It's fascinating to watch old footage of the mainstream media's coverage of environmental issues, seeing as how the Fourth Estate seemingly has to be forced into mentioning the words "climate change" in a report today. It's also fascinating to watch how the entertainment industry used to deal with green concerns. One old broadcast is still quite relevant today, since it says so much about the conservative mind.
I don't remember watching The Earth Day Special when it was first broadcast by ABC in April 1990. Perhaps if I had watched it 22 years ago, I would have avoided falling for the right's denialist trap. The show is a funny, touching, well-written bit of business about efforts to save Mother Earth (Bette Midler) after she's been hospitalized with numerous pollution-related ailments. Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, Will Smith, Danny DeVito and Kevin Costner were among the celebrities featured; Dr. Carl Sagan also makes an appearance, discussing the dangers of global warming.
A show like The Earth Day Special could never be broadcast today, because its criticisms are too biting, its satire too accurate. It's the sort of special that had to have been broadcast before the era of Fox News.
What stunned me about the show was that the lines from Williams, Hoffman, and Edward James Olmos -- playing characters skeptical about taking action to protect the environment -- reminded me of the words I heard from my former conservative friends after I abandoned the Rush Limbaugh line on climate change. What also stunned me was the realization that, had I watched this show just five years ago, I would have turned it off as soon as Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand appeared.
The conservative media taught me to hate progressive celebrities; once those celebrities started raising awareness about environmental concerns, I was instructed to scorn them as limousine liberal loudmouths. Limbaugh relentlessly attacked Fonda and Douglas for having the temerity to star in The China Syndrome, which he characterized as anti-nuclear propaganda. Limbaugh also repeatedly trashed Leonardo DiCaprio, Ted Danson and other actors who called for climate action.
Like most of Limbaugh's listeners, I didn't pick up on the hypocrisy of "El Rushbo" sucking up to conservative celebrities like Charlton Heston while laying waste to the entertainers who disagreed with him. The Hestons of the world were brave and independent-minded, according to Limbaugh; the progressive entertainers were, of course, just engaging in groupthink.
Over the past year or so, I've come to realize just how skewed that worldview is. The progressive entertainers Limbaugh spent years attacking, especially the ones who cast a spotlight on the challenge of climate change, were the ones demonstrating true courage, willing the risk their careers by talking about the realities Rush rejected. Were it not for those celebrities -- and the climate-conscious politicians who are regarded as de facto celebrities -- there would be even more ignorance about the risks we face.
I imagine climate deniers must have winced when Streep, in an appearance on the
February 4 Fox News program Huckabee, reminded viewers that Margaret Thatcher sounded the alarm about global warming back in the late-1980s. For Streep to go into the lion's den of denial and mention a fact that has probably never crossed the lips of Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly demonstrated uncommon valor. She's an iron lady in her own right.
Here's hoping the environmentally enlightened entertainers eviscerated by Limbaugh for decades continue to speak out. The deniers would love to shut these celebrities up, just as they would love to shut up the climate scientists whose findings threaten the special interests with a vested interest in keeping the world dependent on coal and oil. May they continue to use their talents to advance the cause of public health and public safety. May they continue to irritate the ignorant. May they continue to change the political climate for the better.