When Al Gore testified before Congress about global warming last March, he was called a sage and the "Goracle." Even members of Congress who disagree with Gore's proposed solutions--proponents of so-called clean coal, nuclear energy, and the like--seemed to agree on at least one thing: Global warming is real. "Mother Nature is a powerful witness and has been sending some pretty powerful messages that people are hearing," Gore said. And in many ways it does seem that people are getting the message. Whether it is an antipathy toward relying on foreign oil, an interest in turning the family farm into an ethanol hub, excitement over lowering energy bills, or a commitment to the protection of the Earth, America seems to be turning the corner on environmentalism. It's not just for tree-huggers anymore.
Cities across the country are hosting friendly competitions to see which can sign up more people for clean energy. Eco-media is everywhere: There are green lifestyle magazines and even a new green cable station. Products are greener than ever as we protect our kids from nasty chemicals and treat our gardens like living terrain instead of mutant science projects. Whole Foods, Walgreens, and the U.S. Navy are all addicted to wind power. School buses and mail trucks are running on bio-diesel. The Prius is the coolest car on the market. Even Oprah Winfrey did a veritable 180 when the famously consumptive high-priestess of daytime celebrated Earth Day with eco-smart tips for the home just like a true daughter of Aquarius. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has issued an edict that all 13,000 taxis in the city be hybrids by 2012.
Everything seems to be going in the right direction--unless you watch a lot of reality television. While channel-surfing around the digital TV wilderness, it's clear that, between "The Amazing Race," "The Hills," "Pimp My Ride," "The Real Housewives of Orange County," and most of the hundreds of other reality shows that encourage excess and burn through fossil fuels with nary a blink, reality television has become an environmental catastrophe--polluting the planet as surely as it pollutes our minds.
One glimpse of ABC's new series "Fast Cars and Superstars" is enough to make you wonder: Just how much gas are they using at 150 miles per hour? Each episode features a celebrity--I use the term loosely--who learns the fine art of auto racing, which seems to involve driving stick and having an unflinchingly carefree attitude about one's personal safety. Of course, the entire show is an advertisement for the real deal: NASCAR, which consumes fossil fuels at enormous rates simply for the sport of it. As does "The Amazing Race," with its mind-numbing procession of globe-trotting flights. And speaking of fuel waste, remember when Leonardo DiCaprio and Annie Leibowitz had a behind-the-scenes special about shooting the Vanity Fair green issue cover? Influential environmentalist Leo and company are cruising in a small powerboat looking for, I kid you not, the perfect iceberg for the eco-heartthrob to pose on, and all I could think was: At least paddle the boat! I mean, if only for appearances. And was it really necessary to go all the way to Antarctica?! Couldn't they just Photoshop Leo into some still picture from March of the Penguins?
But perhaps the worst reality TV eco-offender is "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," also on ABC. This show takes an annoyingly chipper and vacuous team of attractive "designers" and gives them free rein to reinvent a small, dowdy home and make it into an explosion of glut and vulgarity. Reminiscent of the 1950s game show "Queen for a Day"--in which housewives competed for new appliances by having the most pathetic and sad life--"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" targets needy people with "special" stories, like the family who adopted ten kids, the little girl with cancer, and the disabled Iraq vet. The reward for having a heartbreaking and hard life is a veritable McMansion. In one episode, a large and brutally poor family watched as their tiny home was demolished and a new colossus was erected in its place--in the same sketchy neighborhood where property is worthless and crime is rampant. It looked as though the world was in black-and-white, with hanging laundry, parched lawns, chain-link fences, and potholes; but then suddenly there is this ridiculous eruption of professional landscaping, medieval turrets, and vivid colors (red doors! yellow shutters! baby blue siding!). It's as though Oz were sitting right next to Kansas.
Don't get me wrong: Give the impoverished family a better life; let host Ty Pennington be chiseled and incredibly dim while weeping with the grateful family or staring wide-eyed in deep respect for their plight. But there's a glut of housing across the country. Let's buy the family an existing house in a great location and save all the construction materials. Let's give them hybrid cars to cut down on their gas costs and solar panels on the roof to cut their energy bills--these folks do have to heat and cool these buildings, after all. Some of the most expensive realities of living green are the start-up costs; but, since the show is providing that anyway, let the needy people reap the benefits of eco-living while teaching the home viewer about green housing and giving the planet a freaking break. Even if the show's sponsors throw in an EnergyStar appliance here or there, with seven-bedroom homes, deluxe kitchens and baths, and multi-car giveaways, the overarching lesson of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is that happiness lies in a huge, sprawling home with themed bedrooms, state-of-the-art entertainment centers, and 15-person leather sectionals from Pottery Barn.
There is some environmentally friendly reality TV out there. The Discovery Channel quietly flies under the radar with its riveting series "Planet Earth," a show that might just remind folks how insanely awe-inspiring the planet is; a show that takes pains to demonstrate the effects of all this traveling, building, and consuming on the planet; and a show that even had their production crew travel eco-consciously. Of course, changing the channel might mean that we would miss all of Ty Pennington's labyrinthine homages to pastel as well as the "Fast Cars and Superstars'" color commentary--"He is setting a new paradigm for greatness in celebrity racing history! Whatever 'paradigm' means"--but I'm willing to risk it.
By Sacha Zimmerman