It’s too early to declare officially, but northern Alberta’s oil sands could replace Newfoundland’s seal hunt as Canadian moneymaker No. 1 for the international environmental movement.
When A-list celebrities fly in for a photo-op, you know an issue has reached the environmental big time, and this week Hollywood director James Cameron did for the oil sands what Brigitte Bardot, Pamela Anderson, Paul McCartney, et al have done for the seal hunt.
He came, he looked, he condemned.
But to be fair to Cameron, he seems far more cerebral and fair-minded than most celebrities who take a running leap onto a speeding bandwagon. Cameron’s star power pulled Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and company executives into meetings with him, where they defended the various oil sands projects.
That willingness to hear both sides of an argument would have been welcome if it had been displayed by Sir Paul, who, while visiting Canada a few years ago on an anti-seal hunt tour with then-wife Heather Mills, wasn’t even aware of which province he was in.
Cameron’s final verdict, however, was never in doubt. He met with local native leaders, and then sided with the environment.
Who wouldn’t? He’d have looked ridiculous if he declared, “Gee, there’s lots of jobs for people up here, and they’re helping to fill the need for oil, so keep digging,” and then jumped back onto his private jet for the trip back to L.A.’s freeways, smog and ocean-side mansions.
Too often, celebrity activism involves people using their fame and fortunes to force their way onto the stage to make declarations about this or that issue. Think George Clooney pontificating about Darfur, or Angelina Jolie spouting about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, acting as a United Nations “ambassador” or opining on any one of 100 other topics.
They have a right to their opinions as citizens, of course. But there is something unsettling about how easily celebrities can exploit their fame to turn it into political power.
The most obvious example is U2’s Bono, who merely had to pick up the phone to command a meeting with former prime minister Paul Martin or former U.S. president George W. Bush. Those would have been fascinating calls to eavesdrop on.
“Mr. President, Bono on Line 1 for you.”
“Laura, I gotta go.” Click. “Bono, buddy. How’s my favourite Celtic tiger?”
“Good, George, good. I need another hundred mil for Africa.”
There seems to be an inherent irony in celebrity activism — it is often plagued by contradiction or counterproductivity, or both.
Bono rails against leaders of the developed world to spend public money and forgive the debts of Third World countries, yet his uber-band U2 infamously moved their assets to Holland to avoid Ireland’s hefty taxes.
Clooney, Bono, Bob Geldof and a long list of others deride the greed and riches of the First World for keeping Africa destitute. But anyone who follows the news can reasonably conclude it is the corruption, autocracy and sheer cruelty of African leaders that is to blame for most of Africa’s ceaseless poverty and violence.
Celebrities with a social conscience face a dilemma. Do nothing, and they’re accused of being apathetic or uncaring. Get involved, and they invite criticism that they are abusing their influence, meddling in issues they know little about or trying to breathe new life into a gasping career.
Perhaps the A-listers could learn a lesson from Cameron. He seemed genuinely knowledgeable about oil sands issues, and willing to hear arguments from all sides.
If he ever comes to Newfoundland, maybe he’ll spend time in, say, Twillingate or St. Anthony, and listen to opposing opinions rather than merely spout statements prepared by celebrity handlers.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.