Wednesday, August 02, 2006

an inconvenient truth

Tonight I went to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. I have read a fair amount about global warming, most recently Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From A Catastrophe (which appeared first as a three-part series in The New Yorker), and Jim Hansen's review essay, "The Threat To The Planet" in The New York Review of Books (July 13, 2006). I had heard that the movie was depressing, and this is exactly the type of movie I tend to enjoy, so I picked a time when my wife was away, painting our daughter's college residence in Chapel Hill.

An Inconvenient Truth is essentially a "slide show" that Gore has given to perhaps a thousand different groups. It succeeds in conveying some fairly complex information in an understandable way. The movie intersperses data (one side of the brain) with human experience (the other side of the brain). And so the movie is about shrinking arctic glaciers, warming surface waters and disappearing lakes, but also Gore the college student, father, brother, almost president.

I genuinely wanted to like this movie. I am persuaded that the planet is warming at a rate that threatens the future of my children's children, and I can connect the dots that those who cast doubt on global warming do so for economic/political reasons. It is a subject I would choose to avoid, and certainly gain nothing by thinking or reading about it, except a sense of gloom about the human future.

The movie succeeds in some ways---it focuses on an important subject--but it fails in others. At times it has the feel of a science report, delivered in a dry and plodding manner, and at other times it is moralistic, even grandiouse (Gore studied with the professor who first measured carbon emissions...this reminded me of the comment that he had invented the internet). That the subject matter is so stunningly interesting---the planet's most extreme geography, the marginalized people who inhabit these spaces, the wildlife and vegetation that are threatened, the lack of political will as scandal---and that this subject matter comes across in such a boring way was, for me, a missed opportunity.

In addition, the movie at times has the feel of a rather long political speech. Maybe I am guilty of wanting to be entertained, but I could have benefitted from some action, some movement, some music. The emotion was always tied up with Gore the person, while the rationality was limited to the subject of global warming.

As I said, I wanted to like this movie. I do believe Al Gore was elected president in 2000. I concur with Jim Hansen, writing in the NYRB, who looks back on the sad possibility that "the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it".

Maybe the movie was a reminder of all of that, too. Maybe the lost opportunities, and the subsequent havoc visited on our country and world, are simply brought to mind in the presence of Gore. And maybe his own personal style contributed to all of this---for example, he is the sole authority on the subject in this movie, and his brilliance again becomes a weakness...he has no need to consult others (at least not in this movie), and, of course, this surely contributed to his political outcome in 2000. He certainly must have suffered enough for the near miss of that political appointment, and merits no blame for it. The point is that the movie portrays Gore in ways that are consistent with the past, and is in a way as much about Gore the person as it is about global warming. The movie, finally conveys the personal strengths and weaknesses of Al Gore. Generally the weaknesses are excised from the final product.

The issue might also have been my own expectations. Maybe I was looking for a theological account for what is happening that was not going to emerge. For Christians who want to dig into the subject matter, I commend Bill McKibben's essay on global warming and hurricanes in the current National Geographic (as we approach the anniversary of Katrina"; my sermon, "Creation and The Labor of God", that will be aired on Day One/The Protestant Hour on September 3; and the writings of Wendell Berry.

Meanwhile, tomorrow will be, in the words of the weather folks, a "scorcher".


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