As Joaquin Phoenix accepted the Academy award for best actor for the 2019 film Joker at the Oscars ceremony, he addressed the crowd with a winning speech that placed a much-needed spotlight on global inequalities. While there is no doubt that Phoenix is not the only figure to raise awareness on issues such as human injustices, animal welfare and continued climate inaction, his willingness to speak truth to power contrasts the swathes of high-profile celebrities who have remained largely silent. It comes at a time when the world is in desperate need for those wielding power to do the right thing, and it sends a signal that perhaps the tide is finally turning.
In his impassioned winner’s speech for best actor at the Oscars ceremony, Phoenix started off his address by expressing his love for the art of film – but pointed out how his work as an actor has given him the “greatest gift” of an “opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless”. He carried on, adding that all the global issues the world faces today, regardless of whether we are focused on racism, animal rights or climate injustice, there is a commonality that underlines what we must combat: the belief that one can take control and dominate another.
Whilst acknowledging the entire range of human, social and economic issues our global ecosystem faces, he emphasised the urgency of the climate emergency that humans have been responsible for. Citing humanity’s tendency to adopt an “egocentric worldview” that leads us to “go into the natural world and plunder it for its resources”, Phoenix critiqued the harsh reality of our individual choices, namely, how the world has turned a blind eye to the cruelty involved in exploiting animals for food.
“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal,” he said.
It’s true. Livestock farming, the live animal trade and slaughterhouses grab headlines for blatant animal cruelty practices, not to mention the carbon footprint, resource wastage and pollution that it leaves behind. But the dairy industry is no saint either, with most cows that are raised for the dairy industry being intensely confined, genetically manipulated and injected with antibiotics and hormones to produce more milk.
Taken away from their mothers as early as 1 day old, female cows are artificially inseminated soon after their first birthday, and some spend their entire lives in a cycle of giving birth, lactating, and inseminated again.
Before closing his speech, Phoenix references the core challenge that we as individuals must face if we are to make the world a kinder, better and greener place – our bias towards rejecting ideas that we don’t agree with. “We fear the idea of personal change”, he says, giving a nod to the concept in social psychology known as motivated reasoning.
According to social scientists, this is a process of dismissing facts, including facts that are supported by wide-ranging consensus and backed up by cross-referenced information, on the basis that it does not fit into our current worldview. A worldview that in Phoenix’s own words, has become “egocentric”. Even the actor himself admitted that he has been guilty of being “a scoundrel all my life”.
But he doesn’t end there, making the most of his opportunity to stand in front of tens of millions of viewers around the world, and addressing a crowd of some of the biggest names in the industry with a similar power of voice, wealth and influence to do good, Phoenix urged those who were listening to support each other, change, and “rescue with love.”
Yes, it is true that the actor is not alone in speaking out and raising consciousness on the most pressing issues of our time – there is an entire global movement underway of campaigners, activists and teenage youth strikers who are each standing up to make a difference. But it is notable that amongst the crowd of high-profile Hollywood figures, Phoenix stands out for using the stage presented to him and the influence that his voice has in order to shed light on the most urgent threat to the planet and humanity.
This is happening amid the recent Australian wildfires that have spiralled out of control due to the climate crisis, wiping out at least a billion animals, threatening entire species, killing dozens and causing destruction to the homes of thousands of people. 40% of the world’s 7 billion-and-growing population live along coastal regions that will be threatened by rising sea levels and climate-induced weather events. From impacting livelihoods, wreaking havoc on homes, food and water supply, the majority of the negative effects can be felt all over the world, but will hit the Asia-Pacific region the hardest.
We are living in circumstances where continued delay will lead to an overlapping of climate disasters that will potentially bring about global collapse. And if those in power, including governments, corporate leaders and famous celebrities, continue to delay action in any form – from using their voice for good to implementing climate action policies – the entire world will have to pay the price. Here’s hoping that Phoenix’s speech will rattle the industry and motivate more to stop our egocentric business-as-usual lives.
Lead image courtesy of Arturo Holmes / Getty Images.