Let's put down the gossip magazines and turn our attention to local heroes, says Matt Mellen, because when you're in trouble, Kanye won't be there to help you
Our heroes reveal much about us – what we value and desire. Culturally, it’s significant who we put onto pedestals and why. When we live in a “celebrity culture”, what can each of us do to maintain an authentic sense of self?
A problem with advanced global capitalism is that it pulls together companies into bigger and bigger institutions. Today, nearly every household product we consume is manufactured by the same 10 companies, a handful of corporations control world food supply and most high streets are losing their small independent shops to national chains. We are familiar with this story and the accompanying loss of vibrancy and diversity that goes with it.
Our pantheon of sparkling celebrities is the cultural equivalent of chain stores. A small handful of carefully moulded individuals are elevated to a global stage where they occupy a disproportionate amount of society’s brain time. Modern alienated lives that go with a continuous growth economy are mollified with shows on TV, gossip about people we don’t really know and the licentious scandal of insincere romance.
“Being known and loved in our communities is nourishing, empowering and offers resilience in the face of stark global challenges”
Beautifully painted and packaged, our celebrity icons are fascinating and titillating but they are also remote, untouchable products that can in no way offset the alarming statistics showing that people have fewer friends nowadays, and that many of us know fewer of our neighbours. Does the celebrity circus offer fake relationships as supermarkets offer fake food?
Community is based on the relationships we form with those we live, work and play with. As working hours, commuting times and the intensity of the economy have increased, these relationships suffer, with well-documented repercussions for our wellbeing. Anthropologists tell us the average tribe size for our ancestors and hunter-gatherers was 150 with an “intimate circle size” of 12 – now many of us live alone.
A preoccupation with celebrities is an inadequate alternative to real friends because the relationship is one-way. Many of us may be up-to-date with Kanye and Kim’s relationship situation but they don’t interact with us. We will never speak with them, exchange ideas or do a project together. Every time we pick up a gossip magazine or click on a celebrity website we are giving our power away. It’s not just harmless fun because it draws us away from engaging with integrity within the real world around us.
The world is in crisis. Wars are raging on several continents, there’s civil unrest and the slow environmental collapse we have grown accustomed to is now punctuated with alarming shock events: giant craters formed from erupting methane in Siberia, extensive droughts, forest fires ever closer to the rainforests of the equator and the desolate creep of extinctions that envelope our planet in a shroud of death.
The answer to the question “What should I do?” is not as intractable as world leaders and the media might have us believe. The best thing any of us can do is to invest in our communities. This was famously articulated in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as “think global, act local,” and becomes even more relevant now as peak oil and climate change present non-negotiable routes back into our own bioregions.
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Almost any local project we begin with a neighbour, family member or friend is a good starting point in response to global challenges. If there is another oil shock because Iraq falls to ISIS, Russia turns off the gas or a global movement of citizens successfully demands we stop burning fossil fuels to protect life on this planet then suddenly conventional, industrial means of accessing energy and food will be less viable. Suddenly, each of us will become much more dependent on those immediately around us to survive. Kanye will not be there to help.
All of us will know someone who stands out in our neighbourhood: the person who throws the garden open and invites everyone round, the lollipop lady who is also an unofficial agony aunt or the kids who rock a block party. We might think of these engaging local people who are well-known and loved as local celebrities. They are present and accessible and therefore useful and inspiring to their communities.
All of us can be a local celebrity and this is really where it’s at. Being known and loved in our communities is nourishing and by enabling us to embark on collaborative local projects it’s empowering and offers resilience in the face of stark global challenges.
Capitalism, as it is, with its insatiable need for growth, sells us superficial solutions to the problems it causes and distracts us from the epic unfolding events that engulf our world. To respond effectively, each of us needs to step out of the banal, mass-market culture we are sold by major corporations and into the gnarly reality of our times. This may be scary but engaging with reality offers each of us the opportunity to find meaning, purpose and a worthy mission.
Being stared at by millions through the convoluted entrails of the mass media machine is presented as a dream come true for a generation of youngsters, but isn’t that in fact the most extreme form of loneliness? Wouldn’t we rather sit with real friends and talk through what we most want to do with our wild and precious lives in our rapidly changing world?