—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
19 May 2006

A Fashionable Crisis: Vanity Fair's “Green Issue”

The May 2006 edition of Vanity Fair magazine is a self-described 'Green Issue' - a special edition focusing on our gravely imperilled natural environment. On the cover are a pair of well-heeled film stars (Julia Roberts, George Clooney) and a pair of high-pedigree politicians including one former US Vice-President (Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.). The quartet, photographed by Annie Liebovitz, have been placed in an ivy-festooned outdoor setting which appears to have been constructed in a studio (i.e., an indoor setting). The team seem to have obligingly colour-coordinated to wear at least something green each: Julia Roberts, for example, in her flowing lime-hued dress and laurel wreath appears as captivating as a pre-Raphaelite nymph, as much at home among the phoney nature as Millais' drowning Ophelia was amongst the reeds.

The cover loudly announces 'the call for A NEW ENVIRONMENTAL REVOLUTION'[1] (caps in original) and that global warming is 'a threat graver than terrorism'. Open the magazine and the first thing greeting you is a four-page gatefold advert for American Express. Turn the page and you proceed through full-page adverts (in the following order) for Christian Dior, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren before finally reaching the first item of journalism - Graydon Carter's editorial announcing that 'Green Is the New Black'.

Put aside for the moment the juxtaposition of the most pretentious brand names in hyperconsumerism with the most pressing issue facing the modern world. What exactly does it mean to say that 'Green Is the New Black'? There seems little wiggle room here for any interpretation other than that Vanity Fair, that great bellwether of vacuous fashion, has announced that the biosphere is now en mode. In short, the impending threat of innumerable extinctions, lost habitats, and environmental refugees has now grown so exigent that it is as worthy of our attention as Paris Hilton (whose elbows demurely spoiled the view of her bared breasts on the October 2005 cover).

The magazine features no interview with either Roberts or Clooney: the pair seem to have simply shown up to get their picture taken. The lambent green glow of a popular - and, conveniently, a morally unimpeachable cause - seems to have drawn them like moths to a flame. But if I may invert a line from The Merchant of Venice, this is arguably a case of 'thus hath the moth singed the candle'. Celebrites often think they are helping a cause merely by opening their mouths about it. In fact, by doing so, those who belong to a class of professional attention-seekers very often have a cheapening effect on the cause itself. (Recall supermodel Naomi Campbell's anti-fur stance, the sincerity of which was repeatedly undermined by her being paid to model fur coats on the catwalk.) And lurking in the background is the constant suspicion that attachment to a popular (and, above all, uncontroversial cause - Richard Gere, for example, advocates the liberation of Tibet but would not dare to do the same for Palestine) is merely a form of moral self-aggrandizement emanating from a class of people not generally known for diminutive egos.

Throughout the 'Green Issue', there is ham-fistedness aplenty. Straight after the opening sentence, the discussion stumbles. The breezy claim that '[Julia] Roberts is proof that it's never too late to start caring for the earth [sic]'[2] contradicts Al Gore's later statements that 'some of the leading scientific experts are now telling us that without dramatic changes we are in danger of crossing a point of no return within the next 10 years!' and that 'the worst catastrophe in the history of human civilization is bearing down on us'.[3] Similarly, in a somewhat cumbersome locution, Graydon Carter's editorial announced that 'In this, Vanity Fair's first "Green Issue", we begin our increased commitment to reporting on the threat to our natural environment.'[4] Note the contrived wording (as though it has been rephrased too frequently in Carter's mind) that tries to be suasive while not sounding too insincere. 'Beginning' an 'increased commmitment' has the sound of a feckless husband promising a fresh start to a wife he'd already promised the same to at the altar.

There's a section on 'green architects'[5] that's clearly of zero use to the average consumer wondering how to spend their money in a eco-friendly manner. But of course that's just me grasping the wrong end of the stick. The whole point of a magazine like V.F. is to deluge the reader in consumerism: if it can do so while tossing some publicity at a noble cause, so much the better - such a manoeuvre imparts the warm glow of moral sanctimony at no cost to the magazine itself. But for those who can't afford to canalize their eco-enthusiasm into the pockets of cutting-edge architects, help is at hand: there is a section entitled 'Green Gifts' which comes with the reassuring tagline of 'looking smart and doing your part'.[6] This gallery of delightfully useless consumer goods features a singularly revolting-looking coffee table retailing for US$5,661. Clearly one would be duty-bound to 'do your part' for the environment by handing this sum of money to E.L. Furniture rather than, say, wasting it on Greenpeace.

