In April, snitchy Californians lodged 22,000 water-wasting complaints that resulted in 838 penalties issued. And guess what? The state reduced overall water use by 13.5 percent. It’s evidence that these kinds of reporting efforts might be working. What’s not really working? Posting photos of celebrity homes on Twitter.
Ever since the #DroughtShaming hashtag started making the rounds in early May, concerned citizens have dutifully uploaded TMZ photos of any celebrity home with a lawn, affixed the appropriate hashtag, and broadcasted their passionate messages of conservation out to the world.
There are 99 problems with this last drought-shaming tweet, for example, one of them being that this is not even the home of Kanye West. Or Jay-Z, for that matter.
But besides the obvious factual errors, the bigger issue with shaming attempts is that these photos are not current—they often come from satellite photography taken two to three years ago, or old real estate listings where you better bet that lawn’s hue was Photoshopped to be as green as Frankenstein’s ass.*
We can’t control hashtag abuse in the hands of the misinformed, of course, but now even semi-reputable news outlets are encouraging this ludicrous behavior because celebrities + drought = clicks! This week, CBS News decided to get in on the game by creating its own slideshow making puns about celebrities alongside photos of their supposedly lush lawns. There is absolutely no information about when the photos were taken, nor any geographic context.
Hugh Hefner’s house appears the “same as it always has” even though the image CBS used is an undated Google Earth screengrab (also, that’s the Los Angeles Country Club to the right, not Heff’s private golf course). This image I found of the Playboy Mansion from 2010 sure does look like they aren’t particularly zealous about watering.
That’s actually the other big issue with drought shaming—how do you know if someone is concerned about the drought and actively not watering their lawn, or just being a negligent homeowner who doesn’t give a shit?
But people can’t be expected to find out the difference. Take the image currently making the rounds on Twitter which shows Oprah Winfrey smiling down at her verdant Montecito estate.
Why is no one drought-shaming Oprah? Well, um, because as has been well-reported, Oprah cut her water use in half last year thanks to admirable restrictions enacted by the Southern California community which specifically target and tax water wasters. She’s let the lawn of one of her most prominent properties go rogue, and the local water district manager calls her a “poster child” for conservation. (As of last summer she was also importing extra water so she wouldn’t tax the city’s supply. Which carries its own ethical questions.)
But Oprah’s poster-child status points to the way we can drought-shame the right people in a way that makes a difference. Stick it to them the way that those 22,000 snitches did in April: Report actual water abuses directly to the city. Most cities have a hotline to call or a 311 service you can use. And there are plenty of other apps available now, too. It does work, and you get confirmation that your voice was heard. You don’t even have to go after celebrities, just walk around in your own neighborhood. I only had to go one block.
The other thing we can do is get the data. It’s difficult to get water use information in most of California due to stupid legislation. However, this is actually very easy to do in a place like Montecito, where 95 percent of celebrities have second homes, because the community did an admirable thing—it released its public data for water use. If you want to drought-shame anyone, go after this dude:
According to public documents, the biggest residential user for 2012-13 was Pat Nesbitt—CEO of Windsor Capital, majority owner of Embassy Suites—who has long sought to convince local officials that his polo field, which is part of his 20 acre estate, is entitled to a discounted agricultural water rate. And he’s sued the Montecito Water District—twice, according to the water district’s attorney—to make his case.
But as far as nailing celebrities specifically, we need actual evidence of of water abuse—like video of Jessica Simpson frolicking in her sprinklers which are turned on outside of the city-mandated watering hours. A green lawn in California is not necessarily evidence of foul play.
And that’s actually the biggest problem with celebrity drought-shaming at the moment. I live in LA, where by some miracle it’s raining right now as I type this. Most people don’t know this about our Mediterranean climate, but all it takes is a little rain to stimulate new plant growth, allowing the city to green itself back to life, at least temporarily. Our May was actually unseasonably cold and wet, and this time of year is known for a weather phenomenon called June Gloom, where warming ocean temperatures blanket the city in dense fog for much of the day. All that moisture will certainly help keep everyone’s yards looking more verdant than usual for at least another few weeks.
Not that we shouldn’t embarrass the water hogs. But check back in with me in September and we can see who truly deserves to be publicly spanked.
* Thanks to everyone who suggested better green metaphors than a baseball player’s butt for many obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.
Follow the author on Twitter at @awalkerinLA