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He’s the King of Saving the World

Let us pause for a moment to recognize how much we as a society owe to Leonardo DiCaprio.

I myself became aware of DiCaprio in the glory days of the 1990s, when he ushered “I’m the king of the world!” into our shared vocabulary—his earliest, and perhaps greatest, social service. Back then, our friend Leo had the angelic, unthreatening persona of a boy band member, and enough talent to commit to something as silly as the Titanic script without seeming embarrassed.

After awakening an entire generation to the sex appeal of poses struck on the bow of a ship, it’s pretty hard to top yourself. Which is why I’m so glad to hear about Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest project: saving the world, one resort at a time.

As per a worshipful profile in the New York Times real estate section this weekend, Leo is now assuming “his highest-impact leading role yet.” Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Leonardo DiCaprio, an investor slash philanthropist so eye-poppingly rich that he can afford to buy a private island off the coast of Belize and set up an exclusive, futuristic resort.

In my experience, when the wealthy buy their own Central American islands and set up futuristic resorts there, people are outrunning velociraptors for most of the third act. Then again, my experience of privately owned islands is pretty much confined to Jurassic Park. Leo, though, moves in another echelon, one in which island-buying is not the mere stuff of dreams, but a $1.75 million reality. And that’s not all. His private island, purchased with a business partner ten years ago and now under development, will be dedicated to a better, nobler purpose.

That’s right, Leo’s will be a “restorative” resort, aiming not only to pamper its guests, but also to heal the land, repair the island’s eroded coastline, promote eco-friendly lifestyles, and serve as a “model for the future.” Energy self-sufficiency, architecture rooted in nature’s sacred geometry, anti-aging seminars planned by Deepak Chopra—such will be “Blackadore Caye, a Restorative Island.”

“The main focus,” quoth Leo, “is to do something that will change the world. I couldn’t have gone to Belize and built on an island and done something like this, if it weren’t for the idea that it could be groundbreaking in the environmental movement.”

It’s good to see he’s staying modest.

As much as it delights me to envision Leonardo DiCaprio as some sort of mythic, luminous Earth deity, healing the land with the sheer force of his otherworldly charisma (like the Great God Pan, but with a Super-Soaker), it’s hard to see how the world is going to be changed by one movie star building a fancy hotel.

It’s not that Leo has mistaken the problem. Climate change has left the Earth increasingly hostile to human life—not someday, not in the far future, but now. We have only a few years remaining (if that) to reverse the course of a planet-wide catastrophe. No, Leo seems to grasp the “huge challenges” of climate change. But the solution he proposes is itself part of the problem. As activists have long affirmed, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is this: climate change can’t be solved by individual means alone, and yet we’re routinely instructed to focus our efforts on individual action.

The steady collapse of our climate is unlike any other problem our species has faced. We’re dependent on the technological and economic apparatuses of global capitalism, which are in turn dependent on the resource exploitation that has caused the crisis. This is why writers and activists such as Vandana Shiva and Naomi Klein have argued, quite persuasively, that if we are to have any hope, we will need to rethink our political and economic systems from the ground up.

It will take a global reckoning. But so far all we’ve seen is a whole lot of shopping tips: buy electric cars, choose locally grown beets, switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs.

What we need is a worldwide compact to stop using fossil fuels. What we’ve got is a button on Seamless that tells the restaurant you don’t want paper napkins in your delivery order. These “individual,” incremental solutions to the environmental crisis feel nice—and are, to be fair, better than total apathy—but they’re also about as effective as trying to drain the ocean with a Dixie cup. For every paper napkin you turn down, there’s a corporation pumping toxins into the atmosphere and figuring out how to sue the EPA for lost profits.

“Ecotourism” is another one of those sexy, flashy, individual solutions. If globetrotters shift their vacations to sustainable, post-carbon resorts, then nature’s beauty—coral reefs off the coast of Belize, Costa Rica’s turtle nests—will somehow be preserved, and everyone will have a rollicking good time, or so the story goes. The promise of ecotourism is that changing the world is as simple as buying a block of time in a more efficient, more luxurious shower. Vacationers need not feel guilty; they can indulge in excess without being excessive. But what ecotourism in fact delivers is more of the same—the same kinds of fancy resorts that the rich have always attended, except with slightly more responsible waste policies and a few lectures on the local environment.

And don’t forget the amenities. The construction of Kingdom of DiCaprio will be directed in part by Paul Scialla, a former Goldman Sachs partner who is now a maestro of “wellness” real estate. Scialla’s service to humanity has included stocking Vegas hotels with cedar closets, healthy minibars, light therapy that reverses jet lag, and something called “Vitamin C shower water.” This should give you a sense of what Leo’s superheroic endeavor will entail.

Expecting Leonardo DiCaprio to save the environment is like asking Harry Styles to negotiate peace in the Middle East. They’re charming fellows, and it’s nice when they use their fame to call attention to important issues. But calling a little bit of flashy celebrity activism “groundbreaking,” as the Times did last week, is disingenuous—dangerous even, considering that it might conceal how far we really have to go.

Yes, it would be delightful if we could all save the environment by taking a beachside vacation. It’s an even more alluring proposition when there’s a famous name attached. But if hanging out at a resort with Leonardo DiCaprio (or the ghost of Marlon Brando) could solve a worldwide crisis, we’d have done it by now, ten times over. You can’t solve the world’s problems by buying things, it turns out, not even good or well-intentioned things. Now someone tell that to our new kings of ecotourism, before they convince us they’re saving the world.