Friday, July 14, 2006

The Other "Inconvenient Truth"

This last Thursday night, I offered the following remarks to over 400 citizens in Keene as part of an Antioch University-sponsored panel discussion following a showing of Al Gore's new movie An Inconvenient Truth:


Watching Al Gore's new movie “An Inconvenient Truth” reminds me of a scene in a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster a few years back. It was a military courtroom drama called “A Few Good Men.” In one climactic scene, Tom Cruise turns to Jack Nicholson, who is on the witness stand, and shouts, “Just tell me the truth.” Nicholson’s character jumps up and shouts back, “The truth? The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

I think that’s where we are today. How are we going to handle the hard truth shown in this documentary--that, because of our massive burning of fossil fuels over the last century, we are now in an accelerating and very dangerous period of global climate change. I'm not even sure the phrase global warming does justice to this situation, or even the term global climate change. What we are really talking about is worldwide local climate disruption, with increasingly severe and almost unimaginable consequences.

As Al Gore suggests in this movie, if we are really going to handle this hard truth, we are going to have to help our households, our businesses, our governments, and the international community adopt a hugely ambitious set of policy changes. First, we need to implement policies at the local, regional, national, and global level that will result in the highest levels of energy conservation. Second, we'll need to implement policies at all levels that will result in a rapid shift away from fossil fuels towards safe and renewable energy sources. Finally, we will need to implement a variety of policies that strengthen our emergency preparedness and redesign our public and private infrastructure in order to minimize the damage and death toll when severe weather events or other kinds of climate disruptions occur.

The magnitude of these changes is staggering and in many ways unprecedented. How are we possibly going to make this shift happen? It is at this point that I think Gore's documentary actually soft-peddles a very hard truth about what we need to do to end our industrial addiction to burning fossil fuels. I sensed this timidity especially in the closing credits. As much as I liked all the personal life style changes suggested at the end of the movie, I’m absolutely convinced that just switching to eco-friendly lightbulbs, buying local food more often, and walking and riding our bikes more is not going to get us all the way to where we need to go. Even the couple of suggestions the movie makes about voting regularly or writing letters to our elective officials is not going to be enough—especially when not all our votes are counted and thousands of people of color are repeatedly pushed off the voting rolls in states like Florida and Ohio.

The inconvenient truth not highlighted much in the movie is that we don’t just need a power shift away from fossil fuels to renewables. We also need a power shift away from a government that has become a corrupt, elitist, corpocracy toward one that is much more of, by, and for the people—and the common good. By the word “corpocracy,” I mean a government that is increasingly of, by, and for corporations, and especially dominated by Big Oil, Big Coal, and the Military-Industrial Complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago. As long as corporate giants like Exxon-Mobil write our nation’s energy policy, bribe our elected officials, pay for their electoral campaigns, and spend millions in a cynical PR effort to make people doubt the factual case for climate change, we will be blocked from making many of the long-term reforms and policy changes needed to address global climate disruption.

We need to face the inconvenient truth that our government has been captured by powerful corporate interests, many of whom will do everything in their power to resist a positive policy approach to global climate change. Life style changes, voting every four years, and writing letters to our representatives are all very needed, but these basic acts of civic virtue are not enough. Many more of us also need to become intensely politically active, volunteer with progressive activist organizations, and build a social movement even more powerful than Gandhi’s Independence Movement in India, or the 1960s US Civil Rights Movement, or even the Polish Solidarity Movement that helped bring down the authoritarian Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The task ahead is simply of this magnitude.

It may be an inconvenient truth, but I am convinced that we are going to have to draw on our country’s inspiring revolutionary tradition of intense citizen activism, sacrifice, and courage and go up against powerful corporate interests in the years ahead. We are going to have to learn to work together to take our country back and put it on a path towards sustainability, justice, and democracy. I think one of the key questions before us all then, is “Can we handle this inconvenient truth?”


At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Darfur Alert Coalition said...

"Many more of us also need to become intensely politically active, volunteer with progressive activist organizations, and build a social movement"
Thanks, Steve, for this important article and resentation... I believe we need also to advocate within the Corporates for this concept... Corporates need to know that their Startegi Plans should gear up towards helping the enivironment if they waqnt to continue and survive...

mohamed elgadi
HR and environment activist

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Al Gore's movie yet, but your message sounds right to me. In an economy based upon individual wealth accumulation as the movitator, any standing up for the common good has to contend with the blinders of "bottom line" thinking. It certainly will take concerted action by thinking people to change course. Thanks for getting your message out there!

At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Clare said...

Yes, things are really desperate! I just found a great book called "Recipes for Disaster" - full of outlandish ideas for direct action - i.e. asphalt mosaics, banner drops & hoists, bicycle parades, billboard improvement, blockades and lockdowns, etc. We need action of the Boston Teaparty type! Our votes don't count, our petitions, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, etc. fall on deaf ears... WE NEED ACTION! (from a senior citizen who recently became an activist, watching democracy go down the drain)

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Chuck Woolery said...


