Commentary: What good will Coldplay’s vessel cleaning up Malaysia rivers do?
Celebrities may shift public attitudes on environmental issues but putting them in practice will depend on parents, teachers and other role models, says mum June Yong.
SINGAPORE: British band Coldplay recently announced that they are sponsoring a vessel that can clean up the polluted rivers in Malaysia.
Where this latest announcement seemed in line with Coldplay’s declared desire to minimise waste, even wanting their concerts to be carbon neutral some years back, it is to be applauded.
But the news had a mixed reception, with some praising their advocacy and expressing support, and others waving it off as a publicity stunt.
Coldplay isn’t the only music artist on the go-green bandwagon. Teenage singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, but what stands out almost as prominently as her music is her speaking out against the climate crisis.
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In September 2019, Eilish posted a video of her and Hollywood star Woody Harrelson talking about the climate crisis across her social media channels just before she went on Saturday Night Live.
In it, they urged people to follow organisations like Greenpeace and Fridays for Future, an international climate movement founded by teen activist Greta Thunberg. Eilish’s video went on to accumulate over 40 million views worldwide.
Thunberg herself is an example of the celebrity who rose to stardom as a grassroots activist.
She has packed quite a punch for the environment in focusing public attention on climate change, whether sailing to the United Nations General Assembly in New York from the UK, missing lessons to strike for #FridaysForFuture or accusing world leaders of betraying her generation by failing to tackle greenhouse gas emissions at a UN climate summit in 2019.
READ: Commentary: A year of resistance, as youth protests shaped climate change discussions
A celebrity, or even an accidental one, can make a splash when they speak up for a cause.
Their star power is alluring, enabling them to cast a wide, global net of influence, reaching the hearts and minds of young and old alike. Their actions shine a spotlight on worthy causes, generating needed attention and mobilising resources for social ills.
To be sure, such celebrity advocacy for environmental causes is not new, though it has grown dramatically with the rise of awareness on climate change, with some positive effects. A 2017 study by Imperial College academic Elizabeth Duthie shows celebrity endorsements improved people’s receptiveness to conservation efforts.
But while celebrities may move public attitudes and inspire millions of youths around the world to follow in their footsteps, there are other everyday heroes who play equally significant roles in nurturing eco-consciousness in our youths.
(If individual actions won’t move the needle on climate change, what will? Find out what climate activists are pushing for on The Climate Conversations:)
THE POWER OF EVERYDAY INFLUENCES
I grew up under the influence of my father who taught us to conserve water and electricity from a young age. Until today, it is semi-automatic for me to turn off the lights and fans upon leaving the house or the bedroom. It is so deeply encoded in my DNA that I don’t even think about it.
There is certainly very little celebrity influence here; just good ol’ dad.
Since my children were kindergarteners, we have spoken to them about the importance of conserving our natural resources and reducing waste.
We remind them to take shorter showers, turn off the air-conditioner, lights or fans when not in use and have set up a separate bin for recyclable wastes, teaching our kids what materials are suitable for recycling and sometimes enlisting their help to rinse empty juice cartons and set them aside.
READ: Commentary: Taking Singapore’s green ambitions to new heights with a circular economy
In our family’s eco-journey, educators have also played a significant role.
Our kids were often encouraged by their teachers to bring along to school recyclable materials like old CDs and plastic bottles, or other odds and ends, which they would upcycle to create new toys or decorative items.
I still recall three years ago when my daughter came home waving her first bamboo straw excitedly and declaring that she’d never again use a plastic straw. It was a gift from her teacher.
READ: Commentary: Wasteful practices of affluence must stop
Perhaps parents and teachers are the everyday role models and unsung heroes in nurturing a love for nature and environmental conservation in our children – and their influence is no less extraordinary compared with larger-than-life celebrities.
While we may not have millions of followers on our social media accounts, our words (especially when matched by deeds) speak loudly and clearly in our children’s minds.
None of our tweets will go viral, but our daily habits leave a deep imprint in their hearts, as they see us make an effort to consume less, buy from local or sustainable sources, and use products that are less harmful to the environment.
READ: Commentary: Paying for a plastic bag isn't enough to change our dependence on it
As Malaysia netizens rightly observed, while Coldplay’s effort to clean Malaysia’s rivers was appreciated, their latest effort has shone an uncomfortable light on whether Malaysia should take greater charge of their environment instead of having international celebrities swoop in to remedy a poor situation.
And after all, Coldplay’s aid would be for nought if people continue to throw plastic waste into rivers.
READ: Commentary: Why recycling, less single-use plastics are not the answers to our plastic scourge
GREENING OUR WORLD, GLOBALLY AND LOCALLY
Truth be told – it hasn’t always been easy to walk the recycling talk, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes in our daily habits, which unfortunately includes an increased reliance on food delivery and its use of plastic or paper food packaging.
But I remind myself that every little thought and action counts. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
We hope that destiny includes a world that uses resources responsibly and sustainably.
As parents, we have the uncanny ability and huge responsibility to speak into the souls of our youths and to influence their choices and character.
But tackling the behemoth of climate change and environmental conservation requires all hands on deck, so there is nothing to complain about when celebrities step in to lend their star power to a worthy cause.
They may not intimately shape the values and habits of our children compared to us parents, but they do a pretty good job in thrusting the issue of climate change into the global limelight.
Their battle is on the world stage; ours in the daily grind. Besides, how many of us are able to singlehandedly fund a vessel to help clean up a polluted river? Or get an audience comprising world leaders?
Undoubtedly, celebrities and the art that they do – be it music, movies or attending a late night talkshow – carry a certain power and mystique to help us dream and think big.
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Wasteful corporate practices must also be reviewed in order to move the needle on waste management and pollution.
But it is up to ordinary people like you and me to catch on to those ideals and to re-think the way we live our lives – and to pass on these ideals to the next generation.
After all, our domestic recycling rates has remained low at around 20 per cent over the last few years.
READ: Commentary: Why does Singapore still lack a recycling ethos?
Our influence may be subtle and we may not see the fruits of our labour till many years later, but the opportunity is ripe for the taking: Our choices today can help to raise up a generation of better lovers and stewards of the environment.
Their future, and their children’s future, depends on it.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.