An Inconvenient Truth: A Necessary Movie
Last week I went out, locally, to see two different documentaries on the environment: The End Of Suburbia, shown for free at The Boiceveille Inn by our town’s Democratic Party, and An Inconvenient Truth, held over due to genuine popular demand at the Catskill Montain Foundation’s cinema in Hunter. Taken together, they provided a highly valuable lesson in the perils of preaching to the converted, and the value of delivering a message of hope.
Both movies – along with a short documentary that preceded The End of Suburbia, which I shall call ‘Trash’ in the hope that I have it right – dealt with similar scenarios, essentially how our consumer culture, particularly our use of fossil fuels, is destroying the planet. ‘Trash’ talked about how, prior to the prosperity of the 1950s, America so routinely recycled its products that the average bottle was used 40 times before being thrown out. And how, when in 1953 the State of Vermont “passed the nation’s first bottle bill, banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.” in a valiant vanguard effort to forestall a disposable consumerist culture, American big business bandied together and formed the Keep America Beautiful organization, essentially stealing the message from the messenger so as to blame consumers, not producers, for the country’s growing litter problem. (This came as a surprise to me, but the facts appear to be borne out, according to this site.)
The End Of Suburbia started out promisingly, with a potted history of how the American suburbs were formed in the same Post-War era, through desire, design and a certain necessity. Using extensive footage of the era – mostly advertisements but also what appeared to be perhaps the first documentary of the era to question suburbia’s golden promise – we saw the creation and fruition of a certain American dream. For those of us who fear normality like the plague, that dream is more of a living nightmare, and I found myself cringing at the site of so many identikit communities and the nuclear family morals which came with them. I also got my one good laugh from the movie’s main talking head, author James Howard Kunstler, who noted of present day new suburban communities that they are inevitable “named after the very thing they destroy. If a place is called Quail Ridge, you can be damn sure there are no quail left by the time the humans move in.”
But soon enough, the movie turned to the premise of its title. The Suburban dream has been built on an ongoing supply of cheap oil; we have now passed the peak of oil production (a position backed by considerable statistics and the coherent delivery of energy financier Matthew Simmons); the supply will dry up almost completely over the next 15-50 years; alternative energies like biofuels, corn fuel, ethanol all rely on oil to some extent, as does the hybrid car; therefore, society is doomed. Kunstler gets a kick out of suggesting that McMansions may well turn into McSlums.
Leaving aside the fact that I drove eight miles to the Inn and another eight miles back, on my own, in my car (hey, I live in the country), I didn’t need much selling on the evils of an oil-driven society that encourages millions of people to live in identikit housing miles from their “shops” (i.e. malls) and “culture” (i.e. megaplexes). Neither did those sat around me, most of whom – with the notable exception of a twenty-something drinking and burping his way through a fifth of whisky with no comment from anyone – were committed pension-age lefties. They say that as you grow older, you retreat into your childhood, which might explain why this audience felt compelled to hiss and boo whenever the images of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush andDick Cheney came up on screen.
Personally, I found this behavior pathetic, as if the audience felt compelled to confirm their politics to each other with a knee-jerk reaction, and it played into my greater problem with the film: that for all its certain relevance and arguable accuracy, it was only ever going to appeal to those who agreed with it anyway. Anyone actually living in suburbia, or voting Republican, would likely switch off in the first few minutes, all too aware that they were the target of the movie’s ire. Such a film might serve to cement a left-wing pro-environment position, but it won’t sway the opposition.
The same surely should not be said of An Inconvenient Truth. The movie works on two levels: as a documentary on global warming, and as a documentary on Al Gore, the man who, in his own words, used to be the Next President of the United States. Most of the movie is merely a high-gloss “concert film” – Gore captured on camera doing his thing – but the occasional “backstage” footage and interviews allow An Inconvenient Truth to have a narrative.
