In HBO’s psychotherapy melodrama In Treatment, Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) shares a counselor’s riddle with a patient: “Why doesn’t a cigarette smoker think a cigarette can kill him?” The answer is simple: “A cigarette has never killed me before.”
An Inconvenient Truth actually uses tobacco smoking and medical research as an analogy for current responses to climate change twice. The first instance is when Al Gore meditates on the bitter irony that his family participated in tobacco harvesting, contributing to the industry that killed a loved one from lung cancer. The second is when Gore shows a crowd advertisements of doctors smoking cigarettes to argue that industries whose products threaten public harm can use anecdotal testimonials to get the public to question the validity of scientific research.
A decade after the world’s most famous documentary sent us running for the hills, Greenland hasn’t broken in half, the World Trade Center Memorial site isn’t underwater, and global warming hasn’t killed us all.
That I feel constrained to add “…yet” after the previous sentence points to An Inconvenient Truth‘s maddening contradictions. At once both bracingly convincing and self-satisfyingly smug, the film practically dares you to dismiss it while offering you precious few ways to heed its warnings. After telling us the world was coming to an end, Al Gore has reportedly racked up a personal fortune amassing more than 200 million dollars; Davis Guggenheim moved on to make an even better received documentary about guitar players. After hearing their warning? I changed my light bulbs and bought a Prius.
It’s not that I’m a climate change skeptic. It’s just that when someone says that the “moral imperative to make big changes is inescapable” and then nobody makes big changes, it is hard not to feel confused by the perpetual demands to live in mortal terror. It’s hard, too, not to situate An Inconvenient Truth as a harbinger of modern rhetoric. With the demise of newspapers, the polarization of television, and the rise of social media as the predominant public forum where ideas are exchanged, the inflation of our rhetoric has become counterproductive. We don’t heed actual catastrophes any more. How catastrophic do predictions have to be before we pause from the endless cycle of sports contests and Marvel films to consider them?
What I Said Then
In 2006, I wrote about An Inconvenient Truth in a guest column for Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer blog. It is worth quoting in (near) full, because of some points I want to update:
An Inconvenient Truth is a one hundred minute documentary hosted by Al Gore and designed to confront the audience with one insistent point:
Global warming is not coming–global warming is here.
The consequences of the film’s thesis being true (though not necessarily of it being false) would be worldwide, so the film’s participants and defenders can’t quite seem to fathom why the responses to that thesis are so polarized along ideological and party lines. I can’t quite understand why either, but I have my suspicions.
Someone—okay it was Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy, so sue me—once suggested that people will procrastinate until the pain and discomfort of inaction is greater than the fear of what honest inquiry into the source of that pain will reveal. That got me thinking: what’s at stake here that would cause viewers to resist this message? Gore himself argues that the economic and personal benefits of being ahead of the curve in responding to climate change are most likely to benefit the societies that are quicker to adapt than the ones that drag their collective feet.
Might one answer to that question be that what is at stake, at least for Christians, is their unresolved relationship to and distrust of science? It’s one thing when Gore shows scientists measuring pollution, year by year, in layers of ice. It’s quite a different thing when he puts up graphs of the last (seven? ten?) ice ages and speaks about the age of the earth as an established scientific fact.
Maybe it is, and maybe so is global warming. But I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man enough times to know that science has reached consensus before–complete with scientific data to browbeat skeptics–about facts that turned out to be, well, not quite so factual. Gould concluded his book with a confidence that I didn’t share that scientists could avoid allowing personal prejudices or preconceived notions to influence their findings in the future, even if they had a pretty poor track record of doing so in the past. I didn’t share that confidence in part because Gould was so eloquent and persuasive about his contention that the misleading results of empirical research were less often a matter of scientists being deliberately dishonest as they were of scientists being swayed, perhaps unconsciously, by their preconceived notions.
Personally, I’m ready to invest scientific knowledge with enough trustworthiness to speak authoritatively about changes in contemporary weather patterns and to hypothesize pretty darn convincingly about some of their causes. (It didn’t hurt the film’s credibility in my eyes that the Northeast United States was viciously flooded the week after I screened it.) I suspect, though, that there are some Christians, even relatively urbane ones, who are afraid that letting science (especially branches such as Geology and Astronomy) speak authoritatively about anything other than the effectiveness of penicillin is letting a Trojan horse into our midst that will eventually affirm a set of facts that is impossible to even remotely reconcile with Creationism or a belief in the Bible as an historically accurate document (rather than some sort of allegorical or mythical dramatization of what actually happened).
