How about a bonfire of the Vanity Fairs?

The green issue of the US magazine - all Beautiful People photographed on glaciers - shows how pompous environmentalism has become.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Science & Tech

The cover of this month’s Vanity Fair shows Leonardo DiCaprio standing on a glacier lagoon in Iceland alongside Knut, that cute polar bear cub from Berlin Zoo. The two celebrities (Knut has his own blog and TV show; the other one’s an actor) did not actually meet each other, much less travel together for their ‘photo shoot’ in Iceland. Rather they were brought together by the magic of photoshop, with Knut superimposed on to a shot of Leo on a glacier. Re-arranging imagery to create a certain impression might look stylish on the front cover of a magazine. However, it doesn’t bode well for the magazine’s contents.

On the inside cover, Vanity Fair declares ‘yes, we know, there are no polar bears in Iceland’ – yet it justifies its photo-shopped fiction of Leo and the cub on an Icelandic glacier by arguing: ‘If current trends continue, there won’t be any [polar bears] in Canada either.’ Er, okay. Leaving aside the fact that some researchers say that polar bear numbers are actually quite healthy these days, how a photoshopped pic from Iceland is supposed to raise awareness about events in Canada is anyone’s guess. Couldn’t Vanity Fair be said to have created a convenient untruth with its latest front cover?

Vanity Fair is one of the jewels in the crown of American journalism. It publishes sometimes very good investigative and commentary pieces, mainly written by those opposed to the current Bush administration. Yet its green issue feels less open-minded; it does not open up debate but rather declares a simplistic war of green words against the Bushies’ perceived failure to follow the environmentalist line as laid down by the likes of Al Gore.

Rather than putting forward convincing arguments about climate change, and the action required to deal with it, Vanity Fair’s green issue comes across as a conspiracy theory about the Bush administration. In a piece titled ‘Texas Chainsaw Management’ by Robert F Kennedy Jr – which examines the ‘revolving door’ between Washington and big business – there is little more than a summary of who has worked in which institution, when they worked there, and who they tried to influence. Drawing such links, without putting forth a convincing political argument against the activities of these various individuals and groups, smacks of lazy journalism and even conspiracy-mongering.

Editor Graydon Carter claims that the world’s scientific community is now ‘in almost universal agreement that human activity is accelerating global warming’. He cites the Spring report by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, there is much scientific disagreement over the rates of and effects of human activity on global warming, and over what we should do about warming. Indeed, the very concept of a ‘scientific universal agreement’ is not in keeping with the traditional critical standards of science. As James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky have pointed out on spiked: ‘Science thrives on verification and falsifiability. Any consensus is always open to challenge – that is the spirit of the scientific method. Of course, there is a consensus that gravity exists and that the Earth is round. But in these cases we are talking about scientific principles that have been tested experimentally again and again over centuries. Climate science is not quite that definitive.’ (See A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky.)

Carter argues that, on the question of climate change, the Bush presidency ‘has fallen so out of step with the rest of the Western world that it is nothing short of a national scandal’. He refers to the USA’s refusal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the way that European Union countries are doing. Yet there is no unity in carbon-cutting among EU nation states; some are behind and others are ahead in the big race to cut emissions. Moreover, Vanity Fair fails to ask any critical questions about why certain EU states might be more willing to cut emissions (and to make a big deal of it) than, say, America or China; perhaps it is the most sluggish and tired economies that make an issue of reducing their carbon use, whereas more dynamic economies are unwilling to make such promises.

Vanity Fair seems less interested in critically exploring the contemporary politics of climate change than in adopting a lofty greener-than-thou approach. It features photographs of and articles on the new ‘Global Citizens’, including Hollywood environmental activists, organic food producers, green-minded musicians, Sir Nicholas Stern (the UK government’s economic adviser and author of a recent major climate change report), Prince Charles (yes, American greens love our mad heir), a businesswoman who makes ‘non-toxic clothing’, an ‘enlightened hotelier’ (as opposed to all those unenlightened hoteliers), and a bloke who writes novels about people who ‘destroy the Florida he loves’. They look less like serious politicos and more like a modern version of The Beautiful People, or perhaps ladies-who-lunch – that is, rich people with time to kill who take up charity work to make themselves feel more fulfilled.

