Tuesday, November 23, 2010


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

Last year I joined the Green Party, and I really wanted that to mean something. I went to some pub nights and donated money, and then I went to the meeting to select a candidate for my riding (I voted for the winner, me and eight others I think) and I expressed my willingness to help out. I was invited to a meeting to prep the candidate for the debates, with a view to maybe assisting with background research or something like that. And that was where the dream died for me. I was there for a couple of hours, just listening, and I was amazed by the knowledge of the participants – I certainly felt ashamed at how generic and vague my sense of Toronto is – and by the subtlety of the arguments. But it also made me angry. I didn’t want to listen to conversations, however eloquent and well informed, about immigration and public health and affordable housing – if I cared deeply about any of that I would have joined the Liberals or the NDP I guess. I was a single issue Green Party member – I wanted them to hammer that core overriding cause and leave the rest to take care of itself. Because otherwise, who will? Not the Conservatives, with Harper’s five pathetic priorities. Not the Liberals, where Ignatieff gets shot down for even musing about a carbon tax.

An Inconvenient Truth

So I left the meeting, and then I quit the party the next day – melodramatic I know, but at the time I thought a clean slate might propel me into something dynamic. I actually fleetingly thought about joining the Conservatives – something to do with the merit of converting a whore rather than a virgin – but that would just have been too disingenuous. So for now I’m confined to counting my personal virtues. Which are not bad I guess – I don’t drive at all, and I walk to work, and I recycle, and we just bought a new condo in an eco-friendly building. And I have a little project at work that may amount to something. I haven’t calculated my carbon footprint but I’d guess it’s relatively low. So that’s lots of points for me I guess. And of course it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s too late anyway. The planet’s basically dead and we just don’t know it yet. Isn’t that right?

Mixed in with the closing credits of An Inconvenient Truth, a film that lays out the facts and likely consequences of global warming with great precision, are various suggestions for what we can do – including the kind of stuff I’m doing already, calling your congressman, praying (for those who believe in that), oh, and urging other people to see An Inconvenient Truth (many of these tips, along with other surrounding information, are at the movie’s website at climatechange.net). All of this to a nice Melissa Ethridge tune. And the audience – a good sized audience for an afternoon – applauded, as audiences sometimes do at the Cumberland, which by the way is the only place in town that was showing the picture. You get my point, that An Inconvenient Truth might be the kind of movie that makes you feel good about feeling bad. Now I know these are not easy calculations. The movie is being seen, after all, even if primarily by Greens and yuppies and academics. And its prime mover Al Gore, for his own sanity, probably needs to maintain a sense of equanimity about life. And at this point, like so many other reviews of the film, I digress into using up space talking about Gore, who is after all one of the most fascinating figures of our time.

Evil Empire

The film is mainly a record of a presentation that he’s given to audiences all over the world, more than a thousand times he says, beautifully designed and very effectively delivered, crammed with statistics and snappy quotations and visual aids. From time to time the film deviates into anecdotes of Gore’s life, all of it familiar to anyone who’s been watching over the years – such as the death of his young son in an accident and that of his sister from lung cancer. This material is frankly trivial, set against the film’s primary purpose, and should have been left out. There are just a few references to the 2000 election, where of course Gore won the popular vote but then lost the big prize in murky circumstances. He kicks off the film with his signature line that he “used to be the next President of the United States.” Gore has nothing to gain from appearing resentful, and goes remarkably easy on the Bush administration. This is magnanimous, but I can’t believe he truly thinks it’s adequate.

Because as Gore fully knows, that closing list of small steps on the road to redemption is painfully inadequate. After 9/11, the US defined terrorism as the primary threat to civilization and, subject only to leaving enough room for various aspects of its ideological agenda, devoted itself almost exclusively (however haphazardly) to this mission. Even if one accepts that the Bush administration’s disinterest in environmental issues is based on a genuine uncertainty regarding the merit of the science (as opposed to a willful blindness fueled by the donations of corporate backers), in a situation where the risks of being wrong are so catastrophic, what rational alternative is there but to heed the downside and to act? When it’s random violence sourced from the Middle East (or that matter abortion, or vegetative women from red states), then every domestic life is precious and fundamental to the fabric of America. When it’s global warming (or that matter poverty, or the inadequacy of low-income health care) then the relative threat is rationalized away, or ignored altogether. This is more than merely inept. Whatever its underlying mentality, it’s functionally evil.

Choose Life

Gore’s statistics on the rise in carbon dioxide levels and other key indicators in recent years, and the near-term projections, are wretched, demonstrating categorically that we’re in uncharted territory. The film touches briefly on the industrialization of China, currently throwing up new coal burning power plants and wheeling out new cars onto the roads at a pace that admits no restraint or acknowledgement of limits. They’re merely catching up, of course, to what we’ve lived for fifty years. The projections are horrible, and how will this momentum be checked? Many of the phenomena he notes, such as the decline of the permafrost at the poles, are already in motion, and other writers have questioned whether they can be turned back. The need for action seems immense, unless we merely start preparing for a managed decline. In which case maybe it’s more comforting to be blind and oblivious, and functionally evil. At least that’s so for a generation like mine, which will probably be dead before the very worst is brought to bear.

As you can see, I’m dissatisfied by An Inconvenient Truth, although reviewing the movie is hardly the issue. To borrow a slogan from somewhere else, the issue is to choose life. But after seeing the film, I barely have any idea how we’re meant to do that.

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