Thursday, May 17, 2007

Running to Stand Still: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth

Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
—from Chief Seattle’s speech*

R. Rajamani, former bureaucrat and environmentalist, made three very interesting points while introducing Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth on Sunday, but hoped that we would not then be compelled to look at the film through the narrow lens of his views. But as happens when an argument is persuasive, it was impossible not to notice the accuracy of Mr. Rajamani’s statements. He said that

1) the film was a shrewd mix of the sentimental and the reasonable;

2) that though it was a film about a subject that might be said to be dry and boring, had all the elements of good showmanship that characterises the best cinema; and

3) that the film was as much about Al Gore as it was about global warming.

I’d say that all the three points he raises are related. Al Gore, early on in the film, introduces himself to an assembled audience. He says, “Hi. I’m Al Gore. I was the next President of the United States.” The audience erupts into laughter as he says, with a smile that makes them complicit in a joke, “I don’t find that funny.”

In another clipping of the same presentation that punctuates the film, he walks along the screen on which a chart compares global temperatures for the last few million years. As he walks along, he indicates the Ice Ages – several of them – alternating with warmer temperatures. When he comes to the end of the chart, he tells the audience that the last fifty years have seen an unprecedented rise in global temperatures. Then, moving slightly away from the screen, he fumbles with a contraption to one side of the stage, saying that he’d been taught to use it, but if it doesn’t work…The audience waits in silence. He climbs on to the contraption, which turns out to be a sort of crane, and resumes his presentation. As he talks about projected temperatures for the next fifty years, the crane rises along with the red line on the chart, until he is way above the screen and the audience.

Gore’s methods are very different from the sledgehammer techniques favoured by Michael Moore. It might have something to do with the fact that he was, after all, the former Vice President of the US; that accommodation and dialogue are more natural for him than confrontation and sarcasm. But he is also aware that if the ordinary person is to be won over into recognising the threat that global warming poses, he would need to persuade them with humour and gesture. If the film has one defining characteristic, it is in the recognition that people need to be entertained while they are informed. Which is why Gore uses the kind of animation shorts that teachers use in school to persuade children to brush their teeth: to illustrate simple points about greenhouse gases or to make fun about inadequate action and where it might get us (he uses The Simpsons to do the latter).

Every once in a while, however, in a more contemplative tone, Gore talks about his farm, his childhood; about the tobacco farming that his father abandoned after it was proved that tobacco caused cancer; about his six-year-old son’s accident and recovery and how it brought home to him the need to spend his life doing something worthwhile. While these sections skirt the edges of sentimentality, they escape a certain tweeness because of Gore’s belief that the personal is the political, and his willingness to take responsibility and act on his convictions.

Which is probably why he characterises the issue of global warming and what we need to do to solve it as “not so much a political issue as a moral one.” I find it extraordinary, because given that at every stage in the latter half of the film, the results of climate change are clearly political – the migration of refugees from countries affected by the effects of flooding or desertification, for instance – he does not manage to make a convincing case to support his statement. When one considers how closely geography is related to politics, it seems amazingly blind to characterise the issue as a moral one.

The other weakness of the film is the number of related issues it ignores: trading in carbon emissions, for one; the continuing export of obsolete technology by the US that is nothing if not cynical and self-serving; the connection between the energy consumption of the US and its political presence in different parts of the world.

Unfortunately, global warming is only one of the many environmental disasters that await us. We have to deal with the poisoning of the oceans and rivers; our depletion of more than our carbon reserves; and the huge question of what to do with the enormous amounts of waste that we produce. Granta had an excellent issue a couple of years ago called This Overheating World (Granta 83, October 2003). The photo-essay in that issue had some images of rusting tin cans, car tires, computers, radios, TVs – all looking frighteningly indestructible. (Some articles from the issue available here).

In one of the articles in that issue, published before Al Gore made his film, Bill McKibben says:

As satisfying as it is to blame politicians, however, it will not do. Politicians will follow the path of least resistance. So far there has not been a movement loud or sustained enough to command political attention. Electorates demand economic prosperity—more of it—above all things. Gandhianism, the political philosophy that restricts material need, is now only a memory even in the country of its birth. And our awareness that the world will change in every aspect, should we be so aware, is muted by the future tense, even though that future isn’t far away, so near in fact that preventing global warming is a lost cause—all we can do now is to try to keep it from getting utterly out of control.

This is a failure of imagination, and in this way a literary failure. Global warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On The Beach or Doctor
. It may never do so. It may be that because—fingers crossed—we have escaped our most recent fear, nuclear annihilation via the Cold War, we resist being scared all over again. Fear has its uses, but fear on this scale seems to be disabling, paralysing. Anger has its uses too, but the rage of anti-globalization demonstrators has yet to do more than alienate majorities. Shame sends a few Americans shopping for small cars, but on the whole America, now the exemplar to the world, is very nearly unshameable.

While Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim (the director of the film) might not have the cinematic chutzpah of a Kramer or Kubrick, and while all that the film might achieve is a minor reversal, if that, it has to be admitted that it does what some good films can do: raise the spirit enough for us to hope that something may yet be achieved, that simply by writing or making a film about it people could be induced to change their way of living.

There’s an old joke I was reminded of while watching this film. A man walks into a restaurant and is told he can order whatever he likes and he wouldn’t have to pay for it. So he orders the most exotic, expensive things on the menu. At the end of his meal, he gets ready to leave, when the waiter presents him with a whopping bill. “What’s this?” the man asks indignantly. “I was told I could order anything and there would be no charge!” “There isn’t, sir” the waiter replies respectfully. “This is your father’s bill for the meal he ate twenty year ago.”

The most unambiguous message of the film is this: that while we pay the price for the excesses of the previous generations, we must ensure that our children are not left with a burden that is too large to be borne.

* From the famous speech attributed to Chief Seattle, though it is said that a playwright, Ted Perry, wrote it for a film called Home.


Shah Reza said...

I love environmental issues!

Anirudh Karnick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anirudh Karnick said...

Enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece which does not turn accusatory but reminds us of our responsibilities gently. (By the way, is the word "tweeness" one you invented? It fits but I couldn't find it in the dictionary.)

Space Bar said...

Shah Reza: er...good for you!

Anirudh: Thanks. Um, 'twee' is a current word. I don't know that I invented tweeness, but it sounded right. Guess I could have said 'tweetude' but it doesn't have the same ring, does it? :D

tlen said...

you 'conveniently' neglected to add that much of the film was speculation if not out right propaganda and has been proven false.
you can google to get the details.
but start with the british high court ruling regarding showing the film in schools.