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Actors and Environmentalism

Rod Steiger, Golden Globe winner for his role as a tough-talking Sheriff in In the Heat of the Night, was also known for his sarcasm in private life. “Actors sense that the wealth and adoration they enjoy for practically doing nothing is undeserved”, he said in a conversation with the HFPA. “They try to soothe their bad conscience by doing some good deeds”.

By pointing out his personal success in the movie business, Ben Affleck actually echoes Steiger’s remark in part. In a video introducing his Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) he stated: “I’m a very fortunate person. I have been lucky enough to be successful. I got what I always wanted as an actor, writer, and director. But I got to a point where I felt I’m living this kind of vacuous life. I’m just living for myself. I didn’t know what my values were.”

Ben Affleck’s ECI initiative to work with Congolese organizations has the goal of improving the economic and environmental conditions in this central African country. It is rooted in “the shocking fact that 2.2 billion people on this planet live without access to safe water” said Affleck, at an event dedicated to “Clean Water” he co-hosted with then HFPA President Aida Takla-O’Reilly in Beverly Hills. Chiwetel Ejofor and Thandiwe Newton were guests of honor.

Together with Matt Damon, Affleck produced the Film Thirst showcasing the dimensions of the global water crisis. Matt Damon co-founded with engineer Gary White, water.org, and WaterEquity, which is intended to help people in more than a dozen countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to build the facilities necessary for drinkable water and sanitation.

“Every year you’ve got a million children dying of entirely preventable things like diarrhea, which is a ridiculous idea to those of us in the West whose kids might miss a day of school from something like that,” Matt Damon, a father of four, told the World Economic Forum’s podcast Radio Davos.

The increasing pollution of water is the focus of Pierce Brosnan and his son Paris. Together they launched a video drawing attention to the extremely long lifespan of plastic. Ex-Bond Brosnan borrowed the title of an early Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, and changed it to “Plastic is Forever.

“Elements of plastic in the things we use, what we eat, even in the air we breathe, can stay around forever,” noted Brosnan in the video. The campaign is not designed to eliminate plastic but to promote environmentally sound management. Hence the full title of their campaign: “Plastic is Forever. So, it’s time to get clever about managing it!”

Adrian Grenier, the central character in HBO’s Entourage feels the same. He co-founded The Lonely Whale Foundation with the goal to bring awareness to the health of the world’s oceans. His headline-making initiative “StopSucking” tries to discourage the use of single-use plastic straws, which are particularly harmful to marine wildlife.

Water was also on Cate Blanchett’s mind when she pointed out the perilous drought in Australia in an interview with the HFPA. As a mother of four, she expressed in her podcast “Climate of Change”, she feels it is her responsibility to roll up her sleeves and get to work.

Daryl Hannah attributes her environmentalism to her responsibility for others: “I’m like a mama bear protecting what I love. Why would we poison, degrade, erode, and slaughter everything we need to survive? So we can have another T-shirt?”, she told the Santa Barbara Independent in 2011. That year she was celebrated in Santa Barbara with the Environmental Hero Award.

Whatever their individual motives were, the philanthropic engagement of Hollywood celebrities is not entirely new. But past activities were geared toward social and political causes such as the Vietnam War (Jane Fonda), Native Americans (Marlon Brando), or archiving witnesses of the Holocaust (Steven Spielberg).

But by the end of the 20th Century, the focus shifted more and more to a changing climate, preservation, or restoration of natural resources.

Purchasing vast areas of land to protect it from construction, deforestation or drilling was the first step. Robert Redford, one of the earliest environmentalists among his Hollywood peers, bought a range of hills in Utah and promoted awareness of the importance of nature, privately and with his films, A River Runs Through It, The Electric Horseman, and The Horse Whisperer.

CNN-Founder Ted Turner secured tens of thousands of acres of unspoiled land for the reinstatement of bison. Sylvester Stallone was in the news for buying sections of the Amazon rainforest.

It’s a well-known fact that a familiar name connected with a project automatically raises its public awareness. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen, recognized for her commitment to sustainability and environmental conservation, quite openly uses her celebrity to bring attention to actions society can collectively pursue.

Edward Norton is another example of a Hollywood luminary who is passionately involved in the environment. He is the son of a conservation pioneer, Ed Norton, who started the Conservation Lands Foundation. And he co-operates with the Massai Wilderness Conservation Trust which is devoted to forest preservation and biodiversity protection of Southern Kenya.

Asked in an interview with Variety, if the Hollywood community at large should go beyond the individual environmental initiatives by actors, Edward Norton answered: “Of course not every film or TV show can have an environmental message per se, but it’s wonderful when an ethos of respect for nature or themes about the consequences of heedless behavior are woven effectively into our narratives. Especially children’s programming, because we literally are programming the worldview of young minds”.