Gore’s presentation of the facts is powerful to the point of apocalyptic. It’s one thing to read that 10 of the hottest years on record have occurred in just the last 14 years, or that 2005 was the hottest year ever; it’s another thing entirely to watch footage of the glaciers melting, and chunks of Antartica crashing into the sea. Bar charts and graphs are typically the stuff of Middle Managament Powerpoint Presentation, but when Gore uses a moving vertical ladder to show just how “off the chart” our current CO2 emissions are compared to past centuries, we understand clearly: we are killing this planet so rapidly that it’s more likely the average iJamming! reader will still be alive to witness its demise.
Yet, and I praise both him and the movie-makers for this, Gore refrains from politicizing the issue. At no point does he name George W. Bush. (He refers to “the current Administration,” and without animosity, anger or vitriol.) He does not criticize Republicans any more than he speaks ill of the Chinese. (At least he’s consistent.) The only chance this (paying) audience got to voice its own political leanings was with footage of Ronald Reagan narrating an ad back in the ‘50s; it provoked gentle laughter, not the Pavlovian hissing of the local Democratic club.
This approach could be considered cowardly – the same kind of well-meaning but ultimately toothless leadership that lost Al Gore and John Kerry the Presidency – yet it enables Gore’s message to get across to more than just his University and private audiences. An Inconvenient Truth is the kind of movie you could – and should – bring your political nemesis to see. They might not like the messenger, but they will have a very hard time refuting the message.
(An important tangent: An Incovenient Truth runs a brief collage of the famous post-2000 Elections farce that finally saw the Supreme Court “elect” Bush. James Baker’s name and face comes up; the former Secretary of State was chosen by the the Bush people as their heavy hitter to win over media and courts alike. And of course, he succeeded. My mind can not help but go back to the PMRC, the association of “Washington Wives” who determined, during the second Reagan administration, that it was their god-given duty to regulate young people’s music tastes. The PMRC was led by Al Gore’s wife Tipper – and James Baker’s wife Susan. I have never forgiving Al Gore for allowing his wife to join Republicans on such an inherently conservative issue, and it serves to remind that a favor earned in Washington is not necessarily a favor returned.)
Actually, they’d have a hard time disliking the messenger too. Throughout An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore comes as personable, likeable, funny, sentimental, and intensely intelligent – just about all the qualities that were famously lacking when he went up for those fated debates with Bush some six years ago. Watching him deliver this vital message, one instinctively wishes that he had been given his four years to run the world. Maybe, just maybe, with an educated environmentalist in power, the planet would not be in the mess it’s in right now.
But then we have to remember Gore as he was on the campaign trail: wooden, distant, patronizing. Some people have what it takes to win the political power games at the highest level, and some fall n their face at that final hurdle. Al Gore, it now seems, was too nice to rule the world. So while it’s hard to believe that our planet would not have been better off with Al Gore as President, it it is just possible that he is playing an equally effective role, certainly in 2006, as a touring environmentalist whose message has now been packaged into the hit documentary of the year.
And that message is not hopeless. Whereas The End Of Suburbia concludes that modern society is doomed, end of story, Al Gore tries to convince us at the conclusion of An Inconvenient Truth that a snap series of international agreements or unanimous business decision would rapidly reduce our CO2 emissions and slowly return our planet to safer conditions for future generations. And rather than just tell us to instruct our politicians to take the lead, the end credits are interspersed with a series of recommendations on how each of us, individually, can do our part for a greener world.
It’s the ultimate extollation of my favorite political motto: Think Globally, Act Locally. And it appears to be having an effect. The same week I went to see these movies, Newsweek came out with a cover story about America Going Green, reporting how, even though social movements are often cyclical, the citizens of the USA are engaging, person by person, town by town, and city by city, to act where politicians won’t. If we could just get the blindly consumerist, disposable culture of suburbia on board, maybe we could win the battle even without our so-called leaders’ consent. The End of Suburbia won’t bring such people around. An Inconvenient Truth just might. In which case, who knows? Al Gore’s epitaph could be something more important and permanent than the Former Next President of the United States.