Well, Thaddeus and I have arrived at Giants Stadium, the main event is rapidly approaching, and, from the looks of the parking lot, not too many of our fellow concertgoers followed our lead and the suggestion of the concert organizers and took the bus. But that’s ok — Live Earth, its participants and promoters keep reminding us, is not going to solve this whole global warming problem over night. It’s just a "launch event," said a publicist in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. A "launch event" reiterated Live Earth creator Kevin Wall to Variety, "not a silver bullet"; better yet, "a tipping point of behavioral change." Despite the out-of-this world promises in the press kit for the concert extravaganza — "more than 100 music artists"; "2 billion people"; "unprecedented global media architecture" — you get the sense that Wall and Live Earth guru Al Gore are trying to keep any hopes for immediate climatological salvation, well, down-to-earth. A call to arms — not a victory cry.
Ok, fair enough. As any right-headed viewer of Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary should know by now, there’s not much room left for equivocation on global warming — we’re talking systemic change, and fast. You have to start somewhere. As one reporter put it, Live Earth can be a "message to people to change their lifestyles."
And lifestyles are changing. As the New York Times reported last week, sales for Toyota’s "built from the ground up" hybrid, the Prius, are up a whopping 93.7% from last year, well outperforming the hybrid versions of popular models offered by other car companies. Why? According to a market research poll, a sizable majority (57%) of Prius owners bought their eco-friendly ride because "it makes a statement about me," almost double the number that offered the same explanation three years ago. By contrast, 36% cited the car’s higher fuel economy, and only one in four was attracted by its lower emissions. As the article concluded, "The Prius has become, in a sense, the four-wheel equivalent of those popular rubber ‘issue bracelets’…it shows the world that its owner cares." Another recent Times article, aptly titled "Buying Into the Green Movement", found "that vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to buy appeals to millions of consumers and arguably defines the current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement." Even Time Out New York, which normally busies itself with ferreting out hip downtown night spots, implores readers to "be earth-friendly on your terms" on this week’s cover.
The cynic in me says this is not ideal. George Black of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls it "eco-narcissism", which might just as well describe the spectacle of scores of pop music celebrities prancing about on stage for twenty-four hours of self-congratulatory hand wringing about the environment. After all, nothing says narcissistic excess like rock-and-roll, and those unparalleled purveyors of the aesthetic of overconsumption are unlikely role models for an environmental movement that must, ultimately, be about a wholesale reconsideration of current patterns of production and consumption, not simply pricey green homes and stylish cotton jeans.
Lest we forget when he shares the stage with Gore et al later today, in late April the proudly "light green" John Mayer reminded readers of his awesomely inane blog, "I drive a Porsche SUV, I still drink lots of bottled water, and I will be flying private charter several times during my summer tour." Sure, it’s a good thing that Kanye West is using his public stature to tell millions of fans about the urgency of global warming, but his music is still used to shill SUVs in television commercials.
Just because the messenger is flawed, of course, doesn’t mean the message itself is, and maybe it’s our responsibility as the consuming public to send a message back to the green celebrities and other eco-narcissists. Reversing the climate crisis will mean doing away with a consumer culture that is fed by and feeds off of our collective celebrity worship. Buying green can’t just mean buying different; it has to mean buying less. Let’s hope some of today’s performers will get serious about changing lifestyles, not just car models.