Monday, December 28, 2009

In reaction to Gore

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore shows a picture of the land in Tennessee he grew up on.
“You look at that river gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds; you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass. The mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet; it’s peaceful.”
He speaks movingly about his desire not to see its beauty ravaged by climate change. But in doing so, he allows the impression that all we need to do is to make a few changes, and the rest will be business as usual. For us and him on his land.
Change my light bulbs. Drive less. Heat my house less. Fly less. The Sierra Club gives me a list of ten things. I am advised to plant a tree in my garden. Other have longer to do lists for me. Puffing out its chest, Vanity Fair demands another forty things. I should forgo preheating the oven. Not to be outdone, the Palm Beach Post offers ninety nine prescriptions! (Use a hand potato masher instead of an electric one.)
*George Marshall says I ought not to think of any of this as a sacrifice. He says I will feel proud. My new life style “will be a statement of who I am – a smart aware person living in the 21st century.”(p.135) Al Gore and me, standing shoulder to shoulder. Why am I so unmoved? I want to be moved. I want to move. Yet here I sit. Unmoved. My lethargy might be because I really don’t think my actions will make much of a difference. I don’t think my voting makes a difference. But the same thought does not stop me voting. Of course I only have to vote once in a while, so it is an act of minimal inconvenience. Is it that what I am asked to do here is so inconvenient and complicated?
Others tell me something more is afoot. Both Al Gore and I need to change our whole outlook on life to save the planet. *Gus Speth says I have to stop looking at nature as a means to my ends. I am too materialistic and too individualistic. *Bill McKibben says I have to reintegrate human society and nature and foreswear anthropocentrism for a “biocentric” world view. I am told I should embrace a humbler world. If I listen to Speth and McKibben I need to turn my life upside down. Even if I wanted to do that, I don’t even know how to begin. The contours of my life are sown into a web of relations with that makes such a change hard to contemplate except as a fantasy. I give everything away, sever all ties, live in shack, tend my fields and collect firewood. Even if that is fine for some it is not for me. Like Woody Allen says, I get nervous outside my natural environs of a city.
Al Gore whispers in my ear: “Ignore McKibben and Speth! They are naysayers and luddites. Walden pond romantics! Stick with me. Together we can solve this problem. Yes, big changes are needed, but that does not mean our way of life has to change. All we need to do is to commit our nation to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon. We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind." [** NOTE: THIS IS PARTLY MADE UP DIALOGUE AND PARTLY QUOTE FROM PHILADELPHIA SPEECH.]
Is it that simple? Merely a matter of will and our (American) ingenuity? Gore makes it seem almost un-American to wonder if there is a technical solution merely waiting for the ambitious to grab. There is always a technical solution to every problem. That is what makes America America! And if my friends still die of cancer or AIDS decades after Kennedy like moon programs were declared, we just have not tried hard enough. But going to the moon was just rocket science and rocket science is not very fancy science. If I am allowed to stamp my foot and command discovery or innovation I too can solve the problem – even respecting the laws of nature. And in the long run, no doubt we can solve the problem. But as Keynes reminded us, in the long run we are all dead.
Al points his finder at me. “Maybe you didn’t listen to my speech carefully enough. I said we can solve this problem in 10 years. All we need to decide to do it do it!”
I don’t get it – don’t facts intrude? Where do we store the power for use at night when there is no wind or light? How do we overcome the finite supply of raw materials for solar panels? What about China and India’s rising energy needs? Gore casts a condescending eye on me. It is as if I am sitting on the bench next to Bush in a debate listening to Gore:
“Of course there are those who will tell us this can't be done. Some of the voices we hear are the defenders of the status quo - the ones with a vested interest in perpetuating the current system, no matter how high a price the rest of us will have to pay. But even those who reap the profits of the carbon age have to recognize the inevitability of its demise. As one OPEC oil minister observed, ‘The Stone Age didn't end because of a shortage of stones.”’
Right. It ended because a more productive cost effective technology came along. Al Gore in his bully pulpit, stamping his foot can’t change the fact that that is just what we lack for now and the foreseeable future. Now he is getting really irritated with Bush and me. We are not tall and he has a way of arching his back that makes him seem even taller than he is.
He looks down on us. “You know, if you had paid attention you would have heard me call for CO2 caps and taxes! It is all so simple.”
“I smell a rat!” says Bush. “You think the American people are going to support more taxes on energy? And b’sides, Bunzl here says there in’t enough of your “alternative” energy to go around. You think those Chinese and Indians are goin to stop growin. You think their goin leave their coal in the ground!”
He elbows me. I become professorial to add some gravitas to my brief. “China will move 450 million people from the country to the cities in the next 20 years. City people use three times the energy of country people. Sixty percent of India’s population lacks electricity. India’s national goal is to be 100% electrified by 2030.”
“See” gloats Bush, nodding at Gore.
“Look, we can make the tax on CO2 revenue neutral by reducing payroll taxes. And I already said we need to be committed to also eradicating poverty and disease worldwide,” says Gore.
Bush takes a short breath and cocks his head in my direction.
“With all due respect, in addition to promising our American lifestyle will not have to change, you now seem to hold that it will cost us nothing and the rest of the world can come to live the way we do as well.”
Bush looks at me suspiciously. “I thought you were on my side. We ain’t changing our lives and we sure ain’t goin to be paying more for them either as long as I am in charge!”
“Except you’ll ruin the planet in the process,” crows Gore. “ Only my way can save the planet, not raise costs, and eradicate poverty and disease.”
I leave them to carry on the debate. It seems too easy. In the end, I am sure I will have to pay more and change at least some of my life. Anything else goes against common sense. 600 million of us got the life we have because of our industrial revolution. Now 6 billion more want to join us.

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