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The inconvenient truth about Al Gore

June 9, 2006 | Page 4

LANCE NEWMAN looks beyond the image-polishing of Al Gore's new movie--and explains what needs to be done to save the Earth.

AL GORE'S new documentary An Inconvenient Truth is generating a powerful new buzz about the threat of climate change. The former vice president who was defeated in the 2000 presidential election by George Bush, Gore is re-emerging into the political spotlight with the release of this film.

It's not surprising that the movie is effective. People are understandably concerned about global warming, especially since the mainstream media has done such a good job of confusing the issue. As the film points out, 100 percent of articles in scientific journals agree that climate change is real, but 53 percent of news stories label climate change a "theory."

An Inconvenient Truth does a good job of presenting the latest scientific facts and figures. Gore does know his stuff on this issue, and the film gives hard-hitting examples of the potential consequences of inaction.

For example, catastrophic melting of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice caps caused by global warming--similar to what took place recently with the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf--would cause a 20-foot rise in sea levels, flooding many of the most heavily populated urban areas of the world.

Hurricane Katrina showed us what happens when several hundred thousand people are displaced by environmental disaster. What about when hundreds of millions see their cities sink into the ocean?

But An Inconvenient Truth spends far too much time telling the latest version of Gore's worn-out life story. It tries much too hard to package him as a crusader who experienced an awakening, and now sees that saving the earth is a "moral imperative." We get far too many long shots of Gore staring seriously into a Mac laptop, or walking seriously through an airport, or sitting seriously in the backseat of a limousine.

All the time used to polish Gore's image could have been devoted to the discussion of solutions to environmental crisis. As it is, An Inconvenient Truth only gives its last five minutes to the question of what is to be done--and it sends a confusingly mixed message.

On the one hand, the movie makes the powerful suggestion that the fight to end global warming could be the next in the long line of grassroots, democratic political struggles that have changed history--the American Revolution, the Civil War to abolish slavery, the movement for women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.

But it ends by demanding that audience members reduce their personal carbon emissions by carpooling, checking tire pressure, buying low-wattage light bulbs, changing the settings on home thermostats and so on.

This conclusion falls horribly flat after the film has spent so much time showing that climate change is a global problem, driven by vast forces like the oil economy and population growth.

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IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the film's conclusion is so lame. After all, Al Gore campaigned with Bill Clinton as "environmentally conscious" during the 1992 elections, and their administration then broke almost every green promise they made.

The Clinton-Gore administration handed out permits for toxic waste incinerators, opened up Western forests to logging, handed out tax breaks to oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and much, much more.

One of the most glaring examples of Gore's hypocrisy is his refusal to use his $500,000 stake in Occidental Petroleum to pressure the company to stop drilling on the sacred lands of Colombia's Uwa tribe.

And, of course, Gore was one of the main brokers of free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT that have gutted environmental standards across the globe.

So how did we get to the point where Al Gore, of all people, can try to pass himself off as an environmentalist messiah?

After all, the environmental movement raised one of the most important political challenges to capitalism of the last 50 years. The movement won its biggest victories soon after the first Earth Day in 1970, when Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

After that, many environmentalists shifted their attention to the threat of nukes. They won a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants and pressured the U.S. and the former USSR to sign non-proliferation treaties.

At the same time, there was an explosion of community-based grassroots activism. The classic example is the Love Canal Parents Association, which formed when people in a community near Niagara Falls, N.Y., discovered in 1977 that their school and homes had been built on top of a half-mile long, earth-covered canal filled with 2,000 tons of toxic chemical and nuclear wastes. The struggle forced the federal government to build them a new town.

But during the Reagan-Bush years, the environmental movement went on the defensive. And when Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office in 1992, most of the movement's key activists thought it was time to come in from the cold. They took Gore at his word when he promised to be the "environmental vice president," so they moved to D.C. and got jobs as lobbyists.

In other words, the environmental movement did what so many other social movements have done in the last 150 years. It beached itself on the Democratic Party and died.

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RIGHT NOW, we have the technology to generate all the clean electricity we need and to drastically reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

Photovoltaic cells cost about 15 percent of what they did 20 years ago. Solar energy now costs between 25 and 35 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on the application and the size of the system. Electricity bought at retail off the existing grid costs from 5 to 35 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on where you live.

With real investment in research and development, reliable solar energy could be cheaper than traditional sources. So what keeps alternative energy sources from being developed?

Capitalism is a system based on competition for profit. In order for a company to survive, it has to make its product--a car or a gallon of gas or a kilowatt hour of electricity--at the lowest cost possible. If it can be undersold, it will go out of business in a hurry.

When companies need to bring down the cost of production, the environment is one of their first targets. It costs money to dispose of byproducts of production or install smokestack scrubbers. It's much cheaper to pour toxic waste into the nearest river. Even CEOs who think of themselves as nature-lovers have to do what it takes to compete.

But it's not just that the system forces individual companies to be environmentally destructive. Capitalism as a whole is like a cancer.

In order to keep the profits rolling in, corporations have to grow, which means that the entire economy has to grow for the system as a whole to survive. At a 3 percent rate of economic growth, the economy will be 16 times bigger a century from now. In two centuries, it will be 250 times bigger, and in three centuries, 4,000 times bigger. The bigger it gets, the more of the planet it destroys.

Saving the planet will take changing the way our society does business. We have to do more than challenge corporate power; we need to get rid of capitalism altogether.

What force in society has not only the motive to shut down the multinationals and overthrow capitalism, but the potential power to do it as well?

Workers suffer the most under the current system, not only from poverty and exploitation, but also from environmental damage.

Workers get toxic air and sick buildings, while Bill Gates has a $100 million, 40,000 square-foot "ecology" mansion on Puget Sound that filters everything including the light. Working-class soldiers get Gulf War Syndrome, while the war-mongering politicians drink bottled water for $5 a quart.

Workers not only have good reasons to fight back, they also have to power to shake the system to its foundations. One of the most important things about the global justice movement was that it showed that organized labor and environmentalists can forge real alliances.

During the 1999 Battle of Seattle, thousands of rank-and-file Teamsters defied their union leaders and marched into clouds of tear gas to defend environmental activists who were being attacked by cops as they protested a summit of the World Trade Organization.

In Miami, in November 2003, 20,000 AFL-CIO unionists joined thousands of environmentalists to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. More than once, when the police tried to harass student environmental activists, they were surrounded by crowds of steelworkers who forced them to back off.

That's just a glimpse of the kind of power that can take on the bosses and their system--that can really put ExxonMobil, Halliburton and the rest of the corporations out of business. And that's what we need to do if we really want to save the Earth.

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