On Dec. 9, several of Columbia University’s top climate scientists gathered at their colleague Jeffrey Sachs’ townhouse on West 85th Street to help a new student catch up on the latest research on climate change. Of course, no mere undergraduate could command four hours of the professors’ attention on this unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon. Don’t be ridiculous. No, this session was for Professor Sachs’ good pal, Brad Pitt, who was looking to expand his philanthropic profile beyond adopting Third World children with Angelina Jolie, another Sachs protégé.
“Mostly, [Mr. Pitt] listened,” said Mark Cane, the chief physical scientist at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, who created the first numerical model to predict El Niño. “He’s a very serious young man with a desire to do some good.”
And what celebrity doesn’t want to do some good these days?
From Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental agitation and Bono’s campaign to eliminate Third World debt and AIDS, to George Clooney’s calls for intervention in Darfur and Madonna’s adoption of a Malawian child, the news and gossip pages are abuzz with celebrities’ public munificence. Even 50 Cent, that self-described “hustler,” has weighed in on the risks of childhood obesity.
And the occasional hypocrisy and self-promotion aside, isn’t anything that brings attention to the world’s ills—global warming, Parkinson’s, African poverty—a good thing?
“I find it odd that we’re inclined to make fun of celebrities who are trying to do some good, but we think it’s fine that Uma Thurman shills for [Tag Heuer] watches,” said David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.
IN SUNDAY’S NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer takes a look at the philanthropic contributions of the nation’s mega-rich and calls on them, and the rest of us, to do more. For the most part, celebrities are not contributing significant portions of their private wealth to the causes they support. In Slate magazine’s list of the 60 largest charitable contributions of last year, only Oprah Winfrey, at No. 22, is what most of us would call a celebrity.
What celebrities contribute is, well, their celebrity, lending a public face to Parkinson’s (Michael J. Fox), animal rights (Pamela Anderson) or rainforests (Sting). They contribute their highly publicized good intentions. Whether good intentions always lead to good policies is another question.
In fact, many experts take issue with Mr. Sachs, the economist most likely to appear alongside Ms. Jolie or Bono, and his contention that Africa needs hundreds of billions in foreign investment to pull itself out of a “poverty trap.” In a recent book, Mr. Sachs’ nemesis, New York University economist William Easterly, shows that the $187 billion in foreign aid to 22 African countries from 1970-94 did “zero” to increase productivity. Other experts argue that reducing aid to many African countries would help fight the corruption and inefficiency that are the true causes of Africa’s impoverishment.
Take, for example, the event that arguably launched this new era of celebrity activism: Live Aid. In July 1985, British rocker Bob Geldof organized several concerts around the world that raised at least $100 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. But, as various journalists and scholars have since pointed out, Live Aid may have done more harm than good. While the aid distributed undoubtedly saved many, it was also complicit in dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s forced agricultural collectivization policy, a resettlement that may have cost as many as 100,000 lives.
For Mr. Geldof, “there was no political dimension to the famine,” Mr. Rieff wrote in Prospect, a British magazine. And herein lies the problem with much of the celebrity activism that has followed: its utter lack of, or even willful disdain for, political sophistication. (Issues that are obviously complex and controversial, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are avoided altogether.)
The recently leaked pitch for the rights to pictures of Mr. Pitt’s and Ms. Jolie’s new child included a shameless plug from Prof. Sachs, and everyone involved looked ridiculous. The purchasers were asked to “use them in a way that also draws attention to the needs of the Cambodian people.” To which Mr. Sachs added that the couple’s “vision and generosity will not only positively affect the lives of Cambodians today, it will also benefit generations to come” (according to Women’s Wear Daily). The pictures did nothing of the sort.
But now Mr. Pitt may be on to something. For his meeting with the climate scientists, sans Ms. Jolie, he was presented with an impressive packet of literature on the subject. Much of it was smart-layman’s material, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s look at global warming in The New Yorker and top NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen’s survey of potential climate-change impacts in The New York Review of Books. But there was also meatier technical stuff. If Mr. Pitt reads it all, he will know more about climate change than the vast majority of Americans.
Surprisingly, there was no mention of the crash course in the tabloids, which at the time devoted much space to the premiere of Ms. Jolie’s new movie, The Good Shepherd. The Observer tried contacting Mr. Pitt through his publicist, who claimed not to have known about the briefing. And Erin Trowbridge, the Columbia spokeswoman who coordinated the event, said that neither Mr. Sachs nor anyone else would be available for comment. The meeting was “utterly confidential,” she said.
It’s sort of refreshing. Here’s hoping that next time Mr. Pitt speaks out, he’ll have something truly meaningful to say.