Oprah's Emerald City

Oprah makes me sick. She recently had another uber-hypocritical show about environmental issues and I thought it would be appropriate to repost my reaction to her first show about "going green", which was aired last June. Hey, at least her blouse is green, right?

Has anyone noticed how Oprah collapses into a pool of plasmodium when her guests start talking science? Sure, when it's relationship issues or the inner child, she's all over it, wielding advice like a psycho-babble hammer.

I got a phone call from my mother yesterday afternoon."Turn on channel four, Oprah's talking about global warming," she says. My mother is one of those viewers that hates Oprah (and Dr. Phil) but watches here and there anyway. I avoid daytime TV like the plague.

Sure enough, "Leo" DiCaprio is next to Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton, sitting before a giant rotating graphic of the Earth, and Oprah is looking fidgety and nervous opposite the pair.

"Scientists agree there's no longer really any argument," [said] Oppenheimer. "The climate is changing. Human beings are largely responsible, and it's just going to keep getting warmer until we act to remove the pollution."

They walked through the little things people can do to save energy and emit less pollution, including buying and installing compact fluorescent bulbs, composting, achieving carbon-neutrality by buying trees in plantations, recycling and (I don't know how little this is, but...) buying a more fuel efficient car, like a Prius.

I think it's wonderful that the message was distributed to Oprah's huge fan base, and I see the wisdom of using someone like DiCaprio to transmit the importance of climate change to the GP. I am critical, however, of a few points:

Researchers recently published a report in Science, saying that carbon neutrality through planting trees on tree farms has it's own costs to the natural environment. The man-made forests drain nearby fresh water reservoirs, robbing the native ecosystem of fresh water.

From Trading Water for Carbon with Biological Carbon Sequestration

Carbon sequestration strategies highlight tree plantations without considering their full environmental consequences. We combined field research, synthesis of more than 600 observations, andclimate and economic modeling to document substantial lossesin stream flow, and increased soil salinization and acidification,with afforestation. Plantations decreased stream flow by 227millimeters per year globally (52%), with 13% of streams dryingcompletely for at least 1 year. Regional modeling of U.S. plantationscenarios suggests that climate feedbacks are unlikely to offsetsuch water losses and could exacerbate them. Plantations canhelp control groundwater recharge and upwelling but reduce streamflow and salinize and acidify some soils.

The hybrid car is presented as the answer to our fuel problems, but it is not efficient in all areas of driving. The Prius and other hybrids do well in the city, terrible on the highway.

From Life in the Green Lane - New York Times:

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla, which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

Finally, DiCaprio's argument was fundamentally flawed. Not once was a reason actually given for conservation, aside from celebrities are doing it and it could save you money. Don't get me wrong, this will be the driving force behind the green campaign to the GP, but isn't that a bit insulting to people? Aren't we just affirming people's obsession with wealth and celebrity, and relating that they cannot grasp or do not care about the fundamental philosophy of conservation?

Our future depends on the biodiversity of our planet's native ecosystems, and I believe that people do care about our natural world, no matter how it is viewed.

I think smoothing over certain negative aspects of the movement is a bad approach in that it gives those opposed to conservation ammunition to draw people away. We need a realistic approach through the idealism. We need to tell people the truth, and treat them as adults who can comprehend the problems, not children that need direction.

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You're certainly correct, but honestly, at this point I just want people to start trying and not get confused. The finer points can wait for a while; until then, trees are better than lack of trees, and Priuses are better than F-250s.

Yeah, I don't get the whole celebrity thing. I don't like how celebrities are acting as the voice for scientists who are well-educated on this issue. Why is our society more likely to listen to someone who has no idea what they're talking about (unless the scientist is sitting right next to them)?

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Why is our society more likely to listen to someone who has no idea what they're talking about

I can't agree this is always true, and celebrities can and sometimes do know what they're talking about, but there is definitely a problem with people being, apparently, more likely to listen to others who don't know what they're talking about. This is, I think, because those people are more likely to be certain and forceful in what they say, because ignorance (as Darwin, among others, pointed out) is more likely to beget certainty than knowledge. People who are certain and forceful are also more likely to get on a show to start with, compared to people who speak with nuance.

Imagine, for instance, that you are a producer of a show and you want a discussion of religion. Your choices are a nutty fundamentalist, an ardent atheist like Dawkins, or a person who just keeps saying "it's a matter of faith without evidence and certainty eludes us". You're not gonna pick that last guy.