Live Earth: a global pulpit of pop sanctimony

The problem with the concerts was not Madge's massive footprint and other rock-star hypocrisy. It was the apocalyptic message of the sermons.

Rob Lyons

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‘As for Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, it is difficult to know where to start with her recent 80-mile helicopter journey for a weekend at the estate of fellow environmentalist Zac Goldsmith. It beggars belief that these people can continue to be taken seriously by anyone remotely serious; yet there they are, still in the vanguard of celebrity activism alongside London headliner Madonna, whose carbon footprint last year is estimated as the worst of all the artists on the bill.’

So said Marina Hyde of the Guardian, pointing out the bleedin’ obvious: that the rock stars who performed at Live Earth were being more than a little hypocritical. This is such a cheap point to make that even the UK’s biggest-selling Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, joined in. The News of the Screws, as it is better known, is usually more interested in celebrities for their bodily emissions than their carbon emissions, yet it still managed a centre-page splash on just how enormous the hypocritical Madge’s footprint really is.

‘Amazingly, her disgraceful carbon footprint—the measure of an individual’s carbon emissions—is the equivalent of 54 average Americans, 102 Brits or an astonishing 14,548 Malawians. Our tally went off the scale after we examined her lavish lifestyle, which includes NINE homes across the world, SIX cars and THREE private jet trips in a year.’ The Screws quoted John Buckley, managing director of leading audit firm Carbon Footprint Ltd, whose press release it had blatantly re-hashed. ‘It’s okay pop stars preaching to us, but it will be good if they look at their own lifestyles to reduce their carbon emissions’, said Buckley.

There’s nothing more irritating than listening to the fabulously wealthy preaching to the world about the need to live frugally. Watching the singer Alicia Keys, a woman who clearly believes that her plainest observation is touched with genius, telling the American crowd to clap their hands if they’re ‘part of a movement’ only inspired me to stick two fingers up at the TV. This was an orgy of self-congratulation. As Peter Paphides noted in The Times (London) yesterday: ‘Clearly delighted that his band had a track called “Planet Earth”, Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon yelled: “Hands up who didn’t come here on a private jet?” We thought that he was asking us, but it turns out that he was congratulating himself….’ Le Bon raised his own hand.

I don’t resent Madge or Le Bon or even Alicia their cash or their rock’n’roll lifestyles. We should aim to create a society where everyone can whizz around at high speed, enjoy a rich variety of experiences and not have to do very much work. I don’t even object to staging rock concerts to raise money for, or the profile of, some worthwhile cause.

But when it comes to Live Earth, I do object to the cause itself: that human beings are consuming too much and we must all learn to live with less. And it is clear that both the supporters and the critics of Live Earth are happy to promote this idea. Both the hypocritical pop stars and their stinging critics share the view that human beings are screwing up the planet and that we all need to change our wicked ways – and that means every single one of us – before the shit really hits the fan. It’s just that for Marina Hyde et al, rock stars are the wrong people to be sending out that message because they’re the most profligate consumers of all.

In other words, emotional blackmail live from Wembley is fine so long as the people jumping round on stage live up to it, too. John Buckley gave the game away when he said ‘It’s okay pop stars preaching to us….’ In other words, the critics of Live Earth have no problem with the idea that the masses should be lectured about light bulbs and holidays and recycling, but would prefer it if someone other than the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (not known for their meek approach to everyday living) were doing the lecturing.

The bottom line of Live Earth was to ask people to ‘Answer the Call. Make your commitment.’ And the commitment, as embodied in the Live Earth Pledge, is to do one or some of the following:

  1. I will change four light bulbs to CFLs (compact fluorescent light) at my home.
  2. I will ride public transit or carpool one or more times per week.
  3. I will shop for the most energy efficient electronics and appliances.
  4. I will forward a Live Earth email message to five friends.
  5. I will shut off my equipment and lights whenever I’m not using them.
Live Earth: was anyone watching?
by Rob Lyons

All the talk in the build-up to the Live Earth was that the Al Gore-inspired concerts were a wonderful opportunity to get the climate change message to ‘an estimated global audience of two billion people’.

So, how many people actually did watch Live Earth? According to the BBC, viewing figures in the UK peaked at nearly five million people. Embarrassingly, that’s about half the audience for the Diana memorial concert the previous Sunday.

Let’s be generous and assume that the same percentage of the population that watched in the UK – about eight per cent – watched worldwide. That would be 500million people, only a quarter of the figure parroted uncritically across the media. But most of the world doesn’t have a TV set, let alone give a damn about a bunch of overexcited pop stars.

Still, the ‘two billion’ figure must be right. Al Gore would never exaggerate something as important as that, would he?

This is pure moralism. These are not practical measures that will have a serious impact on carbon emissions; they are tiny steps designed to remind us daily that we are wanton consumers. The Pledge also reveals the shockingly low horizons of the organisers. On the one hand, their language is apocalyptic because they can’t envisage the idea that society could actually deal with the problems of climate change as they arise, and that we can adapt and innovate to changing circumstances. On the other hand, despite their ‘generational mission’ to save the planet, they have so little faith in the idea of winning people to a political project that they reduce it to (optional) money-saving tips that couldn’t possibly make a significant impact on emissions (see The planet’s burning. Let’s party!, by Brendan O’Neill).

I wish that I and others enjoyed the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Yet increasingly, the rich and famous feel uncomfortable about their lifestyles. Discomfort (and fear) among those who quite obviously have far more than normal people has always existed; it just didn’t occupy the centre of political life in the past. Today, the existential angst of the middle classes – from the nouveaux riches to the old aristocracy – seems to dominate public debate. This is another point missed by the uncritical critics of Live Earth: there is a logic to the fact that the richest and most consumption-happy sections of society are also the most fervent embracers of environmentalism. They are driven by a sense of guilt about their wealth and privilege, and they effectively try to offset that guilt by proclaiming their fears for the planet and encouraging the rest of us to live more responsibly and simply.

That is why the loudest eco-campaigners come from the wealthiest sections of society: Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio, Zac Goldsmith, Prince Charles. Environmentalism is a kind of corrective to excessive consumption; therefore it tends to have hypocrisy written into it. No wonder the tagline for Live Earth was SOS – Save Our Selves.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill noted how environmentalism was the product of middle-class angst. James Heartfield described George Monbiot’s book Heat as a secular version of Kingdom Come. Rob Lyons argued that the anti-development message of Live Earth was nothing to sing and dance about. Frank Furedi cried O Gore, deliver us from evil. Bjørn Lomborg argued, Let’s improve life in the present and the future. Or read more at spiked issues Live Earth and Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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