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Gulfstream greens: Gore the Man vs. Gore the Messenger

“Al Gore, he says he’s green, but he rented my Gulf Stream to fly alone to Los Angeles”. It took me a minute to process this neatly delivered packet of information delivered to me at a party recently. Obviously, the messenger didn’t have a problem with his flying in a fuel guzzling machine since he routinely flew it alone so I wondered whether it was Gore’s campaigning for the earth to which he took offense or truly the two points combined.

I felt an instinctual reaction to defend Gore for waking up a large part of the country to the warming of our planet despite his less-than-exemplary personal life (see my blog Hitler was a vegetarian), but the Gulf Stream owner had a point. Still stumbling for a response, I replied, “oh, how much fuel does that take?”.

This must not have been the standard reaction to his bit of gossip as he fumbled for a moment before guessing, “maybe about 11 to 15 thousand gallons”. That is a lot of fuel– roughly equal to adding 15 to 20 Americans to the road for a year (while jet fuel isn’t equal to gasoline it uses petroleum and gallon for gallon more petroleum than gas). Even if his calculation was off (I read that a mid-size Gulf Stream uses 2,400 to 3,000 for a roundtrip cross country flight though his jet could be much larger), we’re still talking about the equivalent in fuel of several Americans for an entire year.

Jet-setting greens

Gore isn’t the only celebrity to be nailed for his choice of aircraft, there are both “Gulfstream liberals” (the Huffington Post’s Ariana Huffington and Laurie David have received the moniker) and “Learjet liberals” (like activist RFK, Jr. or the hybrid-driving, solar-panel-owning producer of the eco-film 11th Hour Leonardo DiCaprio).

Just about every celebrity has flown in a private jet at some point, but once they start speaking out for the planet, their jet setting ways become an easy target.

When Madonna headlined London’s Live Earth concert in 2007, environmental consultant John Buckley took a look at the flights and car trips of the Material Girl and her entourage and calculated her carbon footprint for the year. “Madonna produces the same amount of carbon as 102 average Britons,” Buckley concluded, “even though she runs a global business she’s also set herself up as some sort of ambassador for the environment. Therefore she needs to be seen to be walking the walk as well as singing the song.”.

Sting: ‘I have a huge carbon-footprint’

Some superstars have tried to address their hypocrisy head on. Sting and Trudi Styler have a long history of environmentalism– they set up the Rainforest Foundation fund over 20 years ago -, but they’re been called “eco-hypocrites” for all their travel.

Styler adressed the issue directly, admitting to a crowd at the London Real Food Festival, “when it comes to the carbon footprint, Sting puts his hand up immediately and says ‘I’m a musician and I have a huge carbon-footprint’“. Styler blamed all the travel miles on the difficulty of transporting a 750-person crew around the world.

Brad Pitt flies a low cost carrier

Other outspoken eco-celebs are trying to modify their lifestyles. Leonardo DiCaprio vowed in 2007 to try to fly commercially “as often as possible”. Paul Newman owned his own jet, but flew commercial when his destination was served by airlines.

While eco-activist Brad Pitt has gotten plenty of flack for his international flights on private jets, he has also received attention recently for flying commercial (even flying low cost carrier Southwest).

Fox News shoots the messenger

But occasional flights on commercial isn’t enough to cut their carbon footprints anywhere close to that of the average American, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. DiCaprio was targeted by Fox News host Sean Hannity to “take a pledge and promise never to get into a private jet again”.

The star was absent from the interview, but his “11th Hour” co-producer Nadia Conners defended him, accusing the climate-change-denying Hanity of “shooting the messenger so you don’t have to deal with the problem.”

It seems that shooting the messenger is often the easiest response to the message for so many who don’t agree with it. And that is my problem with those who criticize Gore, Leo, Brad, etc. I’m all in favor of criticizing celebrities for their private lives, but that shouldn’t degrade their power as messengers (or only to an extent).

Just as I don’t value someone as an actor or singer based on their personal lives, I don’t think a celebrity’s personal life needs to be so important to their role as activist.

Gore The Person or Gore The Messenger

It’s a bit like judging a politician for his or her personal life (my Spanish husband is constantly amazed by how much we focus on tearing apart the personal lives of our politicians, something generally not as important in Europe).

While it would be nice if our messengers- political or environmental- could lead model lives, it’s not always going to be realistic. And not always completely relevant to their jobs (apart from the relationship between their personal lives and their job as role models).

If someone like Gore has the power to affect a massive change in consciousness of the American public, he should be allowed to do so without a perfectly green credentials.

I think it’s perfectly valid to criticize Gore The Person for his eco-sins, but Gore The Messenger doesn’t need to be compromised (or perhaps slightly, since eco-sins affect his power as a role model, but not in an essential way).

As a person I don’t see Gore as a green role model (despite his efforts to green his home and even his houseboat (it’s solar-powered)). I believe private jet travel should be targeted as strongly as we target S.U.V.s and meat-eating, but Gore’s personal travel plans haven’t affected his power to teach me about rising atmospheric carbon levels or a unified national smart grid.

A frequent flier preaches cycling

While I don’t have celebrity status, I suppose this all applies to me, and anyone else who writes about climate change and prosletizes personal change. I have preached the benefits of vegetarianism, early potty training and bikeriding, but I still fly too much (see my post Frequent flier guilt).

Most of us working to transition toward a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle are inconsistent. We do what we can in those parts of our lives where we’re willing to make change and in other areas it’s still too much to ask; my brother recently explained to me that he has become a vegetarian because he wasn’t willing to give up air travel.

If I were to go back to that conversation with the Gulf Stream owner today, my answer would be two-fold. First, I’d ask: “Do you believe in climate change?” If he replied no, I’d have more important things to discuss than Gore’s plane rentals.

If he replied yes, then I’d be perfectly happy analyzing Gore The Person, though I’d be more curious to understand why someone who believes in global warming owns a Gulf Stream.