Stephen Hawking was the kind of celebrity activist we need more of

by Vicente Lopez Ibor Mayor | Lightsource BP
Friday, 16 March 2018 14:39 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Physicist Stephen Hawking sits on stage during an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative with investor Yuri Milner in New York April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Celebrities can push the needle on the world’s major issues, but it must be backed by real substance

Hollywood loves nothing more than dystopia and disaster: Deep Impact. Armageddon. Dante’s Peak. Contagion. But the real dystopia is creeping up on us through climate change. The real disaster movie is the slowly unfolding global warming. We are the stars of this movie – but not all of us realise it just yet.

The example of figures like Stephen Hawking in the realm of science and Leonardo Di Caprio in the field of clean energy (who incidentally yesterday announced his investment in a landmark eco-friendly hotel), prove that global issues can indeed be mainstreamed provided there is the right commitment and authenticity behind it.

After all, we are living through a moment where celebrity activism – or celebtivism, as I like to call it, is driving political conversations and social change. Me Too, Times Up and black dresses at awards ceremonies are all the latest and most visible of these campaigns, but this is celebtivism coming of age.

It is the maturity of something that has been building for over a century: celebtivism is almost as old as celebrity itself.

When Marlon Brando sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the Oscars in his stead in 1973, it made a tangible difference to how Native Americans were viewed in an industry with a collective memory of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ that it had – at that point – been slow to shake off (Littlefeather was booed by some members of the Oscars audience).

The American comedian Danny Kaye became a Unicef ambassador as far back as 1954, but the roots of celebtivism are even deeper and older than that.

At the turn of the 20th century, King Leopold of Belgium’s violent rule of the Congo was successfully challenged with the help of writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad, and chocolate magnate William Cadbury. This is the equivalent of a coordinated move today by JK Rowling, Michael Moore and Bill Gates.

Whatever our personal feelings about celebtivism, stars can quickly raise awareness to do with an issue in ways other cannot.

This is particularly true of one of the most pressing challenges affecting the world today – climate change and the corresponding need to promote the clean energy transition.

But to make celebrity activism truly worthwhile, more direct engagement is needed. We saw that happen when The Ice Bucket Challenge, decried by armchair critics as a pointless "awareness raising" exercise, raised enough money (over US $115 million) to fund crucial research into ALS that discovered a gene responsible for the disease.

And crucially, there is a need to ensure celebtivism involves meaningful engagement with experts, allowing them to guide their efforts and focus their energies in projects that can really move the dial on the key indicators.

To see how Hollywood can do celebtivism right to promote the clean energy transition, Leonardo DiCaprio provides a rare example. His advocacy became best-known after his 2016 Oscar acceptance speech, but he has been committed to fighting climate change – with words, actions and money, including the building of an eco-resort in Belize – for a very long time.

He established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (a non-profit organization devoted to promoting environmental awareness) in 1998. It is difficult for us, 20 years later, to realize just how ahead of the curve he was.

And his foundation is far from a PR stunt – that much is clear, even to the most cynical observer. It has worked on projects in over 40 countries and has produced two short web documentaries, Water Planet and Global Warning, as well as him exec producing Cowspiracy and the 2016 film Before The Flood, documentary film examining various aspects of global warming.

In 2013 he held the “11th Hour” benefit, which became the world's highest-grossing environmental charity event ever held, raising nearly $40 million.

And through this all, he has stayed in regular contact with noted researchers - such as Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, who says of DiCaprio “I have talked with him and his folks frequently over the phone”.

Hollywood, celebrities and social media can push the needle on some of the world’s most major issues. But as the example of Stephen Hawking reminds us, it must be backed by real substance and the kind of authentic engagement that makes the difference between those that campaigns that resonate with millions and go viral and those that do not. That is the kind of Celebtivism our planet needs.

Vicente Lopez Ibor Mayor is Co-Founder of Lightsource BP and Chairman of the Lightsource Foundation. He is also Chairman of solar storage company Ampere and is former Director of Spain’s National Energy Commission