Power Trips

What could be sillier and more invidious than the Observer’s “eco-power list”?

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

Is there anything the Sunday papers can’t turn into a fatuous celeb-fest? Two days ago, the Observer published what it called its eco-power list. It’ll come as no surprise that it featured Brad Pitt – what list doesn’t? It was more surprising to find Jay Leno there, on the grounds that he has made the, er, 240 cars he runs “as green as possible”. And the CEO of Ford, because he has just unveiled an electric Ford Focus (sadly he didn’t simultaneously veil the gas guzzlers he continues to market). Much of the list was a catalogue of rich and powerful people who have now added green, or some nebulous semblance of green, to their portfolios.

But I’m less concerned about the contents of these lists than the principle. To me, eco and power occupy different spheres. The environmentalism I recognise is a challenge to power. It confronts a system which allows a handful of people to dominate our lives and capture our resources. The fame, the extreme wealth, the disproportionate influence celebrated by power lists stand in opposition to the values and principles green thinking espouses.

But that’s not the only problem with these lists. They are invidious. They extract a few characters from a vast collective effort: generally those who are skilled at taking credit for other people’s work.

An eco-power list is even worse. First, it reinforces the story, endlesssly told by those who hate environmentalism, that it is the preserve of toffs and princes (Prince Charles, inevitably, features on the Observer’s list). It is true that some of its most prominent spokespeople are rich and famous. But they are prominent only because this tiny, unrepresentative sample is celebrated and fawned over by the media, while the millions of other people in the movement are ignored.

It also encourages the superman myth: that a few powerful people can save the planet. In reality, only big social movements, emphasising solidarity and collective effort, are likely to be effective. Those who are rich and powerful already will frame their environmentalism in terms that reinforce their wealth and power, ensuring that the system which has rewarded them so lavishly remains unchallenged. I doubt that anyone who works for the Observer believes the superman myth, but they pretend to do so, because power lists – like every other species of celebrity trivia – are popular and easy to read.

Worst of all, it represents another attempt to tame and package this movement. As Paul Kingsnorth puts it:

Capitalism, always so effective at absorbing and defanging dissenters, is transforming an existential challenge into yet another opportunity for shopping.

Environmentalism is one of the last hold-outs against celebrity culture. It’s not untainted by this plague, but more resistant to it than any other sector. If the papers have their way, they will trivialise and capture us, just as they have done to everything else that once had substance.


  1. “Capitalism, always so effective at absorbing and defanging dissenters, is transforming an existential challenge into yet another opportunity for shopping.”

    This is really hitting the spike on its head! I’m so tired of all these new cars, computers and building projects etc., etc., etc., all full of new “green” technologies and materials that you “can’t” dispense if you have some “environmental awareness.”

    I recently heard white color is now popular again on environmental “friendly” cars, because white symbolizes your conscience is clean. This works for every country except Thailand, there’s something in the culture that makes people don’t make this connection.

    I just realized my laptop is white!!!!

  2. I recently had a light bulb moment while listening to someone talking about peak oil. Its not just oil that is becoming limited, its a whole host of other elements, used in the construction of computer screens and goodness knows what else. So the notion that we can fix the environment with technology is just yet another way to cash in. So basically, to make it onto that list, you have to be a millionaire, to be able to afford all these green gadgets and the like, which are actually contributing to the problem, consuming resources. Great. So the less educated general public that take everything in the papers as fact, will continue to buy into this rubbish, thinking that in order to be ‘green’ you have to work more, earn more money, consume consume consume. Just great.

  3. Leigh,

    well, part of the problem is that all this to a very large extent is driven by the ideology that “environmental protection” were an objective that can be quantified by assessing the monetary effort required “to protect the environment”.

    This is what present day economic thinking amounts to. As a consequence, you will hear statements such as “we need as much economic growth as we can in order to be able to afford paying for all these objectives we have set us – including protecting the environment”.

    There’s a lot of this “one has to be rich to be able to afford being green, so let’s screw the planet and exploit all resources so that we have the money to protect the planet and our resources” insanity around. Is it really just that stupid? Yes it is.

    But fortunately, there are sane perspectives as well. Craig’s blog is about such sane perspectives.

  4. Hello there
    I’m more conservationist and less degrading than Brad Pitt and all those famous people on the list but nobody knows who I am so… anyways those people turning green is promising and encouraging for other poets and common folks like me who don’t know if smoking is right or if driving a truck is correct well anyways I wanted to tell you that through permaculture we will make the planet a better place to live but we need the other people conscience to work all together, right at the moment we need to promote green roofs, EVs, and less carbon coal plants, solar energy, etc.
    what do we need to make this planet greener… money and that is something these people have

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