Live Earth: Did it Work?

The Independent on SundayI caught the start and then the last three or four hours of Live Earth coverage on the BBC. And I really wasnt sure it actually worked.

I dont know how many signed the 7-point pledge, texted in for information and so on. I dont know how many actually watched (the 1 in 3 on the planet ‘aim’ has been reported today as the actual audience achieved – but how many really did watch it). But I am pretty sure that as a media platform for consciousness raising ‘creating a global tipping point’ it didnt even come remotely close. Here’s some thoughts as to why as a marketing idea (a really big one, but nonetheless it is an idea intended to achieve an effect) it didnt seem to come off:

1. internal critics. The coverage was full of comments about the hypocrisy of the private jets, lighting rigs, journeys to the stadiums. Also quite a few voiced doubts about whether it would work (Chris Rock sarcastically quipped that it would be a total success ‘just like the Live 8 concerts eradicated world poverty’). And there seemed to be a majority of the stars of light entertainment who were along for the show. The words ‘cynics might say’ were one of the catchphrases of the afternoon. It wasnt balance, it was a lack of commitment on the part of everyone involved. Entertainers played to an assumed cynicism is the crowd ‘let’s get on with the show’ as Chris Moyles put it after an awkward broaching of asking people to text in. Like all entertainers what they wanted was first of all to be adored. With other such events showing that they are as devastated as anyone by the horrifying images of starvation, poverty, war etc. has been their line into public sympathy. There was nothing like that for them to grab with Live Earth. So many took the internal critic line instead.

2. climate change isnt a rock concert cause. Live Aid, the big anti-apartheid concerts, concerts for the Tsunami or to show public solidarity after 9/11… these work by surfing huge tides of public emotion. they are public rallies, they are about crowd feeling and the effect that witnessing this has on anyone who comes into contact with this. They are – although obviously in a very different value set – descendents of the political rallies of the 1930s and 40s. The scientific evidence that we are screwing up the planet fast plus the little things we can all do to make a difference clearly isnt crowd emotion material.

3. Or is it? there are aspects of climate change, the devastating effects it is already having in the poorest regions of the world which are that sort of issue. That’s Christian Aid’s line on climate change for instance; that it is an engine for human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Drought and famine cause wars. Natural distasters take fragile economies, societies and ecosystems over the edge. But the organisers chose not to highlight that, nor to take a line which would create mass emotion of this sort; a line like railing against injustice, confronting big business, shaming america out of isolation. Those would have been crowd-emotion-compatible causes. Change a lightbulb evidently wasnt. You just cant get swept up in it.

Does it matter? My one fear the morning after is that it might be taken as demonstrating that the world isnt actually THAT interested; that the media see it as a damp squib. It didnt make much of a spash on the front page of the BBC news page or Guardian unlimited today (It did in the Independent but they used it to promote their major new study showing the world is in much deeper trouble already than we thought). If so this might well prove to be a tipping point in the wrong sense, a public demonstration of indifference. I hope not of course, I am just voicing a fear.

What we need instead (or as well) might be what was lacking from the show:

- proper political cause campaigning for change; millions on the streets for- or against something

- charismatic leadership and articulation of a vision for change

- education, beyond a few lifestyle tweaks, into the causes but more importantly the reality of the impending catastrophes that its probably too late to do more than moderate

- deep progammes of collaboration between business, government and people; including volunatry action, but also aggressive regulation and restriction of the shut down half the airports and personal carbon allowance variety

- clever positive grassroots (but with scale) innovations that build community and democratic involvement, restore enjoyment of daily life and do actually make a difference too (a thousand more ideas like Freecycles)

Overall I suspect it just didnt work as a creative idea; the bringing together of the entertainment and the cause didnt seem to ‘catch’. I asked a friend about it yesterday, who has been cycling, getting boxed veg delivered & generally living green since before most people knew it was possible. He said he just hadnt heard much about it, wasnt particulary into stadium rock and pop and had better things to do with his saturday than spend most of the day watching TV. And yet I dont think he’d have said any of that about Live Aid?

This isnt the last word – its my instinctive first reaction. Let’s see with an open mind what good has been done and find out about the audience, the pledgers, the international reaction is (maybe it taking place in a UK subdued by bombers, distracted by wimbledon, a grand prix, a tour de france didnt help either).

PS I’ve nothing to report about sponsors. i didnt catch sight of a single brand. This may of course be a good thing given for instance Greenpeace’s reservations about motoring companies in their midst? But I’m not sure what Pepsi will feel they have gained from their (non-)association with this event. Maybe it was different in the US. Or maybe it was all about what they could do with it away from the actual concerts?

PPS more worrying than any of that is the fact as I just learned that the much vaunted jewel in the crown Shanghai event was in a venue that only held 3000 and failed to even achieve local press coverage. You have to start to seriously doubt the claimed 800 million viewers which were expected in China on that basis.

Posted by J Grant

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