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'How to Change the World' Traces the Birth of Greenpeace, World Premier at Sundance

'How to Change the World' Traces the Birth of Greenpeace, World Premier at Sundance

Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah is taking place right now. Robert Redford, founder of Sundance and a longtime environmental activist, sat down with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman yesterday to discuss this year’s festival and pressing environmental issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline.

The festival always has a solid showing of environmental films and this year is no different. The film, Racing Extinction, which is a call to action amidst massive species loss, had its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 24. Another must-see film that screened at Sundance is How to Change the World, which won the Candescent Award given to powerful social-issue films that have been supported during production by the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

How to Change the World tells the story of a group of activists who founded Greenpeace. Photo credit: How to Change the World

Directed by Jerry Rothwell, the film tells the story of an eclectic group of friends—Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists and American draft dodgers—who launched Greenpeace. The group formed Greenpeace in 1971 after its protest of Richard Nixon's nuclear tests in Amchitka, Alaska captured the world's imagination.

The group wanted to "bear witness"—a Quaker tradition of silent protest—to U.S. nuclear testing in Amchitka because it was the "last refuge for 3,000 endangered sea otters, and home to bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other wildlife," according to Greenpeace. The U.S. still detonated the bomb, but Greenpeace's campaign helped stop nuclear testing in Amchitka later that year and the island was declared a bird sanctuary. That was just the beginning of many more intense campaigns around the world, in which members of Greenpeace put their bodies on the line to protect the planet.

Bob Hunter, one of the founders of Greenpeace and its first president. Photo credit: How to Change the World

With real-life footage of the group's journey to Alaska aboard an old boat and other early campaigns, How to Change the World gives viewers an in-depth look at how Greenpeace was formed and how its members came to play such a pivotal role in the modern environmental movement. The movie's website describes it as "an intimate portrait of the group’s original members and of activism itself—idealism vs. pragmatism, principle vs. compromise."

Greenpeace's decades of environmental activism have had lasting impacts. "I think without Greenpeace’s work in the 1970s many species of whale would be extinct," Rothwell told Tom Roston of Moyers & Company. "The moratorium against whaling in 1982 was achieved directly because of the way the early whale campaigns had changed global consciousness about whales."

One of Greenpeace's early campaigns to stop whaling. Photo credit: How to Change the World

When asked if the film can be a how-to guide for today's activists, Rothwell cautions, "It’s an exploration of one attempt to effect change by a small group of people and of the impact of their success on the people in that group and their relationships." Still, there are undoubtedly many lessons to be learned in the successes and failures of Greenpeace.

Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, and a co-founder of Greenpeace, is thrilled about the film and its portrayal of Bob Hunter, the first president of Greenpeace. "This film recognizes his genius, his vision, his incredible imagination and his great courage. He did in fact change the world—and very much for the better," said Watson.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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