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Sex Sells


I once wrote a column called “Going Topless.” It wasn’t my best piece, but it was one of my most popular, presumably because readers had to click the headline to find out what the column was really about (the impacts the loss of top predators has on the ecosystem).

I’m sure that some of those readers, upon discovering that the latest Seeing Green installment wasn’t set on a nude beach, quickly headed off in search of other reading material. But a few, drawn in by a titillating headline, may have learned something unexpected about conservation biology and environmental science. And perhaps that something planted a seed that shaped a future trip to the farmer’s market or even the voting booth. At least, that’s what I hoped for when I selected the risqué title.
The ways in which we deliver messages to the public form the foundation of a $500 billion advertising industry, the meat of tens of thousands of scientific studies and the talking points of political strategists the world over.
And, as environmental scientists release increasingly ominous predictions and ever more dire warnings about the future of the planet, activists are leveraging marketing knowledge to find the best way to pass on the bad news.
It’s an uphill battle in a political environment that, regardless of the (increasingly unequivocal) state of climate science, is viciously polarized. One side is populated by arguments for heading off a climate catastrophe that could jeopardize human civilization. The other side fears surrendering freedoms and liberties more than uncertain and distant threats. Somewhere in the middle (and scattered around the edges) are those who have insufficient information to make a judgment call or are too overwhelmed by the scale of the problem to meaningfully engage with its alleged solutions. Stymied by the apparent disregard for the scientific consensus, many of the scientists doing the work are beginning to throw up their hands in frustration.
Into this fray now march the celebrities.
A new Showtime series on climate change called “Years of Living Dangerously” hopes to entice the American public with household names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Cheadle and Harrison Ford, and hold their attention for hour-long installments using silver screen-worthy cinematography and dramatic narratives.
Celebrity presence offers its own brand of “sex appeal” in a country uniquely fascinated by its Hollywood stars. Not only are the lifestyles of the rich and famous instantly newsworthy, but the well-liked among the famous set also become our opinion leaders. That’s why certain actors and socialites can make millions on advertising deals and become invaluable assets to the causes they espouse.

This isn’t the first time a celebrity has loaned his or her name to an environmental cause. Leonardo DiCaprio has been repping green causes for years. And shark conservationists enlisted Yao Ming in their campaign against shark fin soup, a popular Chinese delicacy that drives demand for the increasingly rare fins.

The premise of programs like the James Cameron-directed “Years of Living Dangerously” is that education and knowledge are what’s missing. By making the message more charismatic and resonant, these programs posit, we can motivate awareness and, ultimately, change.

Certainly, it can’t hurt to have more examples for us to see, especially the deeply humanized ones that Cameron’s series brings to life. But some claim that these “public awareness” agendas do little to advance the debate. Certainly, they can motivate short-term pragmatism (like a letter to stop Keystone XL, or the purchase of a Prius), but their effects rarely linger. And arguably, by coming from within the establishment that got us here in the first place—consumerist capitalism—celebrity soundbites and public service documentaries don’t stimulate the grass-roots social movement that will truly move us away from the status quo of climate change-driving fossil fuels.
In spite of all its emotional resonance, “Years of Living Dangerously” isn’t really capable of pulling society in a radically different direction. Its glossy panoramas and famous faces were born out of our energy-intensive, capitalist society, after all. The carbon footprint of its production—which could of course be offset by the planting of a few hundred acres of forest—can only partly be justified by the importance of its message. Assuming that we even need more of these messages.
Then again, who’s really going to complain about watching Jessica Alba strut across the television screen, even if she is talking about climate change?
After all, sex sells.

Holly welcomes reader feedback and column ideas with flair at [email protected]

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).