Kayaking Chile's Free-Flowing Pascua River
The remote beach was empty except for me and my companions. The broad expanse of sea was empty, too and I squinted at the horizon, looking for a human shape. This was two years ago, deep in southern Chile and five of us had just descended the bottom section of the Pascua—a burly, glacier-fed river—by kayak. We were at the Pascua's mouth, where it empties into a fjord and we were planning to head through the fjord to the small town of Caleta Tortel. Two of the kayakers from our party, Lisa and Roberto, had paddled ahead until they disappeared amid the chop. Now, I was trying to find them in this gray-green world.
Seeing no sign of them, I walked back to the riverbank and kneeled for a drink of agua dulce—freshwater. Cold slid down my throat. The air smelled sweet, of mist and storms and clouds were slung low above the water. Waves jostled and splashed and I breathed deeply, readying myself for what I knew I had to do next: paddle through the tumult that Lisa and Roberto had just vanished into.
There was nothing for the three of us left on the gravel bar to do but load into our boats and point them toward the inlet. The other lives we all lived—an existence with things like showers and email and beds—had become laughably unimportant. Our needs were immediate and self-evident. Stay alive, stay dry, stay together and keep going. Or turn back. But we had no intention of turning back. We gripped our paddles and pushed off the bank.
Where the river hits the sea, we hit the waves—heaving pyramids of whitecapped water that splashed over our spray skirts. My boat partner and I counted aloud to pace our strokes—one, two, three, four—as we dug our paddles into the dark water, hoping that if we paddled hard enough for long enough, we'd stay upright and make it to the nearest shore. Our kayak, about 17 feet long, rose onto the swells, hung in midair, then slammed back down. I clenched my paddle tighter. My forearms stiffened and ached. The land, the water, the weather—all of it became real and close. Although nerve-racking, this was the kind of intensity I lived for. It pulled me into the present and put all of me to work.
We aimed our boat for a beach that we could see between the waves. As we got closer, I spotted two life-jacketed figures pulling brightly colored plastic boats ashore. Lisa and Roberto had made landfall.
Why was I there, paddling as hard as I could on those stormy seas? There's more than one way to answer that question. The Pascua is in a region of Chile called Aysén. I'd spent the past couple of years there doing research on a proposal to build five large dams, two of which would be on the Pascua. During the course of that project, I had learned a lot about river flows, hydropower and electricity transmission lines. But I wanted to know the river that I had thought about so much in a more intimate way. Before the Pascua's power turned to megawatts, I wanted to feel its current against my skin.
I was also in Aysén for less practical reasons. Like many others before me, I'd been drawn by the idea of Patagonia: a place where wind and weather ruled, granite spires rose from the Earth and teal rivers curled through a trackless steppe. Parts of Aysén are practically uninhabited, with less than three people per square mile—a lower population density than that of the Sahara Desert or Mongolia. I'd hitchhiked through the region, kayaked its rivers and explored its valleys, trying to get closer to the place I'd been so fixated on. The ecological philosopher Arne Naess wrote that mountaineering is a way to participate in a mountain's greatness. In the same vein, everything I did in the far south was part of my attempt to participate in the greatness of that landscape.
The Pascua encapsulates all that is wondrous about Patagonia. Other rivers in the area, like the Baker, are strewn with ranches, but very few gauchos—South America's version of cowboys—live along the Pascua. Those who do first arrived in handmade wooden rowboats. To get up the river before motorboats, the gauchos had to stand on the thickly forested banks of the Pascua and pull their boats (which were sometimes full of lambs) upstream with ropes. A spur road from the dirt highway did not arrive until 2006. The Pascua was remote, powerful, isolated—a force to be reckoned with. As a few friends and I talked about a potential trip on the river, we began referring to it as "the wild and unknown Pascua."
So, we decided that in February 2014 we would kayak the lower Pascua from near Lago Quetru to the shores of Tortel. Our crew would be Weston Boyles, a then-27-year-old Colorado native; Tyler Williams and Lisa Gelczis, husband-and-wife guides from Flagstaff, Arizona; and Roberto Haro, a middle-aged gym teacher from the town of Cochrane who taught local kids how to whitewater kayak. The four of them had met through an organization Weston started, Rios to Rivers, which had facilitated an exchange between some of Roberto's teenage kayakers and some American kayakers to paddle the Baker and Colorado Rivers while learning about the effects of dams.
Simply getting ready for the trip was challenging. There were no reports from other paddlers or even any detailed maps. So we huddled around a laptop in Roberto's kitchen, scrolling through satellite images to sketch a route.
Maps of the area show a shredded coastline where the continent encounters the sea. Islands are splattered across bays and fjords slice into the mainland, carvings left over from the last ice age. Patagonia's topography is similar to that of Southeast Alaska and Norway, except with more places where glaciers meet the sea.
