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Walking the talk: Some celebs are living green

In Hollywood these days, green doesn't refer only to box-office totals, but to the environmental movement and its celebrity component.  But in the green world, as in life, some are more committed than others.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, has been with the nonprofit environmental group in Southern California for almost 20 years. He has seen many celebrities come and go, and then come back again to stay. He has seen some show up once and disappear.

Over the years, he has changed his opinion of that last group.

“When I was younger in my career, it did bug me a lot,” he admitted. “I said, ‘Why can’t they be there for us all the time?’ Over the years, I’ve changed that opinion completely. Now I’m very grateful for any help we can get in that arena.”

In Hollywood these days, green does not refer only to box-office totals, but to the environmental movement and its celebrity component. In politics, celebrities can have a toxic effect. (Remember Whoopi Goldberg’s lewd riff on President Bush in 2004?)

But in a less polarizing climate, in which the process of getting the word out on issues relevant to everyone is crucial, a celebrity name can have as profound an effect on the drafting of a bill in the state legislature or on fundraising as it can on the marquee of a multiplex.

And in the green world, as in life, some are more committed than others.

Going above and beyond“We really look for people who have demonstrated a commitment personally to the issue,” said Ruben Aronin, director of communications for Global Green USA, a national environmental organization. “We want people who care about the environmental crisis and want to use their celebrity visibility to shine a light on the issues. We’ve had a great track record.”

Two of the most respected actors in Hollywood — Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton — are members of Global Green’s board of directors. The two have been involved in everything from lobbying Gov. Schwarzenegger and the California state legislature on behalf of green-friendly, to low-income housing to participating in fund-raising events to arriving at the Academy Awards in energy-efficient vehicles, said Aronin.

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Other celebs who have lent support to Global Green include Salma Hayak and Jake Gyllenhaal, who were members of a delegation to the Arctic Circle on Earth Day to create awareness about the effects of climate change; Josh Lucas, who has served as a presenter at awards shows; and Cameron Diaz and Toby Maguire, who have participated in fund-raising events.

Of course, not every celebrity who lends his or her name to the environmental movement has the same level of involvement. “The challenge to be honest is found where their schedules are beyond their control,” Aronin said. “They’re straight with us in terms of saying, ‘I’ll be there for you if I can.’”

Living the lifeTwo celebrities in particular represent the old guard and the young turks of Hollywood’s gang green. Ed Begley Jr., 58, is the granddaddy of all celebrities involved in environmental causes. Amy Smart, 32, has been participating since she was a high-school student volunteer for Heal the Bay, helping to clean the beaches in Southern California.

“Ed is amazing,” said Debbie Levin, president of the Environmental Media Association, a group that specializes in serving as a liaison between the entertainment community and the environmental movement. Begley is a board member, as are such Hollywood notables as Smart, Darryl Hannah, Norman Lear, Paul Haggis, Laura Dern and Blythe Danner, among others.

Hannah, like Begley, lives the life. “She lives more rustically than Ed,” Levin said. “She’s been off the grid for years. She has a small home in Colorado and a place in the mountains of Malibu. Her shower is outside. Her living room is outside. It’s a small cabin. She’s 100 percent organic. She grows her own food.

“But she’s not nuts. She gets dressed up, goes out, travels and doesn’t fly private unless she absolutely has to.”

Norton also works with EMA on its solar energy program. “He just finished shooting ‘The Incredible Hulk,’” Levin said. “I got an e-mail from him months ago when he was working on a rewrite of the film. He said, ‘We want to make this the greenest Hulk ever.”

‘All citizens have a responsibility’Naturally, there is a recruitment function to all celebrity involvement. Smart said that many are eager and willing, but for those who are not, she takes it in stride.

“I have talked to some young celebrity environmentalists,” she said via e-mail, “and I’ve actually been so surprised to hear of all the ways they are participating in walking their talk. Solar panels on their houses, composting, hybrids, canvas bags at the store, eco-friendly cleaning products, compact florescent lightbulbs and lots of other ways.

“Occasionally, I do find some people who are half-hearted and, in that case, I try to inspire them to do it for the fun of it. To me, it’s like a domino effect.”

Begley sounded a cautionary note about celebrity involvement, however. “I think all citizens have a responsibility to get involved, but with celebrity, you have an added responsibility,” he said via e-mail. “You need to seek out the best science and get your facts straight before you ever approach a mic or a camera.”

In that category — doing homework before going public as a celebrity in the spotlight on environmental issues — Julia Louis-Dreyfus is either at or near the top of the class. The former “Seinfeld” star and current star of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” has been a prominent force in Heal the Bay’s efforts for more than a decade, going beyond the expected.

“She has been very selective as to what she works on,” Gold said. “She’s not a cliché in that she only wants to represent the organization at a press conference or an awards dinner. She’s been involved in fund-raising strategies and in interviewing candidates for a development director position. How many celebrities go to the point of getting involved in administrative tasks?”

Gold said Heal the Bay, as well as other organizations, don’t necessarily attract a lot of celebrities. But the ones that do tend to make a significant mark on the causes.

“Celebrity involvement,” he said, “has been instrumental in the success of our organization.”

Michael Ventre is a contributor to msnbc.com and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.