There was a great episode of South Park in which the environment is threatened by a massive “cloud of smug” generated by hybrid-car drivers. Some of the shows on the celebrity-obsessed eco-channel Planet Green—the subject of my latest print Time column—generate a cloud of smug so vast it threatens to blot out the sun:
One of Planet Green’s most promoted–and most vapid–shows is [Adrian] Grenier’s Alter Eco, in which the HBO star and several fashion-plate friends bring eco-consciousness to the deprived world of upscale Los Angelenos. They visit organic restaurants and sip biodynamic cabernet sauvignons. They build a home compost bin for a chef from Spago and work on a “green” mansion large enough to dry-dock an aircraft carrier. And they cap off each episode by sitting down to cocktails or dinner and telling one another how awesome they are. (“Why are you such a mensch?” Grenier asks a pal.) In Alter Eco, environmentalism exists not to save the world but to ennoble people who are richer, thinner and cooler than you will ever be.
It’s fitting that the smug Alter Eco’s title is a twist on the word ego, because the show is a perfect marriage of sanctimony and self-regard. It’s ecotistical. It’s compostentatious.
In fairness, not all of Planet Green’s shows are of the celebrity-ecotainment variety (for instance, there’s the unglamorous Renovation Nation), but the most heavily promoted, high-profile ones are. The mistake of shows like Grenier’s, or the laughable celeb-magazine show Hollywood Green, is that they try to sell environmentalism like any other celebrity-endorsed lifestyle product: something you’ll want to adapt so you can be as cool as the stars. That may work for designer sunglasses or Cristal, but with environmentalism—a lifestyle change rather than a lifestyle accessory—it comes off as blithe preaching from dilettantes a little too in love with the smell of their own, um, methane.
Ironically, the best show on Planet Green probably would not be on the air without a big celeb name attached. Greensburg, a documentary series about a tornado-ravaged Kansas town that decides to rebuild green, is produced by Leonardo Dicaprio, but it focuses on the ordinary people of the town, and the hard choices they have to make. After all that smug, it’s a breath of fresh air.