The blank look on Jane Fonda’s face revealed that, 50 years on, her activism has aged more than she had. When a BBC Newsnight reporter asked where Fonda got the numbers indicating an existential climate collapse threatening humanity, she replied authoritatively: “From the science!”. When challenged on this, her fumbling revealed how her advisers had assumed that no one was going to question her on that and on whether she had, indeed, read “the science”.
2019 was the year of Celebrity Science – where the cameras focused on stars making a token gesture to some mystical doctrines to be revered rather than read; where virtue signalling meets fear of missing out; and where decades of research could not withstand a mindless celebrity tweet. Anti-vaxx stars walk down red carpets, gurus tout naturopath remedies or celebrities get themselves arrested to help stop the extinction of humanity or collapse of entire ecosystems … all to defend of some “science”, to lead some purposeful campaign and to stop business as usual.
Celebrities know how to exploit opportunists, so in latching onto the latest environmental campaign (plastic straws, melting glaciers, bees, polar bears or chemicals) they can identify the purpose needed to keep up public attention. These HollyLuddites are used to reading from a script, infusing drama and attracting adulation – so environmental causes are the perfect fora to extend their craft. If they can put their name on a supplement or detox programme and put a bit of goop in their pocket, everyone is happy (so long as they can keep their private jet out of the media spotlight).
Within the blurred lines of celebrities, influencers and gurus lurks the activist campaigner seeking a willing, simplistic, often gullible amplifier, open to exploitation and craving more attention. They bring a fan base into a complex scientific debate; they bring simple solutions into challenging problems; they bring a marketing opportunity into a public desire to emulate and virtue signal. Sorry scientists, but Leonardo DiCaprio “seems to know more about the earth than anybody”. At least that’s what Lil Dicky says (viewed half a billion times) and millennials seem to only get messages through such a montage of celebrities and a few confused two-minute simplistic solutions.
Those who challenge the positivity of a celebrity must have personal issues and can be easily dismissed. Those doing the hard work and research need to sit back and watch the firestorm following a Kardashian tweet. Those in the media have to work through celebrity PR managers. And those in power need to stand in line for a photo op. This is science in the Age of Stupid.
“… and Climate Change!”
In the film Miss Congeniality, every ‘flowers and rainbows’ beauty pageant speech had to be suffixed with the empty wish: “… and world peace”. Today, such narrative-contrived affirmation is fulfilled with the phrase “… and climate change”. Weathermen blithely weave these words in between talk on low-fronts and high pressures. Every storm or drought, every fire or flood, every war or refugee movement is now directly attributed to man’s evil consumption and disregard for our suffering Mother Earth.
If you’re an activist hammer, everything looks like climate change. This is banalising the guilt of humanity. Every action or inaction has a carbon emission assessment and environmental value judgement. A Swedish teenager with an angry stare puts every white middle-aged male in his place. A death cult apostle with his hand glued to an electric train is given a microphone for his act of righteous-laden contrition.
The same madness can be said about the chemophobe’s overuse of the cancer threat. Once these activists build the narrative that every synthetic chemical gives you cancer, most individuals get numb and just ignore the issue completely.
The scene is set for celebrities, virtue signallers and drama queens. Fear (of mass extinction from climate or chemicals) has two evil stepsisters: Blame and Guilt.
- Blame is the urge to find a scapegoat upon which a good dose of our outrage can be levied. Industry is the usual suspect while the paid-off regulator is equally despised.
- Guilt is the realisation that we need to find some contrite action to restore our self-benevolence. Celebrities articulate these emotions and energise our followship instinct.
The first of January brings the joy of detox season (with three weeks of hefty sales promotions). This year I anticipate my social media pages to light up the Risk-Monger’s Virtue Signal Detectors with decarbonising New Year’s resolutions to save the planet (meat-free, flight-free, car-free … pet-free?).
Enter the most powerful celebrity voice of all: the future!
Greta has become the year’s most unlikely celebrity science star – a product of alarmist opportunity and cunning campaigners. Posturing with the future generation or using children, the activists and celebrities have found the winning formula in Greta and the media (with no scrutiny of the Parkland approach) is drinking up the activist stage-managed populism. As celebrities pose with children, play up the drama, take their mark on the stage and read from the script, hope is condensed into a sound-bite.
