Jared Leto’s Unfortunate Keystone Comparison, And What Successful Celebrity Environmentalism Looks Like

CREDIT: AP/ Chris Pizzello/Invision

Jared Leto made clear when he won his award for best supporting actor at the Oscars last week that he’s comfortable being an overtly political actor — his speech mentioned Ukraine, AIDS, and single motherhood, and Leto comfortably (though not without criticism) spoke progressively about those topics.

Now, he’s wading further into political debates by speaking out publicly against the Keystone XL pipeline. He and several other celebrities penned a letter this week to Sec. of State John Kerry telling him to oppose the pipeline’s construction. But the letter went a little far.

In 1971, when you were roughly our age, you asked “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The penetrating moral clarity of the question made it a turning point in the nation’s debate over the Vietnam War.[…]

We stand at such a point today, with respect to an even greater challenge, an even bigger mistake — the imminent threat of catastrophic climate disruption. Your recommendation on the Keystone XL pipeline permit can help correct the course for our future, and all humanity’s.

It’s understandable what Leto is going for here. The threat of climate change is truly catastrophic and the global consequences aren’t something to laugh at. But the comparison — between a pipeline carrying oil and a war that dragged on for years and claimed millions of American and Vietnamese lives — is unfortunate, not least because it’s not really accurate. The decision to go to war is a very active one, while the decision to continue emitting greenhouse gases that screw with the long term health of our planet is probably the most passive choice one can make.

But on a broader level, Leto penning a letter that opposes the pipeline is just not a very constructive form of solidarity with the movement. Where has he been for the hundreds of protests against the pipeline that actually draw visibility to the fight? A letter might draw some attention to the issue, sure, but being the celebrity face of the movement is almost certainly more valuable.

Leto should take some clues from another celebrity with an environmental message. Mark Ruffalo is famously involved in the fight against hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at the Marcellus shale in upstate New York. His reasoning is definitely self serving — Ruffalo and his family live on the shale — but it’s also sincere.

Not only did he launch his own non-profit, Water Defense, that vocally condemns the fossil fuel industry as the source of contamination of American drinking supplies, he also has done perhaps the most valuable thing a celebrity can do: He consistently leverages the amazing access that he gets as an actor to fight for the cause. Ruffalo has gone on the Colbert Report to talk about fracking, and has narrated a documentary film on the topic. He’s allowed the New York Times access to follow him around, not while he premiers a new movie but while he sits in his hometown of Callicoon, NY and talks about his fears for his children if fracking continues.

Ultimately, celebrities are not just like us, and that’s what can make them effective advocates in ways we can’t be. The question is figuring out the effective ways to do that.