“Greenzo” (David Schwimmer), a narcissistic, power-mad actor’s interpretation of an environmental mascot, turns up in the second season of “30 Rock” and quickly ruins the carefully calibrated messaging of NBC’s latest “green” initiative. Hired by Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) at the behest of GE Chairman Don Geiss (Rip Torn), Greenzo, “America’s first non-judgmental, business-friendly environmental advocate,” proves popular with audiences and executives alike—until, that his, he bites the hand that feeds him live on “The Today Show” with Meredith Viera. As broadcast satires go, the episode pulls few punches, sending up both self-aggrandizing liberals and corporate honchos looking to make a buck from “this environmentalism trend.” But more than seven years later, would the joke still land?
As the MPAA announced yesterday in honor of Earth Day, in 2014 member studios diverted more than 19,000 tons of solid waste from landfills through recycling, composting, and waste reduction—one of many efforts, large and small, undertaken to reduce Hollywood’s environmental impact. Indeed, as California faces a drought of historic proportions, the variety of initiatives developed by Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., and, yes, NBCUniversal now seem more important than ever.
Highlights include the use of water-conserving “smart” irrigation systems and the installation of artificial turf; initiatives to create paperless payment systems, encourage the use of hybrid and electric cars, and reduce waste on studio campuses; and the construction of LEED-certified buildings. MPAA member studios also remain committed, Chairman and CEO former Sen. Chris Dodd said in a press release, to producing “impactful movies and TV shows, raising awareness and inspiring action around the world for this critical issue.”
Whether Hollywood’s introduction of “eco-conscious” practices has in fact made a dent in the industry’s environmental footprint, much less the public’s perception, remains unclear. According to polling conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, for instance, 61% of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but only 40% of those agreed with scientific consensus that the warming is primarily a result of human activity, and the issue ranked near the bottom of the list of Americans’ political priorities. And while every attempt to conserve water and energy and reduce waste surely helps, the hodge-podge of fuel cells, educational programs, LED lighting, bio-diesel trucks, and vegetarian cafeteria options cited by the MPAA seems unlikely to produce much in the way of transformative change.
The relative dearth of research on Hollywood’s environmental impact makes it difficult to assess the success of failure of the aforementioned studio initiatives. Among the most in-depth independent examinations of the subject is “Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry,” published in 2006 by Dr. Charles J. Corbett and Dr. Richard P. Turco of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The report found that, while the motion picture industry was a “significant contributor” of greenhouse gas emissions, “it is clear that very few people in the industry are actively engaged with greenhouse gas emission reduction, or even with discussions of the issue.” The authors awarded “industry-wide actions” on environmental issues only a “C” grade.
Without more recent data of similar breadth, evaluating the change in the studios’ sustainability in the intervening nine years is next to impossible. It’s clear from the MPAA’s announcement that industry figures’ willingness to discuss the subject of emissions has improved significantly, and the commitment to waste reduction is an important step: according to a study commissioned by Green Screen Toronto & Partners in 2008, a single feature film or TV series might once have consumed up to 100,000 plastic water bottles and 900 tons of construction materials. Nevertheless, as “30 Rock” recognized, it’s not unheard of for good public relations to take precedence over good policy, and without more “systematic” efforts to analyze and reduce Hollywood’s environmental impact, as Corbett and Turco had it, “Greenzo” is still just a joke.