I could be wrong about this interpretation of the resistance to the film. My wife tells me she thinks I am. Still, most accounts I read that try to explain the recent success of the Republican party beginning with, say, Ronald Reagan, usually tend to express somewhere that part of that success has lain in getting evangelical, conservative (socially, not necessarily theologically) Christians to consider the Republicans as their party and the Democrats as being godless. Isn’t there currently a book with that thesis as its title? For that reason, I found myself wanting Guggenheim to explore—or at least acknowledge—the ways in which faith and science interact so that viewers weren’t faced with what felt like an implicit “either/or” choice between them.
If I have doubts about whether the non-treatment of religion is one polarizing factor, I have none that the presence of the former vice-president is. When teaching rhetoric or composition, it is customary to suggest that persuasion is usually some combination of logos, pathos, and ethos. “Logos” is the appeal to logic; is there evidence to support the contention and does its presentation avoid logically fallacies? “Pathos” is the appeal to emotion; does the speaker or writer make you care about the topic? “Ethos” is an appeal to the authority of the speaker or writer himself; do you trust the source of persuasion?
Al Gore doesn’t have a pre-existing negative ethos in my mind, but there is something in his presentation style that bugged me even more than the way the film’s snarky title implies anyone who might doubt or disagree couldn’t possibly be an honest, principled skeptic but must be a slothful, self-absorbed, ne’er do well who just can’t be bothered. In some liberal venues—yeah Jon Stewart and Gary Trudeau, I’m thinking of you—it is customary to mock or tease President Bush because his communication style and cadence, his delivery, often comes across as dissonant with the substance of his message. His plain, folksy style and plaintive cadence work well for sound bites but can come across as oblivious to the nuances or rhythms of prepared speeches. Listening to President Bush give a speech can sometimes remind one of listening to Keanu Reeves do Shakespeare; it is easy for the audience to come away with the impression the speaker doesn’t quite grasp everything he is saying, even if/when there is evidence to the contrary. Conversely, in conservative venues it’s customary to speak of Gore as robotic or emotionless. It as though his innate fear of the manipulative powers and abuses of rhetoric makes him reluctant to express strong emotions such as outrage, disgust, or urgency.
When Gore talks with disdain about the Bush administration’s science advisor, it comes across more as a sound-bite punch line than a true expression of exasperation. When he follows up the laughs after his self-deprecating “I used to be the next president of the United States” by saying that this punch-line hurts a little too much to be all that funny, it comes across more as ironic detachment than true anger of a degree one would expect another to feel if he truly believed he was cheated out of a lawful victory. I mean, gosh, one saw more anger from Mark Cuban for getting jobbed out of an NBA finals victory thanks to a questionable foul call than one will apparently ever hope to get—publicly at least—from Al Gore for coming out on the wrong side of a questionable election result. Even when he speaks of his sister dying of lung cancer as an example of how intelligent people can refuse to heed scientific warnings with disastrous results, he holds the audience at arm’s length from his emotions. “That’s not a way you want to die,” he says of lung cancer, and we sense there is a reservoir of feeling there that, were it to be harnessed rather than suppressed, would make Gore a charismatic advocate rather than just a convincing one.
Gore’s reluctance to show emotion causes the film to suffer from what I call, for lack of a more elegant phrase “Neil Postman Syndrome.” Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death that it was a rule of television news that however horrific or disturbing the news being reported, the talking heads must not show emotion when delivering it. Postman also speculated that this lack of affect in news reporting, over time, would have the effect of making it hard to take it seriously. How, he suggested, can a viewer really take the delivery of some piece of urgent news—such as an increased likelihood of nuclear war—seriously enough to be disturbed by it when the very person telling the viewer about it doesn’t appear to be distraught by it? (Or, Postman adds, when it is followed by a commercial for Burger King and some other, non-related piece of information.) In watching An Inconvenient Truth, I really had to struggle to get past the disconnect I felt between the urgency of Gore’s information and the ease of his delivery.
Towards the end of the film, Gore says he is surprised at how many people, when presented with his information, jump directly from skepticism to despair. I’m not, because I’m one of them. I have a melancholy and cynical disposition by nature. I think people are selfish and short sighted and that carbon emissions are more likely to be dramatically reduced by avian flu or some other catastrophe wiping out big chunks of the population than by Americans suddenly and corporately deciding to carpool.
I grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., and my favorite landmark to visit was the Lincoln Memorial. On one wall inside the monument there is inscribed the words from the Gettysburg address. I was always drawn to the other side, though, that had a less famous but equally moving excerpt from Lincoln’s second inaugural address (http://www.juntosociety.com/hist_speeches/lincolns2nd.html). In it, Lincoln speculates that perhaps the immense human cost of the Civil War could be interpreted as part of God’s scourge upon our nation for the evils of slavery. I thought then and I believe even more firmly now that were a contemporary American president to speak so openly and plainly about a belief in a providential God who was not merely on our side but to whom we were accountable, he would have great difficulty getting elected. I didn’t necessarily think then, but I do think now, that were a contemporary American politician to dare to suggest that some measure of our suffering has been caused by our own selfishness rather than some evil imposed upon us that he would be vilified as unpatriotic and effectively end any chance he had at higher political office.
“If only,” I thought while meditating on the film, “some leader had the capacity to address our most serious problems from within a faith perspective. If only there was someone who didn’t just have a representative faith that was part of his platform to get elected but a prophetic faith that was capable of informing his approach to those problems. If only faith could be, at least occasionally, in our political and social landscape not the thing that assured us we were right but the thing that challenged us with how often, in our fallen-ness, we are so very, very wrong. Boy, this cynical, gen-x doubting Thomas could sure get jazzed about such a leader.”
Where have you gone, Honest Abe? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to look for you.
What I Say Now
That transition from skepticism to despair is still my starting and ending point with the film. Today, I am perhaps more ready to lay some of the blame for it on the film, which, let’s be honest, spends ninety minutes telling us we are f—ed up beyond all hope and about two telling us that we have the resources to solve this problem if we will only exercise the will.
That the film seems more interested in–certainly invests more energy in–documenting the problem and sneering at the skeptics than it does presenting the solutions should make us wonder what its intended audience and purpose might be.
Am I wrong to suspect a sense of satisfaction bordering on inexplicable glee informs Gore’s careful description of nearly every phase of climate change consequence while flashing up a quick slide with phrases like “energy efficiency” and “renewables” to tell us what to do? What might the film look like if this emphasis were reversed–if the problem were assumed and the proposed solutions described in relentless detail?
Public policy is complex, and environmental problems are interrelated. The film does a swell job of showing the domino effects of an ecosystem being altered, but it doesn’t quite seem to realize that such drastic changes are usually created by a multitude of interrelated causes. Each of those causes fosters debate when it comes time to changing. Films like Owning the Weather and Windfall show us the policy side of this argument and make us realize that things other than political will (or the lack of it) go into our decisions about each and every step of reversing the process.
Eight of the ten years since An Inconvenient Truth has come out have been lived under an Obama rather than a Bush administration. As we come to the end of Obama’s presidency, no part of my initial review feels more antiquated than my speculation that evangelical voters might be open to embracing democratic platforms if that party could articulate them in religious terms. Also, while I hold deep respect and admiration for President Obama, nowhere (excepting perhaps in his usage of drones and The Patriot Act) has the incumbent more disillusioned and disappointed me than in environmental policy. As I write, the crisis of the moment has to do with drinking water, and while it is easy enough to blame provincial (Republican) legislators for local problems, the Obama administration’s “all of the above’ energy policy hasn’t exactly put a damper on fracking or realized green alternatives for consumers. Yes, President Obama inherited the worst financial meltdown in a century, and his priorities (health care, the economy) have been defensible. But that they were not global warming implies that Americans can and do think that some things can be more pressing than global warming.
How do we justifying thinking so? I recall an episode of another HBO series, The Newsroom, in which Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) interviewed an E.P.A. official who claimed by analogy that we were already dead. That’s certainly a more dire prognosis than even Al Gore gives us, but isn’t it’s net effect to tell us it is okay to redirect our hard won attention to some other, solvable problem? (Or to live out our borrowed time eschewing futile considerations for the future?)
An Inconvenient Truth laments our tendency to move from skepticism to despair. The irony is that nowhere does it engender more skepticism than in its claim that our despair is premature. Ten years ago Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim assured our panicked souls (over peppy end music, no less) that a solution to this critical problem was possible. Long after I’ve forgotten what they said that solution was, I maintain that sense that it would probably be too little, too late.
The clock is still ticking, and I have little doubt that they will get to say, “I told you so,” perhaps even in my lifetime. Not that I imagine that will be much consolation….
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