Last week, our fair department hosted Dan Brockington to speak about “Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation.” He certainly sparked some conversations, but I think most people just ended up confused about what his point was. He dryly humiliated a bunch of conservation celebrities (ranging from Harrison Ford to Russ Mittermeier), but his talk never really came together. He refused to say whether he believed having celebrities in the conservation world was good or bad. The story that stuck out for me involved the creation of a park in east Africa, spear-headed by celebrities, including Sylvester Stallone. They touted the initiative in classic conservation terms, “saving nature,” “restoring the wilderness,” etc., etc., but Brockington effectively pointed out that a huge number of people were pushed out of the park, and they in fact had to re-locate lots of species from elsewhere that hadn’t been in the area for many years. So, yeah, conservation can be pretty virtual in that way, though how that’s different from the rest of the world we live in I’m not sure.
I think Brockington’s take-home message (unstated, so I’m just guessing) was that celebrities can only become famous if they satisfy a narrative that “Westerners” desire. So, by interpreting the effective messages in celebrity conservation, we can peel back and see the hidden, ugly truth of conservation desire in Americans. That I guess has to be true, and I’m sure there are racist/colonialist overtones to some work that some fringe conservationists do. But why pick on celebrities in conservation, in particular? Whatever you have to say about celebrities in conservation is true for celebrities pursuing any cause. Moreover, it’s true for how any cause is presented to the public, whether by celebrities or news media. (Sample headline from the anthropology world: “Climate change ‘cultural genocide’ for Aborigines.” That’s not inflammatory, is it? Or playing into our war-like nature?)
I get it: celebrities are vapid, and issues are presented to us in incendiary half-truths. Unfortunately, I don’t think that message is particularly important to anybody in our department. Anybody who spends this much time thinking about conservation should be smart enough to recognize the nuances in our field, as is true with any field that finds itself head-to-head with celebrity culture. It’s as if Brockington had gone to Human Rights Watch with a message of, “What’s with Angelina Jolie and all those babies from Africa, right? Like, how crazy is she? You guys are nuts, and your philosophy is problematic.”
Oh well, I know I sound defensive. It was a very entertaining and engaging talk, but ultimately hard to untangle. Kind of like celebrity intrusion into “the real world.”
(And, for synergy sake, Corey’s posting about celebrities today, too.)