One of the harder things to do in public life is to escape from a box in which you’ve been put by a relentless media, or even well-meaning fans. For someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who was known as a talented actor before the world-smashing success of Titanic made him a heartthrob, the transition back to being an “actor” was particularly difficult. He was Jack, and made young girls swoon around the globe. While that has its advantages, it can become difficult to be taken seriously.
But he kept working at it, collaborating with great directors, including an enduring relationship with the legendary Martin Scorsese. He’s been nominated for several Oscars, and after a strange transitory period, he’s been fully accepted as one of the most dynamic and talented actors of his generation, able to bring a startling intensity and depth to any performance.
Now he is going forward with another transition. Don’t worry, he’ll still be acting – it’s hard to throw away a muse. But he is also becoming more of a prominent environmental activist, leveraging his celebrity to do good. Nowhere was this more clear than when he gave a speech about the need to stop rampaging climate change in front of the United Nations. This came shortly after being appointed a new UN Ambassador of Peace by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
As he put it “This is not a partisan debate; it is a human one. Clean air and water and a livable climate are inalienable human rights. And solving this crisis is not a question of politics. It is our moral obligation — if, admittedly, a daunting one…” (You can read a transcript of his short speech here.)
This is inarguable. Even if you think that the effects of climate change will not be as dramatic, it is inarguable that we need clean air and water to live, that we are part of an ecosystem and are dependent upon it, and that as humans we, more than any living creature, are able to impact the environment for good and for ill – mostly ill. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The question, then, is what can we do as citizens? And do celebrities matter in this debate?
The historic role of celebrity in human rights
It’s sort of a cliche – the dilettante Hollywood star getting involved in something that they don’t understand. That’s wildly unfair, though. Sure, there are probably some people who have just gone on with something for the publicity, but you can say that about any walk of life. It’s grossly insulting to hear people say “famous people should mind their own business,” as if being in a movie or expressing yourself artistically obviates your right to have an opinion or to try to influence policy.
There is a long history of famous people using their renown to get involved. Ed Begley Jr has long been on the forefront of environmental activism, even leaving his career behind him to focus on it. Angelina Jolie campaigns for the rights of children around the world, particularly in conflict zones. George Clooney and Don Cheadle helped bring the horrors of Darfur to the public consciousness.
There is even a history at the UN, including with Jolie. Maybe the most long-standing and fruitful relationship was with the great Peter Ustinov, the classic actor, famous polyglot, man of deep learning, whose passion for the world’s forgotten was matched only by his commitment as an Ambassador for UNICEF. So to say that DiCaprio should mind his own business is ignoring the fact that the world is all of our business.
So what to do?
As a citizen, you don’t have the same level of attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, most likely. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do on an individual level, as well as on a broader one. Going green – using environmentally friendly businesses like Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company and reducing your waste and consumption – is a great way to start. Drive less. Walk more.
But of course, on an individual level, even if you moved to a cave and consumed nothing but lichen for the rest of your days, your individual impact is still limited. That’s why you need to keep living right, and talking about it. That’s what Leonardo DiCaprio is doing. No country is going to change their policy strictly on his say-so. But he can use his fame his influence people, and get the ball rolling. That’s what you can do, too. Lead by example, so that the idea that we all need to take care of our planet – our only home – becomes unignorable.
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