Yesterday the biggest news story in the world — in terms of its real impact — was the International Energy Agency’s report that we had already hit the global annual carbon output that had been forecast for 2020. Thirty two gigatonnes went into an already battered atmosphere, a rise from 30 gigatonnes just two years ago, and barely impeded by the global recession — indeed the recession, by slowing the process of technology changeover, may have exacerbated the process.

The 32 gigatonne/2020 limit was the benchmark limit for holding the planet at 2 degrees warming over the remainder of the century. Hitting that level now means that we have well and truly bust the thermostat. We now have to assume a 2-degree rise as the baseline, and focus attention on a 3-4 degree rise — within which zone, climate change becomes not merely a historical phenomenon, but a Historical one — it categorically shifts the relationship between nature and humanity in such a way that all existing institutions are up for grabs.

It is already obvious, for example, that nation states — these antique, territorial powers — are totally inadequate, by their very design, to the challenge humanity faces. The same is true of the global market, when it is taken to be an unbounded phenomenon, to be merely regulated, rather than controlled and strictly limited within a broader notion of human collective activity.

These will be transformed in the coming century by mass activity — they will have to be, or there’s a good chance the species won’t be around by 2200. Should we head towards 5 or 6 degrees, we face that moment of species challenge, in the lifetime of the grandchild of someone born today.

So the spectacle of the debate centring around the presence of one celeb in one ad, should, as m’colleagues Keane and Farmer noted, be something more than merely wearying in the manner of beat-ups. There is something so extraordinarily obscene in that misapplied focus, something so mendaciously nihilistic in the actions of the bottom-feeder journos at the Sunday Tele, that it constitutes an affront to humanity itself, to the notion of seriously debating what is to be done about this challenge.

Yet, the problem for the carbon tax advocates and those running the campaigns is that the beat-up has a core of substance — which is why it won’t go away. Year after year, progressive forces in Australia have become more and more reliant on celebrities as a way of getting attention in a postmodern, postsocial, mediatised anti-news world.

What began as an add-on — get the Oils bass player to launch your anti-farnarkling campaign in the Retreat Hotel beer garden — has become the centre of the media strategy, in which ever bigger names are required to get a bit if buzz going.

This process in Australia has coincided with the rise of the global celeb crusade, the Bono era, in which moderately talented singers or actors, take it as their right to contribute to causes they believe in by being high-profile leaders and ambassadors for it. One doesn’t doubt their sincerity, but there are a lot of agendas being pushed by such a phenomenon.

In part, it is a byproduct of the egotism and narcissism that is an occupational hazard of such professions, the equivalent of black lung in coal miners. Singers and actors from the mainstream also use it to combat something that hits many of them mid-career — an overwhelming awareness of the futility of much of their output, feeding a high turnover global culture industry. Thirdly, celebrity activism reinforces a notion of aristocracy inherent in the notion of modern celebrity.

People whose talents and drive are perhaps mildly superior to some around them are suddenly taken up by a hit or a box-office smash, and are thereafter in the stratosphere. Much of our contemporary cultural system relies on convincing people that there is something inherent and essential about these people that makes them that way, that makes it earned — just as the aristocracy prospered by convincing people that their “blue blood” (veins showing through pale skin) was literally a different colour to that of the masses.

Furthermore, such celebrocracy is overwhelmingly oriented to Green causes. Why? Because though green politics is really about the fate of humanity, and lining up, as a species, against the autonomous, annihilating effects of an unbounded market, it also easily attaches to notions of the pastoral and Arcadian that used to be the preserve of the aristocrats.

When you have an average family vox-popped about how they are concerned about the planet their children will inherit, that universality shines through. When you have an actress with what is possibly a nine-figure fortune pulling a cord to reveal a beaming cartoon sun behind a grey factory, then you have changed the message, and it is about those who don’t need to work railing against grubby commerce. At that point we’re not far away from Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid on her model farm in the grounds of Versailles.

So in authoring a gotcha, the Sunday Tele had a lot to work with, supplied by the Green movement — which itself has a degree of unexamined elitism that predisposes it to some time believe that people have to be told what is true, rather than argued around to it toe-to-toe.

As Jeff Sparrow noted in the Overland blog this week, the contradictions of getting Blanchett to sell a carbon tax is that, like any flat production/consumption tax, it’s inherently socially regressive — and the compensating payments promised by Labor can easily disappear should budget priorities shift.

Blanchett’s rherotic — about wanting to look her children in the eye, etc — doesn’t help, because it simply sounds like the Green version of the selfishness that fuels the opposition to a carbon tax. We’re either in this fight for the benefit of humanity — as represented by our children and family in particular, but not in totality — or we’re not in it at all.

We are all more willing to be lectured by someone such as Bill Gates because we know that he is channelling a lot of money not merely to stuff that affects his children, but to the welfare of strangers, i.e. in the push to wipe out malaria (however well or badly that is being managed). And had the ad featured only Michael Caton, the beat-up wouldn’t have worked — because although a celeb of sorts, Caton is so obviously a working actor who’s spent a lot of his life one margarine commercial away from a Silver Top taxi shift, that we feel a commonality with him.

Fortunately, there is a way that Blanchett can turn this around, and go on the offensive. First she can broaden her activities to causes in which she has no self-interest — Aboriginal health would be one. She could demonstrate this, and her commitment to bearing an equal load on climate change by immediately creating a foundation, to be run by a board of which she is one member among several, and transferring 90% of her personal fortune to it.

As well as Aboriginal health initiatives, this foundation could offer research grants into new technologies to share the burden of technology change, charity grants for the poor affected by rising utilities costs, and so on and so on. That would be, in a stroke, a killing blow against charges of elitism, and probably finish Abbott’s anti-tax campaign off in an instant.

Somehow I doubt this will occur. But in any case, it’s time the Green movement quit the habit of the easy celebrity sell. Otherwise we’re still in Versailles, lost in the hall of mirrors.

Peter Fray

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