Vanity Fair’s front-cover eco-star, DiCaprio, stars in the forthcoming global warming documentary The 11th Hour. The magazine gushes about the actor ‘stepping forward to take the baton from Al Gore’, as if he is some kind of environmental president-in-waiting.

What makes the green issue seem so, well, arid, is the absence of any lively discussion of how humans might work together to deal with climate change and improve the world while they’re at it. Instead the magazine gives the distinct impression that there are lots of greedy and ‘unenlightened’ people out there and it is up to the likes of DiCaprio or members of the Kennedy clan or hoteliers with sustainable pillow cases (ie, the wealthy and sensible) to show us the errors of our ways. Not surprisingly, this does not make for a good read; it’s all a bit like being hit over the head with a rolled-up magazine rather than actually reading one.

There is some serious content. In his article ‘Jungle Law’, VF’s international correspondent William Langewiesche details the legal fight by an Ecuadorian man on behalf of 30,000 Amazon settlers and indigenous people against Chevron, the billion-dollar global company that exploits oil and gas reserves in 35 countries. The article says that Texaco (bought by Chevron) spent 30 years spilling 17million gallons of oil into the Amazon river and despoiling 1,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest. Only the naive could be surprised that big multinationals exploit local people and often despoil nature in their efforts to mine for oil and gas. But who does it help when big business is presented as the destroyer of nature and local Amazonians are depicted as the guardians of nature? Is that what Vanity Fair and other green campaigners really want for certain communities in Latin America? That they should live forever in harmony with nature, and their societies remain underdeveloped, natural, organic, hard work, at risk from the elements…?

Little mention is made of the scientific progress that has been made in environment clean-up technology – such as the new oil-spill clean-up skimmer, developed last year by scientists at the University of California-Santa Barbara, which removes nearly 100 per cent of the adhered oil with each rotation. Instead, in VF, spillages are looked upon as permanent blots on nature’s landscape. These are in effect simplistic morality tales rather than serious investigations. There is a great deal to be said for Ecuadorians assuming more control over their natural resources and their lives, and improving their living standards in the process; yet in the eyes of many greens, indigenous peoples are the eternal victims of evil corporations and they need gracious and selfless campaigners from the West to highlight their plight and save them.

Myron Ebell, a global-warming sceptic who works at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), is the only contrary view included in VF’s green issue. Yet even his points are neutered by the time you get to them. In his introduction to the magazine, editor Carter says that the sceptics’ views are akin to the nonsense spouted by the Flat Earth Society. The interviewer of Ebell is said to have caught him in ‘full denial’; the d-word is used to depict the critics of the politics of climate change as sinners against a gospel truth. It’s almost as if the magazine is showing off that it has had the ‘courage’ to interview Ebell, while simultaneously telling readers that they don’t have to read the interview because the guy is nuts.

A MORI poll in Britain at the end of last year found that 32 per cent of those surveyed knew little or nothing about the alleged threat of climate change, despite the fanfare of media coverage on the issue. It would seem that a lack of robust debate on the full spectrum of scientific and political issues around climate change has caused some people to switch off and think about other things instead. I doubt whether this celebrity-worshipping, self-congratulatory, unengaging, environmentalist-for-one-month issue of Vanity Fair will turn many readers back on to the debate about climate change.

Tessa Mayes is a regular contributor to The Spectator magazine. Email her at: {encode=”” title=””}

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons exposed the celebrity ‘smugfest’ of the planned Live Earth concerts and looked at The bear necessities of climate change. Josie Appleton argued that we should Stop living ethically and start living and looked at London mayor, Ken Livingstone’s green tyranny. Brendan O’Neill interviewed Martin Durkin, director ofThe Great Global Warming Swindle in Apocalypse my arse. Mick Hume demonstrated how you can have Any shade of politics you like, so long as it’s green. Or read more at: spiked-issue Environment.

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

Topics Science & Tech


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