The journey promised heavy rain, cold temperatures and high winds. Friends of ours could not understand why we would suffer through it. When we told people in Cochrane that we would kayak from Lago Quetru to the mouth of the Pascua, then up the coast to Tortel, one person asked, "Do you want to die?"
I struggled to explain why we wanted to go there. I often felt like using the clichéd response: "If you have to ask, you'll never understand." What drives anyone on this kind of quest? For me, it came from a desire to be part of something giant and wild, a yearning to participate in something beautiful. To do that fully, I needed to give up control.
At the beginning of our journey, on the banks of the Pascua, we had packed our boats and loaded them into the water. The river was so wide, it often looked like a moving lake. Boils wrinkled the surface. The water split into braids around sandy shoals and bent sharply around unnamed mountains. We paddled up creeks and made sandwiches with manjar (Chile's version of dulce de leche) on our spray skirts. On our second day, we reached the Pascua's mouth, where the river emptied into the fjord and where our group dispersed and came together again on that wind-whipped beach to wait out the bad weather.
We took naps and ate snacks and read books, then eventually set out again. Frothing water exploded against cliffs to our left. To our right, the sea spread outward until it welded itself to a skyscape of gray clouds. No more beaches appeared on the coast. The headwind blew so hard that if we paused our paddle strokes, the Klepper went backward. I couldn't stop to scratch my nose. Weston and I synchronized our strokes. Much of the time, we couldn't see our friends.
After four hours of struggling against the wind, we ducked into a protected cove where iridescent clumps of ice emerged from the dark water—sedan-size pieces of glacier that had calved off from a tongue of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Most of the mountains had darkened by that time, except for one ridge behind us that was gilded by the only shaft of sun we had seen all day.
We paddled toward the coast, to where a few of these icebergs were beached on the front lawn of an abandoned ranch. Aysén is a ranching region, settled by homesteaders in the early 20th century, when border tensions with Argentina led the Chilean government to give away free land. Though more and more Ayséninos are moving to towns and making a living from tourism, the region remains a gaucho stronghold. These hardy souls live the life that many people hope will continue but few people want to live themselves.
We poked around the ranch—walking around the sagging fence that surrounded the cabin, pushing through the overgrown bushes, peeking into the shed where the family once hung their meat. Richard White, a Stanford environmental historian, has written that outdoor recreation like kayaking and mountaineering represents a type of "rugged play" that mimics the hard life of the pioneer. We gringos were trying to re-create the experience of those early gaucho pioneers—only we were doing it for entertainment rather than survival.
This rugged play demands that we use our bodies to move through the land until our thighs quiver and burn, our calves tighten and tire. It also demands that we look closely at whatever is around us: rapids and waves, discoloration and indentations in snow-covered ice, the outcroppings and contours of rock. We often feel closest to the land when it requires attention and labor from us and so such play is a way of reconnecting to the Earth. Among those of us who work with papers and pens, screens and keyboards, rugged play represents a kind of nostalgia. It's a yearning for the days when we knew the land the way the family at this ranch would have—when we knew it because we had to know it, when we knew it with our bodies.
My musings were swept away by the immediate demands of hunger, cold and fatigue. We set up our nylon tents near the old wooden buildings, made fire and food on the beach and slept.
We woke the next morning to wind hurtling over the water. The waves were even larger than they had been the day before. We set out, making spurts of progress up the coastline. I had a plane to catch in four days, but it was foolish to believe that we could control our rate of progress.
The next several days blurred together: a montage of driving wind and rain, Weston yelling at me whenever my hood wasn't up and paddling furiously whenever the wind abated. We hung around on beaches when the weather was especially bad, then got back in our boats during the small openings when the wind died down.
One morning, we reached a beach at the tip of the string of islands we had been following since leaving the icebergs. The beach faced a seven-mile open crossing. The weather remained windy and wavy, with whitecapped water and biting gusts. There was no way we could head into open water in such conditions, so we waited again.
We knew exactly how much food we had left: two rolls of coconut cookies, two packets of saltine crackers, a bag of oatmeal, a bag of pasta, a few pieces of stale bread and three bags of dried milk. The five of us shared half a bag of pasta for dinner.
The next day, the rains fell so heavily and continuously that Lisa and Tyler never took off their dry suits. The rest of us shivered in soaked-through rain gear, holding our pruney hands over a fire, taking turns gathering wood. At one point, Lisa and I walked to a nearby beach and heaved large rocks onto pieces of driftwood, trying to split them, joking that we'd become cavewomen.
