Sustainability Column: Celebrity Advocacy

Anna McHugh

I’ll start this with some fun facts. I like to follow Mark Ruffalo’s personal life in my free time. I may or may not know that he is 49 and was born on November 22. I may or may not know that he has three kids. I may or may know know that he has a farm, two and a half hours away from campus, where he grows strawberries with said family. I will say that I do follow his Instagram. 

In all seriousness, though, Mr. Ruffalo is someone dedicated to making climate change and its effects visible to others through the mainstream media. He has worked against the fracking industry’s manipulation of small-scale farmers to gain land. He advocates for clean and renewable energy sources and the necessary steps needed to move in this direction. He recently has been extremely active in the protests against the pipelines in the Dakotas taking place at Standing Rock Reservation.

Ever since I saw him in “13 Going on 30” at my surprise thirteenth birthday party, he’s been someone who I’ve liked. At first it was in a very basic fangirl way, but he’s become someone that I appreciate. I have admired his commitment to making these issues related to climate justice a little less hidden. Climate justice is a framework used to explain the environmental and social justice issues involved in climate change by relating this global issue to various human rights, collective rights and historical responsibilities for climate change. When I was thirteen, I had no idea what this was. But in learning about these topics in my environmental studies and education studies courses, I’ve become more aware of positionality and identity politics within certain justice issues.

While having celebrities involved in climate change protest and environmental justice advocacy really allows for these issues to become more present in the mainstream population, they can also be damaging and even overshadowing. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, Shailene Woodley, Leonardo DiCaprio and some others who use their power and voice to bring to light some of the unequal effects of climate change and capitalism. But what I think is sometimes missing is an awareness of each identity in speaking about these issues and the people truly facing these issues in spaces like Standing Rock Reservation.

This awareness can be found at times. Shailene Woodley said in her first statement concerning her arrest, “We fail to notice. We fail to acknowledge. We fail to act. So much so that it took me, a white non-native woman being arrested on October 10 in North Dakota, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to bring this cause to many people’s attention. And to the forefront of news publications around the world.” 

The real question becomes: why are these voices the only ones that reach the public? Why does one arrest spread faster than many? In this political system, having powerful voices advocating for the many suffering and fighting against climate change is important, but we need to know that these voices are able to do this because of a history of white supremacy, of oppression and the silencing of certain voices.