Power Trips

What could be sillier and more invidious than the Observer’s “eco-power list”?

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 18th January 2011

Is there anything the Sunday papers can’t turn into a fatuous celeb-fest? Two days ago, the Observer published what it called its eco-power list. It’ll come as no surprise that it featured Brad Pitt – what list doesn’t? It was more surprising to find Jay Leno there, on the grounds that he has made the, er, 240 cars he runs “as green as possible”. And the CEO of Ford, because he has just unveiled an electric Ford Focus (sadly he didn’t simultaneously veil the gas guzzlers he continues to market). Much of the list was a catalogue of rich and powerful people who have now added green, or some nebulous semblance of green, to their portfolios.

But I’m less concerned about the contents of these lists than the principle. To me, eco and power occupy different spheres. The environmentalism I recognise is a challenge to power. It confronts a system which allows a handful of people to dominate our lives and capture our resources. The fame, the extreme wealth, the disproportionate influence celebrated by power lists stand in opposition to the values and principles green thinking espouses.

But that’s not the only problem with these lists. They are invidious. They extract a few characters from a vast collective effort: generally those who are skilled at taking credit for other people’s work.

An eco-power list is even worse. First, it reinforces the story, endlesssly told by those who hate environmentalism, that it is the preserve of toffs and princes (Prince Charles, inevitably, features on the Observer’s list). It is true that some of its most prominent spokespeople are rich and famous. But they are prominent only because this tiny, unrepresentative sample is celebrated and fawned over by the media, while the millions of other people in the movement are ignored.

It also encourages the superman myth: that a few powerful people can save the planet. In reality, only big social movements, emphasising solidarity and collective effort, are likely to be effective. Those who are rich and powerful already will frame their environmentalism in terms that reinforce their wealth and power, ensuring that the system which has rewarded them so lavishly remains unchallenged. I doubt that anyone who works for the Observer believes the superman myth, but they pretend to do so, because power lists – like every other species of celebrity trivia – are popular and easy to read.

Worst of all, it represents another attempt to tame and package this movement. As Paul Kingsnorth puts it:

“Capitalism, always so effective at absorbing and defanging dissenters, is transforming an existential challenge into yet another opportunity for shopping.”

Environmentalism is one of the last hold-outs against celebrity culture. It’s not untainted by this plague, but more resistant to it than any other sector. If the papers have their way, they will trivialise and capture us, just as they have done to everything else that once had substance.