Leonardo DiCaprio joins parade of celebrity activists targeting Fort McMurray

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

The next Leonardo DiCaprio film coming to a screen near you may not be a grand Hollywood epic or independent film, but a documentary about the Alberta tar sands and the environmental future of the nearby First Nations communities.

DiCaprio was reportedly researching such a film during a visit to northern Alberta over the weekend, lending his celebrity status to the ongoing war over Alberta’s oil sand development.

For better or worse, it seems to have become de rigueur for Hollywood stars to target Alberta's tar sands in their environmental tilts bringing with them the attention their names afford, but also any energy-burning skeletons they may have hidden in their closest.

Nowadays, the involvement of famous people in such debates can result in derision, doubt and, perhaps damagingly for the cause, a visible target against who counter attacks can be launched.

Consider Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, whose foundation once had to release a statement about his own environmental record after he became a punching bag for those who opposed his message. Or Neil Young, whose own role in the battle against the Alberta tar sands once prompted the Prime Minister's Office to somewhat sneeringly note the energy-demanding lifestyle often afforded to such celebrities.

Tim Moen, leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada and a vocal opponent of Hollywood's role in demonizing Alberta's tar sands, says celebrity talk is cheap.

"I look at actions more than words. In what way is DiCaprio living the values he espouses?" Moen wrote in an email to Yahoo Canada News. "The people I take seriously are people who actually create solutions. People that find ways to get cheap clean energy into the hands of people who want it."

According to reports, DiCaprio was joined on his Alberta tour by "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky, who may be working on a documentary together.

But DiCaprio already has his name, and voice, pegged to the anti-oil sands battle. A documentary series recently released by Green World Rising is narrated by the "Titanic" star. The first episode, titled "Carbon," touts the need for a carbon tax in America.

DiCaprio is not the first A-list celebrity to oppose the Alberta oil sands. The biggest names to turn their eyes on Fort McMurray have included "Avatar" director James Cameron and Oscar-winner Robert Redford

Daryl Hannah has taken an active role in protesting the tar sands in the past, as have Diana Krall and Elvis Costello.

Mark Ruffalo has vocally opposed the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would run from Alberta south to the Texas coast. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kevin Bacon have also released videos and spoken out about tar sands and pipeline development.

But the most infamous battle has come between the industry and legendary Canadian singer Neil Young, who has toured and protested the tar sands development for years and famously compared the damage done to the region to Hiroshima.

Last year, Young launched a cross-Canada concert series decrying the oil sands that included several famous names (some noted above) and vowed to support the First Nations communities fighting against the development.

But ever since Young turned to opposing the oil sands as a full-time duty, the inclusion of celebrities in the debate over Canada's energy future has become divisive in its own right.

Last year, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation credited Young's status for bringing the debate to the forefront. Meantime, the singer became a target himself. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said "the lifestyle of a rock star" relies on resource development. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers played it a little more coyly, telling Yahoo Canada News that "Neil Young has a right to be wrong."

But even that thin veneer of diplomacy may be wearing thin.

Lee Funke, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told the Globe and Mail over the weekend that the trend of celebrity activism has run its course.

“Like Canadians, we [the industry] are growing tired of the fad of celebrity environmentalists coming into the region for a few hours or a few days, and offering their ideas and solutions to developing this resource,” Funke was quoted as saying.

Edmonton Journal columnist Gary Lamphier had perhaps the most prescient example of why allowing big-name celebrities to push an environmental message can be dangerous: It is often very easy to diminish their credibility in the eyes of the public.

...DiCaprio and 21 of his friends recently used one of the world’s largest superyachts, an energy-guzzling 482-foot behemoth called the Topaz, in order to watch the recent World Cup in Brazil in high style.

The yacht is the 5th largest in the world, according to news reports, and is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. That’s right. It’s oil money that paid for the fancy yacht that Leo and his pals used to watch the World Cup.

It's not hard to imagine how this might play to an average Canadian, who is being told to leave their cars at home and make other daily sacrifices to cut down the need for Albertan oil.

In the past, Moen has targeted this hypocrisy in a cheeky YouTube video that declares Hollywood the ultimate gas guzzler and vows to bring the green lessons he's learned in northern Alberta to help the celebrities in California.

Moen tells Yahoo Canada News that dirty energy is a problem that needs to be addressed by serious solutions, not celebrity grandstanding.

"What this world needs is more communities like Fort McMurray and more industries like the oil sands. Wealth generation is necessary for the elevation of environmental consciousness, notice how it's millionaires who come here to be horrified and not poverty stricken common folks struggling to survive," Moen said.

"My community is developing cleaner energy processes, green houses that will produce fresh produce year round that northern communities will be able to power off landfill methane, a world class zero waste initiative, reclamation technology that will help restore environmentally devastated areas worldwide, a new crop of scientists and innovators that are focused on environmental and green technology that will actually advance the goal posts towards a cleaner, greener future for mankind. Can Hollywood make this claim as a community?

"If one were to take Hollywood's words as advice we'd be back in the stone age living a subsistence life over open fires, if we were to take their actions as advice we would all need to up our carbon footprints by a factor of at least 10. This world needs a little less Hollywood and a little more Fort McMurray."

Are the days of celebrity activism ticking toward a conclusion?

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