The Work of Celebrity in the Age of Neoliberal Environmental Governance

Blinded by the Stars? Celebrity, Fantasy, and Desire in Neoliberal Environmental Governance

Paper Prepared for Symposium “Capitalism, Democracy, and Celebrity Advocacy,”
University of Manchester, UK, 19-20 June 2012

By Robert Fletcher


“Queen Rania of Jordan, Naomi Campbell, Malala Yousafzai, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Gates and more get behind the United Nations’ Global Goals.” [Source]



The growing prominence of celebrities within the global environmental movement—and their power to shape and advance this movement’s aims—has been a burgeoning focus of recent research. Thus far, such analysis has viewed the phenomenon primarily through a political economy lens, contending that celebrity is harnessed to further the agenda of a mainstream environmental movement that has become increasingly conjoined with neoliberal capitalism, as
expressed in the mounting enthusiasm to address ecological decline through corporate partnership and incentive-based market mechanisms. This presentation draws on psychoanalytic research to offer the complementary suggestion that celebrity also functions as a form of transference helping to sustain the fantasy implicit in this neoliberal vision “that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions” (Büscher 2012:12). Through transference, the charismatic authority conferred to larger-than-life celebrities helps to conceal the gaps between Real and Symbolic in this vision and thus obfuscates contradictions inherent in the execution of neoliberal environmental strategies. From this perspective, cynical suspicion concerning celebrities’ authenticity may paradoxically enhance their authority, and thus this analysis helps to explain counterintuitive findings that widespread ambivalence towards celebrities does little to diminish their power to shape public sentiment.


The Work of Celebrity in the Age of Neoliberal Environmental Governance Researchers have observed that the growing prominence of celebrity resonates with and supports a general process of neoliberalization in various ways. First, in its close association with the rise of philanthrocapitalism (Bishop and Green 2008), celebrity helps to legitimate a paradigmatically neoliberal approach to governance emphasizing businesses’ capacity to self-regulate in the absence of substantial state oversight via so-called “corporate social responsibility” strategies (Holmes 2012; Kapoor 2012). Celebrities also help to sell (often literally through their corporate endorsement contracts) the idea intrinsic to this neoliberal approach that individuals can contribute to social causes primarily through “ethical” consumption of ostensibly socially and environmentally sustainable commodities rather than direct political engagement (Carrier 2010). Further, celebrities contribute to legitimating the spectacular rise of private philanthropy efforts on the part of wealthy individuals (see Kapoor 2012), a movement that both promotes neoliberalism in championing its “private visions of the public good” (Raddon, 2008: 38) and which has itself been increasingly neoliberalized over the past decade in seeking to restructure itself on the model of the market in the interest of enhanced “efficiency” (Holmes 2012).

Meanwhile, a rapidly growing body of literature has documented the myriad ways is which environmental policy and practices around the world have become increasingly neoliberalized over the past several decades. To date, most of this literature has addressed its subject matter from a predominantly Marxist perspective, viewing neoliberalism as a capitalist process and hence analyzing the ways in which environmental initiatives have become implicated in processes of commodification and financialization associated with the strategy of ‘accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2005) by means of which neoliberal policies serve to amass wealth in the hands of what Sklair (2001) calls the “transnational capitalist class” (see e.g., Heynen et al. 2007; Brockington et al. 2008; Castree 2008; Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher et al. 2012; cf. Oels 2005; Fletcher 2010b).

March 3, 2015: “People, Planet, Profit: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses – Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the role of ethical capitalism in the quest for sustainable economies.”

From this perspective, neoliberal theory functions predominantly as an ideological smokescreen, concealing the myriad ways in which unsavory aspects of this process (e.g., large-scale displacement of resource-dependent peoples in favor of corporate interests, the widespread failure of market-based environmental mechanisms to achieve intended aims) via an obfuscating rhetoric quick to proclaim “win-win” outcomes simultaneously sustaining the “triple bottom line” of “people, planet, and profits.”

In this analysis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes serves to support this obfuscation, distracting audiences from such underlying problems and helping to legitimate by association the big environmental nongovernmental organizations (BINGOs) that increasingly function like corporations both in their courtship of private sector resources and in their implementation of neoliberal market-based projects and programs (see Brockington 2008, 2009; Sullivan 2011). In this sense, celebrity endorsement is understood as part of the process through which nonhuman nature is transformed into Spectacle via aestheticized, hyperreal imagery (Brockington 2009; Igoe 2010; Igoe et al. 2010) within a neoliberal era in which capitalism seeks to internalize natural resources as an integral component of production—what O’Connor (1994) calls capitalism’s “ecological phase”—rather than externalizing them in order to maximize short term profit, the dominant strategy prior.

The psychoanalytic-inspired analysis presented above offers an alternative, yet complementary reading of this trend. Rather than viewing it as the ideological obfuscation of an underlying economic process of capital accumulation, in this lens neoliberal theory could be understood as a fantasy helping to conceal the gap between the actual function and effects of neoliberal policies and their Symbolic representation vis-à-vis the pervasive win-win rhetoric previously described (see Fletcher under review). Hence, Dean describes neoliberalism as championing a “fantasy of free trade” that covers over persistent market failure, structural inequalities, the violence of privatization, and the redistribution of wealth to the “have mores.” Free trade sustains at the level of fantasy what it seeks to avoid at the level of reality—namely actually free trade among equal players, that is equal participants with equal opportunities to establish the rules of the game, access information, distribution, and financial networks, etc. (2008:55).

With respect to environmental governance, the effect of this is to sustain “the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions” (Büscher 2012:12). In service to this fantasy, celebrity promotion helps to mobilize affect and desire in support of environmental causes, focusing attention on splashy, sensation-filled spectacle supporting the win-win narrative (Brockington 2009) and thereby conjuring an aura of environmentalism “as exciting, exotic, erotic, and glamorous—as ‘sexy’” (Sullivan 2011:335)

As Dean (2008) points out, it is of course desire that sustains neoliberalism’s free trade fantasy: desire on the part of neoliberal advocates to see the theory fuction as envisioned; and desire on the part of those excluded from neoliberalism’s benefits to finally receive the material rewards perennially dangled in front of them. De vries (2007) identifies this latter fuction of desire in international development policy, wherein the masses excluded from the fruits of development nevertheless sustain faith in development’s potential due to their desire to receive the benefits (i.e., projects, public works, etc.) they have long been promised by planners. In this dynamic, the gap between promise and fulfillment of neoliberal fantasies is itself concealed through further fantasies assuring satisfaction at some future juncture, once the proper adjustments have been made to finally “get the market right.” With respect to celebrity, observing the glamorous, larger-than-life personas, lifestyles, and seemingly heroic acts of altruistic charity performed by environmental celebrities offers a similar jouissance, providing just enough pleasure to keep viewers hooked yet constantly deferring an implied fulfillment, in part through ostentatious revelation of the artificiality of these aestheticized representations themselves.


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Fletcher Blinded by the Stars Celebrity Fantasy and Desire in Neoliberal Environmental Governance



[Robert Fletcher is an environmental anthropologist with research interests in conservation, development, ecotourism, globalization, climate change, social and resistance movements, and non-state forms of governance. He uses a political ecology approach to explore how culturally-specific understandings of human-nonhuman relations and political economic structures intersect to inform patterns of natural resource use and conflict. Most of his research has been conducted in Latin America (particularly Costa Rica and Chile) but he has begun to work in East Africa as well.”]