The idea that it's now 'hip' to be eco-aware suffuses this 'Green Issue'. The magazine features a gallery of nineteen profiles (individuals or groups) of putative eco-champions. Yet the selection of people chosen falls squarely between the two stools of celebrity and ... well, eco-champion. Arnold Schwarzenegger is listed - in a silly choice of words - among 'the governors who get it' (there are only two, apparently). Two whole sentences cover Schwarzenegger's environmental profile: it was hardly worth asking the poor man to pose for the Napoleonic accompanying photograph.[7] The dapper English gent Zac Goldsmith is styled 'the eco-artistocrat' whose inherited wealth 'lends him a certain freedom and panache that old-school, Earth First! environmentalists, with their drab fashion sense and lentil-heavy diet, clearly lack'. And of course since he is married to a former model, Mr. & Mrs. Goldsmith and their children are 'easily the eco-movement's most glamorous family.'[8] (This particular profile must have been written by a 'governor who doesn't get it'.) Elsewhere we learn that the actor Edward Norton is a 'solar enthusiast'. Apprently 'Norton's idea was this: for every celebrity who installs a B.P. solar system in his or her home, B.P. could donate another one to a poor L.A. family.' Would it be outlandish to guess that the population of celebrities in Los Angeles is a fraction of the population of poor people? And so it has come to pass that so far just 27 families have benefitted from this borgeouis conscience-clearing scheme, a scheme that could only ever hope to garner support from a fraction of the fraction. V.F. abashedly notes that 'Norton is quick to say he's no environmental hero', which is a stance somewhat at odds with his decision to appear among this pantheon of eco-champions (there weren't worthier candidates?) wearing what seems to be a mask of clay and chorophyll on his face, presumably to emphasize the sincerity of his 'I'm no eco-hero' message.[9] On we go to the 'Christian conservative' Reverend Richard Cizik (who is photographed literally walking on water); then next is the green-fingered Bette Midler who is photographed working in a greenhouse (not her own, but it comes complete with credits for set design) among a group of black/hispanic children.

The insufferable stage-managing of all this is barely concealed. After all, the small print (hair and make-up credits) for all these 'guests' is placed in plain view of the reader, and it openly belies the magazine's professed earnestness. James Hansen, climate expert at NASA's Goddard Institute has been photographed posing in front of a map of the world in which hundreds of holes have been punched. The little chads of paper litter the floor around him and in his hand is - yes, a hole-puncher. It's just cringe-inducing to watch a luminary of Hansen's stature reduced to a dancing bear by a magazine who will next month move on to the newest bimbette in the media firmament. Such artless gimmicks cheapen the man and his cause. (The following is a verbatim quote from the small print of Hansen's profile: "Styled by Mia Morgan; suit by Ralph Lauren purple Label; shirt by Calvin Klein Collection; sweater by Pringle; shoes by Charles Tyrwhitt; grooming by Stacy Skinner; set design by Georges Krivobok". The man was literally dressed up and told to perform.) Remarkably, on the facing page is an advert exhorting the reader to visit the Maldives. 'While they are still there', the magazine fails to add. For, as many people know, the Maldives - a collection of islands southwest of the Indian subcontinent and barely above sea level - comprise one of the countries most gravely imperilled by rising oceans. So much of Vanity Fair's 'Green Issue' confirms that the staff are neophytes when it comes to the issue of global warming that I have a sneaking suspicion that the inappositely cheery Maldives ad was inserted without the slightest congizance that it is an Endangered Country.

It should, however, be admitted that V.F. exhibits a horror of the phenomenon of rising sea levels when it threatens ritzy real estate. Accompanying a PhotoShopped picture depicting a hypothetical natural disaster on the US coast is the caption 'A three-foot sea-level rise combined with a category 3 hurricane would do serious damage to the pricey homes of the Hamptons'.[10] Has anyone at V.F. ever heard of Bangladesh? Overpopulated, grindingly poor, and flooded every other year because much of its land is practically at eye-level with the sea? Do we have our priorities right?

Chicness, not sincerity or efficacy, seems to be the test to pass before entering the portals of V.F. The website Treehugger.com, for example is described as "hip, not hippie"[11]; the great unwashed are plainly not welcome here (the choice of words seems like a faint echo of Todd Gitlin's memorable phrase - 'from "J'accuse" to Jacuzzi' which described the perceived sellout of the Sixties generation to Eighties money-grubbing, most conspicuously personified in Jerry Rubin's transition from Yippie leader to Wall Street broker.[12]). Five bloggers I'd never heard of before were posed in a woodland setting and theatrically labelled 'the e-gitators' (the pun sounds regrettably like the Irish word eejit, meaning fool). Why truly crusading eco-journalists like Bill McKibben and George Monbiot were passed over for this photo-op is anyone's guess. Not hip, I suppose.

According to Vanity Fair, environmentalist Al Gore was notably 'Sundance's "It boy"'[13] with this year's release of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, all about's Gore's lecture circuit on global warming. An inconvenient truth ignored by V.F. (and brilliantly exposed years ago by Alexander Cockburn and Geoffrey St. Clair) is that Al Gore's record on the environment exhibits some shocking retreats.