I believe you are correct on almost every point you make. From my observations working inside the beltway and organizing outside of it...i'd say its even worse than you think.
The far greater and immedate threat to human life is from new and re-emerging infectious diseases (a few exacerbated by global warming) that are primarily the result of global poverty. The flip side is inevitable bioterrorist attacks that may be worse than anything nature can throw at us.

All that said, I believe our best shot at changing human (american) behavior toward oil consumption is to peg it to the war on terrorism. Our dependence on oil makes us extremely vulnerable to targeted terrorist attacks...AND our buying their oil funds their efforts. This is something even the Republicans can't deny.

Protect the environment... Not likely while we are at war. But put oil consumption in the context of the war effort. And we might have some leverage.

FYI: In 04 I worked for MoveOn in your community (and all of south west NH). Wonderful area. If you ever visit DC...please look me up

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous tipiglen said...

Good remarks, Steve. Yet another inconvenient truth is that it ain't oil we're addicted to, but energy.

Every American uses the equivalent of fifty to seventy well-fed slaves (4000 Kcal/day diet) and even us Europeans enjoy the services of twenty to thirty slaves...
Vaya con Gaia

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous John Fernbach said...

Steve, I partly agree with what you say and partly disagree. I think you're obviously correct about our government having been captured by a relatively small corporate elite, and I agree that they have a vested interest in blocking any radical efforts to rein in climate change.

On the other hand, I suspect that if we have to recapture control of our society by democratic forces, we may not be able to make meaningful changes in time to head off disaster.

I feel that I'm turning into the sort of "moderate" environmentalist I used to despise, but I think the best we can do in the short run, to head off climate disaster, is try to split the corporate elite -- to work with the more environmentally friendly part of Corporate America against the die-hards in the fossil fuel industry. Because in the short term, I think that's the only way a Green energy program has a chance of becoming reality, and even then it will be damnably difficult.

Over the long term, I'm a green democratic socialist or populist. I think we need a "no-growth," "steady state" economy to stabilize humanity's relationship with the natural world, and I think there are excellent reasons to think that a steady state economy is incompatible with the success of investor-driven industrial capitalism.

This isn't to say that a steady state economy is incompatible with a largely market-based society, I think. Markets have been around in many societies for centuries, even millennia, and are not necessarily associated with economies based on the private ownership and private investment of capital, for the purposes of earning the maximum return on investment and a constant growth in the value of one's personal stock portfolio or bank account.
So I think in the long term, if our current civilization is to survive, it will have to evolve into a "market" society, but a market society that is not "capitalist." Perhaps the medieval guilds, perhaps the modern cooperative movement might point to some directions such a society might take.

For the moment, however, corporate capitaliss in association with powerful capitalist governments control the vast majority of the economic activity that occurs on this planet. And if the world economy is to become Greener, less addicted to fossil fuels and less destructive to the climate, SOME capitalist enterprises and mainstream politicians -- who probably will not be saints -- will have to play a prominent role in the fight for a new energy economy. I think environmentalists and advocates of citizens' democracy, even quite radical ones, will have to find some way of cooperating politically with the "good" capitalist corporations to make needed change. Of course, we must find ways to do this that do not cede all political and social power to the corporations, and that allow us to preserve our our souls and our mental integrity.

I wonder if Mao Zhe-Dong, for all of his many faults, didn't partly show the way forward when he wrote in China about "non antagonistic contradictions among the people," and about the need for his Red Army to make alliances with "patriotic" capitalists in fighting the Japanese occupation of China.

Somehow, I think Greens must forge alliances with "non-antagonistic" corporations that are working for a greener future for their own reasons.

And with Mao's bad example in mind, we also must seek to ensure the "good" businessmen who cooperate with the environmental movement that once a non-carbon based economy is established, neither the green business sector nor the green citizens movement will try to eliminate or oppress its erstwhile political partner. In any event, short-term cooperation between environmentally preferable corporations and radical greens is urgent, if we hope to avoid cooking the planet.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous John Fernbach said...

Steve - I posted a response to this statement, one mixing a very radical analysis of American capitalism as a source of GW and other environmental problems with a quite pragmatic, indeed somewhat "conservative" proposal on the need for greens to cooperate with "progressive" capitalist business to address the problem in the short term.

You or you web administrator chose not to put what I wrote on your web site, which of course is your perfect right. But I'm not very impressed by your openness to comment. I suppose I wish you good luck with your endeanvors anyway - but I'm not impressed.

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Willie Fontenot said...

Way to go Steve. While watching Al Gore's movie I was struck by his many long views out of windows and the lack of a strong and clear active response to the problems laid out in the movie. Thanks for your review and apropriate challenge to all of us.


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