Like many activists and bloggers on those fateful last days of the Copenhagen climate summit, I was dragging my tail between my legs. There was definitely a sense of defeat lingering in the air -- that despite the historic unification of the both environmental and social justice NGO's into a veritable eco-army it wasn't enough. We didn't even get close to the emissions cuts needed.
Fortunately I had a dinner planned on the weekend with Tzeporah Berman, a famous activist from Canada who was in Copenhagen for the talks. She regaled us with the little known story of the Boreal rain forest in Canada, one of the last old-growth temperate rain forests on earth, and how one film saved it from near destruction.
I'm going to retell the story here as a reminder of the power of activism + media, and how politicians (who, remember, are people too) WILL give in if pressure is applied in just the right direction. It gave me a ray of hope at the end of a pretty gloomy two weeks in Copenhagen.
Back in 2007 a small, but ambitious film project called The 11th Hour was released. It was innovative in several regards. It featured narration by a major A-list celebrity, Leonardo DiCaprio. It included a massive compilation of more than 100 interviews with leading environmental experts, and it was also one of the first films to link to an "Action Campaign" website.
The producers of the film hoped it would rouse a new generation of environmental activists. For a variety of reasons, the film did not do well at the box office and it didn't deliver on the first count. But the film was far from a failure. As Tzeporah explained, the film's premiere which was attended by a host of A-list celebs, was just the ticket she needed to save one of the most important carbon sinks in North America.
Forest Ethics, the nonprofit co-founded by Tzeporah, had been in a several year battle with the Canadian government to prevent logging of an ancient forest in Northern Canada, the last refuge of the endangered caribou. Despite very successful campaigning and widespread public support, Forest Ethics' cries fell on deaf ears. The government was unmoved and it seemed logging would proceed.
That's when 11th Hour was released. Tzeporah came down to the premier where she briefly met Paris Hilton. It was a 2-minute meeting that would alter the fate of one endangered species and pave the way for a new kind of celebrity-fueled activism.
The photo of their meeting quickly landed on the front page of hundreds of newspapers across Canada, followed by two weeks of nonstop interview requests. Then, at a special premiere in Vancouver, dozens of celebrities signed a postcard urging British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell to protect the Inland Temperate Rainforest.
Combined with a number of local actions by a diversity of Canadian environmental groups, the pressure was too great and Premier Brown made a sudden about-face, signing to protect 5.4 million acres of threatened rain forest.
The moral of the story ... media is powerful, and we are only now learning to use it to its fullest capacity. As we enter a new decade of post-Copenhagen environmental activism, we should remember the untapped power of celebrity. Yes, grassroots organizing is stronger and more important than ever. But with a little help from Hollywood, the power of the activist base can be leveraged in ways that are sometimes surprising ... and very effective.