While campaigning for his first term in office Gore had promised to deal effectively with the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in Liverpool, Ohio, which, while incinerating 70,000 tons of toxic waste a year, was located uncomfortably close to a residential area. Once in office, Gore became studiously indolent on the issue (possibly because, according to Cockburn and St. Clair 'construction of the incinerator was partially underwritten by Jackson Stephens, the Arkansas investment king who helped bankroll the Clinton-Gore campaign'[14]) and maintained that since the previous Administration had already signed the permit for the plant, there was nothign he could do - despite a report indicating that the plant could be shut down for repeated permit violations alone.

Gore later failed to bring Norway to book for its illegal whaling activities. Sanctions were suggested, but Gore was never likely to offend his longtime chum the aggrieved Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland. The Norwegians were permitted to continue whaling with scarcely a fig leaf to cover the collapse of principle, and Gore shortly thereafter sold them $625M worth of air-to-air missile deal supplied by Bush courtiers Raytheon, no less.[15] Other collapses included the failure to protect the spotted owl from the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. Under a hopelessly lopsided arrangement made between the green movement and the logging interests to which Clinton-Gore had made themselves beholden by way of pre-election promises, merciless concessions were extracted from the weaker party. The Administration effectively overturned Republican Judge Dwyer's prior injunction on logging which was intended to preserve the habitat of the owl. In 1995 came logging legislation which 'consigned millions of acres of National Forest lands across the country to the chainsaw, and contained language exempting the sales from all environmental laws and from any judicial review. The consequences were especially dire in the Pacific Northwest', and Gore - under whose watch this all took place - is said to have admitted as much later. As Cockburn and St. Clair note, 'By 1998, the evidence was irrefutable. The Clinton-Gore plan was driving the owl to extinction much faster than the old cutting plans of the Bush era that [Judge] Dwyer had forbidden.'[16] Such is the record of the environment's "It" Boy.

As an aside, it's also notable that V.F. have chosen to devote an eight-page essay to the 'Rape of Appalachia' by mountain-top removal mining.[17] Notable because, according to Cockburn and St. Clair, during Gore's tenure, 'the Interior department, under orders from the [Clinton-Gore] White House put the brakes on a proposal to outlaw the most grotesque form of strip-mining, the aptly named mountaintop-removal method.'[18] Thus the sincerity of V.F.'s plaintive article on this assault on the landscape is undercut by the fact that in the same issue they have given a soap-box to the former Vice-President who blocked efforts to stop it.

* * *

The danger with declaring an urgent global issue 'fashionable' (which V.F. has implicitly and explicitly done in this edition) is obvious: the urgency of the issue itself does not go away when the issue stops being fashionable. Forests will still be felled when V.F. become bored with the whole matter - and I'm bound to suspect that the attention-span of their average reader will probably make V.F. rather circumspect about banging on about the environment too frequently.

This is not to say that Vanity Fair is not staffed by some good journalists, nor even that it is incapable of producing articles on topics of any substance. But the point is that the same enfeebled 'occasional quality' argument has been adduced to defend Playboy. (And people do not buy Playboy to read about the latest Congressional hearings.) Those already alerted to the immanent eco-collapse will more likely be reading Mother Jones or The Nation rather than thumbing through the pages of V.F., a magazine whose proper constituency is the cult of celebrity and followers of vacuous glamour. 'Trends' or 'fashions' are like 'morals' solely in they sense that they are prescriptive: they tell you what you ought to do. The crucial distinction is that moral imperatives, once established, become very difficult to dislodge and require rational argument to both defend and attack. Trends, on the other hand, are entirely empty of moral or rational content and are completely subservient to the fickleness of the mob from season to season. Needless to say, therefore, V.F.'s blurring of the distinction between these two very different spheres of discourse is a singularly damaging development.

Vanity Fair deserves some credit for raising the profile of the issue of global warming: after all, its writers and editors need not have bothered in the first place. It's deeply regrettable, however, that they did not do so with more sincerity and less self-congratulation. If the best that can be said of their 'Green Issue' is that it was better than nothing, that's a lot of effort to go to (including the hair and make-up) for nearly nothing. Given the typical subject matter which appears in V.F., one could be forgiven for thinking that global warming appears on the cover merely because it has finally exhibited the one characteristic common to people who appear on its cover - that of drawing attention to itself.

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1 At least, the UK edition did. Other editions rather less cautiously trumpeted 'A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION' (see illustration).
2 Vanity Fair, May 2006, p. 24
3 Ibid., pp. 107, 108
4 Ibid., p. 16
5 Ibid., p. 126/7
6 Ibid., p. 50
7 Ibid., p. 110
8 Ibid., p. 115
9 Ibid. p. 119
10 Ibid. p. 143
11 Ibid. p. 126
12 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, days of Rage, Bantam, New York, 1987, p. 433. (Quoted in Peter Singer, How are We to Live?, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 93)
13 Vanity Fair, May 2006, p. 24
14 Alexander Cockburn and Geoffrey St. Clair, Al Gore: a User's Manual, Verso, New York, 2000, p. 248
15 Ibid., p. 252 et seq.
16 Ibid., p. 251
17 Vanity Fair, May 2006, p. 144
18 Cockburn & St Clair, p. 254