None of us mentioned our hunger. We had chosen to give up control and there was nothing we could do now but wait out the wind. We were all elated that night when Roberto caught a small fish. I ate the head—including the eyes. Tyler, who doesn't smoke, asked for one of the cigarettes we had brought as gifts for gauchos. He thought it would lighten the mood.
In the beginning of the trip, when optimism and awe had reigned, we'd fondly nicknamed each snacking and sleeping spot. Tranquilo Bay. Love Beach. We dubbed this waiting spot Desolation Cove.
The next morning, hope displaced our desolation. Smaller waves passed by, free of whitecaps. We packed up our gear and readied our boats in silence, pointing our bows toward the lanky waterfalls and forested mountains that we could see across the open water. New snow dusted the peaks.
We crossed the previously treacherous passage with ridiculous ease, aiming toward a gap between the continent and an island. The seven miles passed quickly. We soon entered a protected channel, drifting by misty cascades and a curving coastline, enjoying Roberto's secret stash of lollipops and opening up the two emergency rolls of coconut cookies. We were giddy with proximity. There were no more open crossings between us and Tortel. We guessed that we would make it to town that evening.
Midmorning, we spotted a gray wooden boat in a cove. Since reaching the mouth of the Pascua, we'd seen some detritus left from human activity on a few beaches—two deserted and collapsing cabins, empty gas canisters in the sand, rusty nails in pieces of beached wood—but this boat seemed to signal that someone was close by. A tin roof caught light between the trees. We could see chickens and dogs moving about, laundry swinging from a line and smoke puffing from a chimney.
A couple stood outside the house, both wearing black rubber boots and baggy pants. We landed and walked up to their cabin. The man had a mustache, a hat and a tentative posture. The woman had a wide smile and thick hair that fell around her ears. She exuded enthusiasm as soon as we introduced ourselves, ushering us into her house for mate, the ubiquitous South American tea sipped through a metal straw and apologizing for the mess. They didn't get many visitors, she said.
It was a simple one-room cabin with a wood-burning cookstove in the corner. In another corner, clothes were piled on top of a mattress. Newspaper, pieces of cardboard and a poster of the Virgin Mary covered the walls. A flattened cat food box was pressed against the door and often flapped, letting the wind enter. We sat shivering around the stove, swallowing mate, then bread, then rice, then fish. I was awed by the intense abundance; even the plate was warm. I went back for more.
We described our trip to the couple. The woman nodded. She told us that she'd grown up on the unoccupied ranch near the Jorge Montt Glacier—the ranch where we'd camped next to icebergs. She'd had to cross from there to Tortel many times as a child. It was the route her family had taken to get to town.
When we described Desolation Cove, she nodded again, adding that the wind always blew hard there. Once, she said, she had waited at that spot for seven days before she could cross the channel. Often, gauchos would wait together on that beach, all on their way to Tortel and all stopped by the wild winds of the open channel. Many would bring lambs in their boats for beachside asados. They would make tortas in the sand.
What many in Cochrane had warned us would be a lethal journey was, for the gauchos, just part of their routine. Our rugged play had once been someone's commute.
In the following days, after we reached Caleta Tortel, forces other than wind, weather and water would take control. I'd hitchhike hundreds of miles to the nearest airport, try to weasel my way onto an interhemispheric flight and apologize to my professors for being late to a new semester. I'd be quickly jolted back into a life of papers and pens, screens and keyboards, showers and email and a bed.
But those gauchos, of course, would stay and often I would think of them: still there, watching the water, waiting out the weather, intertwining their lives with the land and paying close attention to its details. I was only a visitor to that place the gauchos call home, but paddling was my way of weaving the land and sea into my life. Beyond the picture of a place, the postcard version of it, was the possibility of participation.
Salvation for the Pascua
When my friends and I kayaked the lower reaches of the Pascua River in early 2014, we thought we were undertaking a kind of farewell adventure. For eight years, Chilean environmentalists and their international allies had been fighting to prevent the construction of five dams on the Pascua and Baker Rivers. Many people feared that the dams were a done deal and that these wild rivers—gems of rugged Patagonia—would become reservoirs.
Then a massive citizens' movement overturned the political conventional wisdom. Anti-dam protests in Chile's south and marches in the capital, Santiago, made the dams a major issue in the 2014 presidential campaign. Not long after President Michelle Bachelet came into office, her cabinet voted to cancel the dams.
The decision was a landmark victory for Chile's environmental movement. Today, the Pascua and Baker Rivers continue to flow freely.
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?
By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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By Elliot Douglas
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.
“Rather than a Moonshot 🌕, we need Earthshots 🌍 for this decade.” Watch Prince William’s @Tedtalks talk in full:… https://t.co/m5NCj6TQzH— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)1602408749.0
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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