Carbon and “The Good Life”

As a symbol of our cultural moment, the MTV Video Music Awards program Sunday September 10 was unexpectedly complex. I tuned in mid-Sarah Silverman, who was already deconstructing Britney 2.0, who had just gotten offstage. MTV (VIA), where the target demographic has drifted down to tween girls (largely because of the influence of Britney 1.0) now has the awkward problem of trying to recover buzz for a TV channel in a MySpace (NWS) world. And so the setting was the Palms in Las Vegas, America’s city of the future. Vegas is both a-historical and could be powered by the sun (WFC) (see also here and here), so it’s a place to watch (unlike the spent cultural dinosaurs of New York and LA).

Amidst the celebration of excess on the show, including an abundance of rappers, Beyoncé in gold, Kanye West and 50 Cent pretending to fight, and Pamela Anderson’s ex-husbands actually fighting, there were oddly placed reminders to cut back on waste and live simply…messages brought by none other than Chevrolet, in a series of low-fi, disarming YouTube (GOOG) type spots pushing the objective of environmental responsibility. (It looks like they acquired at least one of these spots directly from YouTube.)

Surrounded by the extremely modest and simple Chevy spots, which included a reminder to recycle plastic bottles by a girl playing bottles like a flute and a series of stills of a guy growing his beard, there was a fabulous helicopter shot of Kanye West performing “The Good Life” high on a glassed-in balcony projected out of the skyscraper casino; Bladerunner meets Liberace meets Wendell Berry. I loved it, even though the camera helicopter only gets 3 mpg.

More importantly, Chevy (and GM) seem to want to regain credibility for greenness, and with a vengeance. Even after killing off the electric car once already. A campaign like the one on the VMAs amounts to a corporate statement, and market research must indicate that Britney’s tweens need to see some kind of appearance of concern in order for the brand to be relevant.

Is GM for real?

Well, since one of their green initiatives is turning a Tahoe (one of their largest SUV platforms at 6500 lbs. empty, which, with a different body is also known as a Hummer H2), into a hybrid Tahoe that claims 20 mpg  — a victory only if you consider a stock Tahoe gets about 15 mpg — it's hard to tell.

What is Chevy doing? Let's ask NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whom some might formerly have thought of as a squeaky marshmallow, given his tendency to preach from his pulpit at the Times (a newspaper with its own strange fetish for 500 hp station wagons). But Friedman seems to have reached his limit on hypocrisy. Here he is speaking at the Aspen Institute, quoted in the current Atlantic Monthly:

I am not a skeptic about global warming. It’s happening. I am a total skeptic that we are really doing anything about it. I think we are in the middle of a huge green bubble … You’ll pardon me when I hear people say, “We’re in the midst of a green revolution.” Oh, green revolution.

He continues:

Exxon’s green. They give $100 million to Stanford … Dick Cheney’s green. He’s for alternative fuels, yeah. He’s for liquefied coal. Dick Cheney’s green. We are all green now. Welcome to the green revolution, where nobody gets hurt.

… This isn’t the green revolution, friends. This is a party … Twenty years ago—15 years ago—we all talked here about the [information technology] revolution. Do you think that was pain-free? … Oh, everyone wasn’t a winner in the IT revolution. There are a lot of old-legacy industries that didn’t get it. And they got steamrolled. And ladies and gentlemen, today the old-legacy industries, they control this story; they control that policy mechanism in Washington. They are tough, and they will fight dirty. They are not going anywhere. And that’s why we are having a green party, not a green revolution. Do not kid yourself for one second.

Thanks to MTV, we now have the hallucinatory vision of America’s largest industrial corporation, GM, trolling YouTube late at night desperately seeking examples of living in harmony with nature, for sponsor breaks on an awards show held in a casino in Vegas. I think that must count for something. And, if we see Kanye West and Dr. Dre climb out of a consumer-ready, GM electric at a future VMA, we’ll know for sure that their hearts are really in it.