner, as well as American actresses Morgan Fairchild and Darryl Hannah, and British actresses Judie Dench and Emma Thompson. This follows up on a June letter where 100 celebrities including Bryan Adams, Greta Thunberg, and Neil Young made the same appeal.
There were a few upper-crust signatories, too. They included former Governor-General and CBC journalist Adrienne Clarkson and her consort, author John Ralston Saul. There were also some academics, plenty of politicians, and the usual “social justice” activists.
Flying celebrities: Spot the inconsistencies
Celebrities who engage in activism and deign to speak on public policy are always annoying and easy to mock, often deservedly so; their lectures to the public often carry a strong whiff of let-the-little-people-eat-cake/forego-carbon-emissions hypocrisy.
For example, Lady Emma Thompson was outed two years back by the UK’s Daily Mail just after participating in Extinction Rebellion protests in London which made life difficult for ordinary commuters. Thompson lectured the world by saying “We should all fly less.”
Just two weeks later, someone snapped pictures of Thompson flying in a luxury cabin on British Airways from London to New York City; Thompson was also observed slurping down Laurent-Perrier champagne Thompson, free with the luxury ticket she bought that can cost as much as £18,000 (about CA$ 31,000). Her flight would have also produced “nearly two tons of carbon dioxide…for each passenger in the elite cabin,” as the Daily Mail reported.
Your place or my second home?
Lady Thompson isn’t the only one who tells the public to change their behaviour but anyway enjoys the luxuries of wealth which results from the modern industrial economy including resource extraction.
I recall a few years back author John Ralston Saul lectured Albertans on the undesirability of the oil sands…but then also let slip he and Adrienne Clarkson owned a vacation condominium in the Alberta resort town of Canmore in the Rocky Mountains. At the time, they also had a primary residence in Ottawa.
Did it never occur to second-home Saul—as with Thompson—that before they lecture others on environmental priorities that perhaps they should make do with a one-bedroom condominium in one city, never fly, and certainly never have a second home or even take a vacation beyond their own city, if they wish others to take them even half-seriously?
Hypocrisy is endemic to human nature. It can be found amongst all of us but celebrities shouldn’t abuse the privilege.
Let’s turn to why celebrities more generally should be ignored when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve the stage or film: Because their expertise is usually only in the latter and not science or policy.
This doesn’t mean one cannot care about some aspect of the environment. It’s just that we should prefer those with some scientific expertise. The 200 signatories did include some scientists, so that was helpful.
For my druthers though, rather than proclaim a climate emergency, it would be more useful pair such academics up in a debate with someone like Steven E. Koonin global warming.
Koonin, a former undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under Barack Obama just wrote a useful book arguing that yes, human-induced impacts upon climate are real and thus should not be dismissed. However, that reality does not mean politicians and those in the press—to say nothing of activists and entertainers—should get away with statements that, in Koonin’s words, “misrepresents what the science says….Climate and energy are complex and nuanced subjects. Simplistic descriptions of ‘the problem’ or putative ‘solutions’ will not result in wise choices.” Similarly, pace Koonin, it is unhelpful to hear either-or extremes applied to forestry.
Hollywood and London vs. blue-collar British Columbians
I don’t know what most celebrities read, but in addition to not being scientists, they generally have no clue what it takes to make a living if one comes from a blue-collar background. Or if they once did, it’s been so long since they inhabited that world, they now feel free to tell others involved in resource extraction to just get another job—perhaps serving champagne on British Airways?
In general terms, I favour conservation where reasonable. I also like trees. I wrote in their defense once when my alma mater, the University of Calgary, proposed to tear down a rare stand of them in the centre of campus to make way for a boring modernist structure. I wrote that the university could have put the new library up in a nearby parking lot instead. I also once wrote of the wonder of a 3,000-year-old tree in California.
As for the blue-collar aspect, back in June when the previous celebrity letter was published, the NDP government—not exactly a raging hotbed of cut-it-all-down MLAs—quite reasonably pointed out that about 20 percent of British Columbia is old-growth forest. Only one-quarter of that is open to logging. The other three-quarters are either not economically viable or legally off-limits.
Those are the real reasons we should ignore celebrities in favour of scientists, including those with differing analyses: Actors and singers are not empiricists and they are not necessarily in touch with reality. They make their living posing a problem in a film and solving it within two hours onscreen. Also, artists—which is what actors are—can create a “perfect” world on a canvas or onscreen. But that’s not the real world.
You can like actors and still ignore their offscreen drama
One can ignore celebrities and still love their work—their actual areas of expertise. I often disagree with Robert Redford’s politics but he’s one of two favourite film directors, the other being Ron Howard. I’ve enjoyed much of Emma Thompson’s work ever since I first watched her in Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V.
I’m not a perfectionist purist. I can accept actors are flawed in their advocacy and still like their work. Similarly, I can recognize that an NDP government can allow for some logging of even old growth forests while wanting much of it preserved.
Lastly, I confess to a personal annoyance in all this when celebrities preen for the camera and where they have no expertise or practical experience in the causes they champion.
When outed a few years ago, Lady Thompson claimed that at least she flew less then used to and anyway that she planted trees to make up for her flying.
Unlike Thompson, I spent three summers in British Columbia tree-planting. From forestry cuts near 100 Mile House and north of Prince George and to near the Yukon border and Northwest Territories and around Fort Nelson, I probably planted 250,000 seedlings in those years. It’s how I paid my way through university and kept student loans to a minimum.
I’ll happily match that actual contribution to the world’s forest cover and environment up against celebrity signatories any day of this week, or in 2050.
If celebrities wish to preen about the environment, let them do the real job of sleeping in tents on a mountainside for four months, bathe in an ice-cold river while foregoing a shower for 21 days (my personal record), and working amidst grizzlies, mosquitoes, and hornets.
They could probably use the real-world education in both the actual environment and what it’s like for those in blue-collar professions.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.