The greenwashing of Sarah Palin
A new reality show portrays the former Alaska governor as a nature-savvy frontierswoman. We asked brand experts and environmentalists what they think of her latest role.
Mon, Nov 22 2010 at 3:27 PM
Photo courtesy of TLC
Sarah Palin is a jane of many trades: Tea-Partier, hockey mom, and now, environmentalist?
"I love my state like I love my family," the former Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate proudly proclaims as she welcomes viewers to her new TLC nature reality show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” The program features Palin and her family juxtaposed between scenic panoramic vistas and bustling wildlife. The first two episodes showcase her traversing the state’s many natural wonders: hiking Mount McKinley, dodging crevasses on Ruth Glacier and salmon fishing in Wolverine Creek — where she comes face-to-face with a pack of bears. Palin calls the show a celebration of what inspires her: “The grandeurs of God’s creation … the rugged pioneering spirit that carves a life out of the wilderness and makes a living on the waters, the wisdom and traditions of our Alaska Natives, and the wealth of our natural resources which allows us to support ourselves and contribute to America’s security.”
At surface level, the show is devoid of explicit political overtures; Mark Burnett’s production team has created a lush, cinematographically rich, romanticized view of the state while attempting to humanize Palin as its nature-loving star. With 5 million viewers tuning in for the premiere, Alaska’s tourism industry expects a big boost from all the free publicity. The question is, will Palin be able to “refudiate” previous negative perceptions and endear herself to mainstream environmentalists?
Whitney Pitcher, an ardent Palin supporter and blogger for Conservatives4Palin, believes she can appeal to "crunchy conservatives" with the program. “Governor Palin shows her knowledge, respect, and enjoyment of Alaska's great outdoors in this show,” she says. “This travelogue only further confirms her respect for the environment.”
Pitcher also noted that Palin was one of the first governors to create a subcabinet to study climate change, and she made a goal to have half of Alaska's energy produced from renewables by 2025. "She has always shown a commitment to protecting the physical environment while improving the economic environment."
Joe Geldhof, the Alaskan representative for Republicans for Environmental Protection, remains skeptical. “Palin, like most Alaskans, probably appreciates the grandeur of this place we call home. It is, after all, a pleasure to live here. But her use of Alaska as a backdrop for her show has made some of us wonder about her agenda,” he tells MNN. “People see Palin appearing in the media with Alaska as a backdrop and they sometimes roll their eyes and question whether she’s just using Alaska for her own self-promotion.”
Geldhof added that Palin, for the most part, ignored natural resource issues as governor, instead giving higher priority to oil taxation and gas development. "She did get really revved up on predator control, creating an extreme state bureaucracy that wanted to aerially shoot wolves and kill bears that were diminishing caribou and moose. It wasn't based on science in some cases, and it didn't take into account state tourism concerns."
Julia Butterfly Hill, the famed tree-sitter and eco-activist, was dismayed with TLC’s rebranding of Palin as green. “It is a sad state of human consciousness when a woman who shoots animals from helicopters and is pro oil drilling and logging — in some of the last, most pristine and wild parts of the American country — has a show that portrays her as environmental,” laments Hill.
Joe Romm, author of the global warming blog Climate Progress, was equally unimpressed by the program. “The fact that she can see the environment from Alaska doesn't change her unrelenting quest to destroy it,” says Romm. “Indeed, Alaska is the state most immediately threatened by human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases — but Palin has done everything in her power to accelerate climate change.”
Bernard McCoy, producer of "Exploring the Wild Kingdom," a documentary that examined the influential nature series “Wild Kingdom,” suspected that politics (not wildlife conservation) are Palin’s modus operandi. But he feels it still has some merit.
“While no TV program has done a better job of raising environmental and wildlife awareness than “Wild Kingdom,” I do think Palin's association with her TLC program could raise greater awareness about environmental issues surrounding Alaska. That might particularly be the case among her supporters. That could be a very good thing.”
However, branding expert Rob Frankel thought that TLC’s eco-image makeover of Palin would ultimately not be successful in attracting sympathetic green sentiment. “It's easy to dump all over Sarah Palin, but I'll say this much for her: the camera loves her,” said Frankel. “Unfortunately, Palin has never had, nor will ever have, the depth and gravitas necessary to be taken any more seriously than her role in this series. Palin's lack of credibility in the environmental world was likely destroyed with her embrace of the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd — a scant year before the BP oil spill.”
“I believe she enjoys and values the great outdoors without giving any further thought as to how to protect or nurture it,” he added. “She's at her best having fun, whipping up excitement and avoiding issues requiring any sort of depth or understanding.”
Seattle-based James Crugnale recently graduated from Michigan State University with a master's degree in environmental journalism. His work has appeared on Grist.org.