The script of course needs its heroes and villains. Hippies putting flowers into soldiers barrels has morphed into children condemning corporations for developing innovative products (which they post on their smart phones). Nobody wants to attend a show where the audience is the villain so a simple plot with easy solutions provides the vulnerable with what they crave and desire. Nobody wants to dedicate their future studies to engineering and technology to try to solve these daunting problems so a tweet becomes the solution. Nobody wants to read the scientific literature and engage in debate on the best innovative solutions, so a celebrity sound-bite on “the science” will do.
Everybody wants to feel good about themselves (while hating others).
Eat less meat, no chemicals, don’t fly or drive, world peace, paper straws … Solutions are simple when a celebrity shares time on the stage for the cause, driving the narrative forward. On the stage we search for the good v evil dichotomy … the us v them, the hope v despair. As the scientist is not an actor (too many words, no charisma, unpredictable …), someone more “pleasant” is written into the script.
In the world of mass media manipulation of the 1990s, we used to speak of the sound bite to give a hand to the fear-marketing experts. Now with high-volume social media, the hand is bitten off and the fear-marketing is bleeding out uncontrolled. Today the solutions are simple: it (whatever “it” may be) is their fault and they (whomever “they” may be) will have to pay.
Hypocrisy rules when the mob seeks a scapegoat. The anti-meat people will tell you to cut out meat to save the planet. Those with no family or work abroad plan a “flight-free 2020“. Not too many are demanding we take the cars off the roads or give up our greenhouse-gas-emitting pets. Then again, almost 40% of Europeans want a “to live in a world without chemicals” because, well … chemicals are bad.
As absurd and simplistic as many of these claims are, with social media the simple message (where others must make sacrifices) spread virally gets taken as a viable solution supported by “the science”. The experts are no longer needed in a world where celebrities spread “the science” via tweets and campaigns.
Vengeance via Systemic Change
There has been movement in the last years to isolate experts from the decision-making process, replacing regulatory risk assessments with citizen panels. First groups like Corporate Europe Observatory and US Right to Know spread fear about Monsanto infiltration into regulatory bodies to undermine trust in scientists in the EPA, EFSA and the German risk assessment body, the BfR. Solution: citizen panels to decide (with the precautionary principle) which crop protection materials to use (hint: none of them). Then Extinction Rebellion used their death-cult alarmism on the imminent end-of-days to demand the overthrow of the capitalist-influenced democratic system, replacing it with some theoretical citizens’ assembly who can determine the measure needed to solve climate change. How hard could it be???
While this absurdist opportunism should have been laughed off, if they hadn’t been so influential, the worst of their plans is yet to come. The social justice warriors are demanding climate justice and a codification of ecocide to make industry pay (essentially to rid the world of corporations). Climate justice is just one example of how these warriors want to to transition into a post-corporate, post-capitalist world (by suing all companies out of existence). In her Newsnight interview, Jane Fonda repeated the call for Nuremberg-style trials against the fossil-fuel industry (considering the actions of Exxon-Mobil to be far worse than the Holocaust). Once again, make others guilty for our sins and not the consumers who had demanded these industrial products. Exxon must pay for Jane’s regular use of private jets or the average American’s SUV trip to the corner store for a dozen eggs.
The hypocrisy of the simple-minded can be justified with a celebrity endorsement.
But none of this is as absurd as the claim to codify ecocide as a crime against the environment. The 2016 Monsanto Tribunal mock trial of a medium-sized biotech company for ecocide indicated how ridiculous and petty these activists had got. By renting a room in a university in The Hague, this group of anti-industry cranks thought they could pass their stunt off as a legitimate criminal court proceeding. In the end they just spent a lot of the US organic food industry lobby’s money.
Ecocide, considered loosely, is any action that wilfully diminishes the quality of the environment. That is indeed very loose as anything man does involves taking something from the environment. Activists and opportunistic lawyers consider ecocide a criminal offence but their excess salivation leaves some with a few dry questions. Does the planet have a dignity that merits rights in the same way as humans have? How can we determine guilty parties and seek a just retribution? Who will be the judge and jury?
