I confess I haven’t seen “Avatar.” The PG-13 rating it got in Brazil put it off limits for my children, despite their determined campaign on its behalf, and my wife and I prefer to use what limited consumer power we have to support independent cinema when out on our own.
But I did see the trailer (while taking my daughter to “High School Musical 2,” if you must know) and the plot and imagery immediately pricked my interest, as a long-time follower of ways the Amazon gets represented in popular culture. “Avatar” may be set in the future, but it draws on an old tradition of Romantic representation of nature in general and rainforests in particular, with an equally hoary Garden of Eden metaphor at its center.
In fact, “Avatar” is the perfect title, pressing down hard on the two hottest buttons in the Californian psyche — a hi-tech reference combined with a subliminal ping on the sound and scan of Amazon, nature incarnate.
So it was with a sinking heart but not exactly with surprise that I saw in the papers that James Cameron, the director of “Avatar,” was in the Amazon, visiting the area where a new hydroelectric dam (Belo Monte) is meant to be built — and then popping up in Brasília lobbying against the dam. I admit it made me angry, not because I disagree with the cause (see below) but because Cameron’s trip to Brazil was such unspeakably dumb tactics.
Behind the episode there are serious points about the relationship between celebrity and advocacy. How can celebrities productively engage a cause?
First things first. Belo Monte is a controversial project. If it is built (still far from certain), it will be on a river, the Xingu, whose annual fluctuations in waterflow guarantee that there will only be enough water to keep the turbines humming at full capacity for something less than half the year.
Factor in the construction and transmission costs (remembering that much of the electricity will be consumed at the other end of the country, so this is rather like building a huge dam in Colorado to service New York) and the economics are very murky, one reason the project’s been on the drawing board for three decades now.
That’s even before considering the environmental and social implications. The dam is being built on one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. Assessing its impact is difficult for the simple reason there is so much biodiversity in and around the river that the gaps in our knowledge are more significant than what we know. Add in the fact that the Xingu river is the heart of the largest complex of indigenous reserves anywhere in the Americas, and you have a perfect storm of reasons for why Belo Monte is the most controversial building project in Brazil.
But the central issue in the political battle to ensure Belo Monte never gets built is the fact that it will do little to solve Brazil’s very real energy problems.
The way to do that is smaller and cheaper hydroelectric projects closer to the centers of industrial and residential consumption in southern Brazil, combined with much greater attention to improving energy efficiency in Brazil’s transmission grid, now reduced to the point where a stray treefall or lightning strike can knock out electricity to most of the country, as has happened twice over the last year.
This, combined with the negative environmental impacts and the fact there’s a presidential election later this year, makes now the perfect time to mount an effective campaign against Belo Monte in Brazil, hammering away on the economic case against and presenting an alternative course of action.
So what happens? An American celebrity comes down to Brazil to campaign against it, with no Portuguese or any knowledge of the history and background to Belo Monte other than that filtered through the organization chaperoning him…which is also American.
That’s the one thing that can be guaranteed to unite all shades of uncommitted opinion in Brazil behind Belo Monte.
Imagine the average American’s reaction if Pelé were to come to the United States and fulminate on television and in the papers against some large and controversial American project — say, the proposed wind-farm in Nantucket Sound.
Most would feel, first, what’s Pelé doing sticking his nose into something up here that doesn’t concern him, and second, why should we take seriously anything Pelé says about Nantucket? And so the other way round. Cameron’s trip was a political blunder and backward step for those trying to stop Belo Monte.
So the question arises: how can celebrities who genuinely want to help productively involve themselves in advocacy?
Celebrity is a bright flame that shrivels as well as illuminates. It can set advocacy back more than it advances it, especially as celebrity support of social and environmental causes tends to move from the United States and Europe to the tropics, and is thus overlaid by inherent political and cultural tensions when viewed from the receiving end. Think of all the ambiguities created for those working on child poverty in Africa by Madonna in Malawi, for example.
Fortunately, for the Amazon, James Cameron has a celebrity predecessor who can serve as a model for productive engagement: the British rock star Sting.
For over 20 years now, Sting has been a case study of how to go about doing the right thing. He first visited the Xingu in the 1980s, when it was altogether a different place, in a Brazil only recently emerged from military dictatorship, indigenous areas still being fought for, and even Belo Monte, then as now, on the drawing board but looking a lot more likely to be built.
Sting made mistakes at first, getting himself quoted in newspapers and lending ostentatious public support, being swindled and let down by “collaborators” in the early days, but he very quickly corrected himself. He spent a lot of time talking to people who knew the areas and issues.
Then he helped to set up (and still funds) an organization, Rainforest Foundation, that is a model of strategic support for the indigenous cause in the Amazon, and which taught me much about how $20,000 applied by people who know what they’re doing is worth more than $2 million applied by people who don’t.
Sting developed close links with the most competent Brazilian organization supporting indigenous groups in the Xingu, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), and through that ISA developed experience in the productive mobilization of celebrity on the Xingu’s behalf, most recently through the support of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, best known to Americans as wife of Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots. Sting was also back in the Xingu a few weeks ago and did a concert in São Paulo, but you heard a lot less about him in the Brazilian media than about James Cameron.
There is a moral here: there is an important role for celebrities in advocacy, but only when they handle themselves intelligently. The secret: get good advice.
The process has to begin with the celebrities themselves, who almost invariably have to recognize their own ignorance and step out of their bubbles with the humility to learn. Especially when they don’t speak the language or know the politics of the country they’re involving themselves in, they need to recognize the likelihood their involvement will be used by unscrupulous opponents to set back their cause through smearing it by association with an ignorant foreigner. Celebrities can’t help being foreign, but they can do something about their ignorance and political innocence.
A final tip for any celebrities reading: think hard about associating yourself with those who present themselves as direct channels to the place or cause you want to support.
James Cameron was a classic case: he came to Brazil chaperoned by an American organization with no presence on the ground in Brazil and without the political smarts needed to mount an effective campaign there. To small campaign organizations like these, an A-list Hollywood celebrity is a godsend. The advice they give is always going to be filtered through the over-riding need to keep the celebrity happy.
If, as was the case here, the way to use the celebrity most effectively was to keep them physically away from Brazil and use them strategically in the United States instead, helping them channel financial support to the right organizations in Brazil, they’re not going to say so in the face of the celebrity’s all too understandable but objectively counter-productive desire to go.
I don’t doubt Mr. Cameron’s sincerity or goodwill. At present, unfortunately, he’s set back rather than advanced his cause. But there’s time to correct course. He should spend some of it talking to the many independent U.S.-based experts who know the Xingu in American universities and research institutes. He should call the Rainforest Foundation. And most of all, Mr. Cameron, call Sting. I’m sure he’d be delighted to help, having already, in every sense, been there.
(Image: James Cameron. Image credit: Dave Malkoff/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)