An anecdote: I once confronted an activist on this subject. He admitted that he owned a phone and a laptop (they were sitting in front of him). I then set out to show how the extraction of the rare earths, minerals and chemicals needed to construct these tools of his activism, plus the energy to make, use and recycle them, was denying the planet of its dignity and leaving a footprint so deep as to have caused irreparable ecological damage. I then charged this self-righteous zealot with the crime of “ecocide”. He refused to play this game as ecocide is a tool for eradicating a certain class of industries and he was totally at peace with his hypocrisy.
Ecocide and climate justice are tools for the incurably hypocritical (… and celebrities like the “let them lose weight” organic apostle: Vivienne Westwood).
Celebrity Activists: Preachers from the Puritan Pulpit
Of course, celebrities cost a lot, they might not say what you tell them to (they might read) and they might get caught on film eating a steak on their private jet. Social media has allowed each activist group to generate their own celebrity star power. I recently got an invitation to attend a two-day event featuring Vandana Shiva and Zen Honeycutt – homegrown celebrities from the chemophobe cult. As this tribe grows in size their own-media will expand their influence beyond their subscribers and their issues will go mainstream attracting platitudes from politicians and ink from editors.
I recently asked a class of mine to distinguish between celebrities, gurus and social media influencers (YouTube and Instagram stars). They kept coming up with similar personalities. How these next-generation iconoclasts moved between policy, prayer and publics was seamless. I called it the Kardashian-West phenomenon (vegans who eat meat).
Social media has spawned new religions (tribes) seeking solace from emerging gurus. After spending a day watching the Truth about Cancer Live conference, the seemingly endless stream of populist naturopath preachers (anti-vaxx, alternative medicine, pro-organic) reminded me of the 1970s Pentecostal faith-healers. A guru reborn for a new religion.
As the big screen shrinks into the palm of our hands, as millennials begin to lead the decision-making process and as policy tools become citizen-led, the world of influence is changing far faster than our textbooks. Where is the scientist and the thought-leader in all of this?
From Celebrity Endorsement to Social Justice Opportunity
Time was celebrities were associated with a brand or product endorsement. Now with the millennial obsession with “purpose”, our stars attach themselves to causes, fighting injustice and society’s failures. As mentioned, stars can frame simple solutions for complex problems, but they also can embody complex emotions when more reason is what’s needed. When Emma Thompson climbed onto Extinction Rebellion’s pink boat in Central London, she poured emotional fuel on an issue that desperately needs rational dialogue.
The last few years has seen the emergence of the angry social justice warrior. Perhaps it is a reaction to Trump or Brexit (or local issues from Budapest to Brazil, from Manila to Italy), but individuals (commonly on the political left) have taken it upon themselves to “fix” what’s wrong with humanity (to meet intolerance with greater … intolerance).
As science has been surgically removed from the decision-making process, social justice warriors are moving in to push their political agenda without any need for rational discourse. Climate change can only be fixed by removing the capitalist system and penalising all industry out of existence. World hunger will be met by removing all agricultural technologies and adopting agroecological “solutions”. The problem with vaccines, we are told, are the lies of evil Big Pharma. Without scrutiny of facts or evidence, social justice warriors can rule the day with simple answers: they are right and the rest of us can just shut the hell up.
When celebrities hungry for “purpose” amplify these social justice causes, they mainstream radical ideas, block reasonable discussions and ultimately worsen the situation. The activists who used Greta as a battering ram at the United Nations in 2019 were not interested in innovations or low-carbon developments – they were interested in making those they violently despise pay dearly. Having celebrities claim “the science” does not make hard decisions any easier; it just spreads the ignorance and intolerance more widely.
Social justice warriors are well-suited to attract needy, PR-conscious celebrities. I do not see Leonardo DiCaprio standing up for nuclear energy. Neil Young seems set to see farmers suffer rather than admit the organic food industry lobby exploited him. Gwyneth Paltrow will get rich selling dangerous substances to naturopaths while Jenny McCarthy doesn’t need to justify the number of victims from her anti-vaxx fear-mongering. I don’t see celebrities losing their jobs for taking such positions. Then again, I don’t see celebrities promoting safe conventional agriculture, the medical establishment or energy conservation. “The science” does not actually need to be in tune with the science.
And then there is Jane Fonda … who can belittle the Holocaust because she is mad at Exxon-Mobil without raising a tinge of outrage. Such is logic in a world led by Celebrity Science.
Let’s pray for clearer vision in 2020. Happy New Year!