Who speaks for Planet Earth?

This entry was posted Tuesday, 20 April, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Well Al Gore definitely does.  His recent presentation at Duke’s Page Auditorium (4/8/10) shows he does.  He pulled out all the stops and showed his depth of knowledge and passion.  He lifted from his new book, Our Choice, one of the most well researched and written books I have read for the lay person on our environmental crises, their connections and their solutions. Yet, there was something missing from his well-paced speech that, as we who have worked in the trenches, felt needed more attention: a realistic assessment and measurable targets for action.  We need specifics and focus, we need to get to the core of the challenges and how to solve them.

I first met the then Senator Gore at a McGraw Hill Business Week Conference in New York in 1990, where I had gone to find potential corporate donors to the Nicholas School (then the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, one of the oldest private forestry schools in the country and leader in EE).  During the all day conference, I had every one of my questions that I had submitted picked for panelists to answer– and that made me feel proud and maybe ahead of my time.  The last panel Senator Gore shared with Maurice Strong (another world visionary on the environment), and the organizers again picked one of my questions for them to answer, which went something like “what role will Universities play in research, education and leadership?”  And Gore misunderstood the question and said something like, “Yes, we need more research…..”  I was worried that this would be used as fodder by the corporate “suits” that packed the dinner to delay action on range of issues.

So when they asked if anyone had any further questions I stood up and tried to clarify my question, for which I was heckled by some jerk.  Alas, my fears of public speaking and standing up were reaffirmed. The Conference ended with me making the last point, steeling the limelight from Al and looking like some activist had snuck in.  I remember the cold stare I got from him riding down the elevator alone with his aid.  I had limited tolerance for politicians then and today, and I still hold a grudge and blame against the Clinton Administration for giving George Bush the White House.  But most importantly, Clinton and Gore wasted one of the strongest periods in our economic history tacking to and placating the center right and corporate America, and not taking the bully pulpit to move us toward progressive policies and environmental sustainability.

That being said, Gore started out with some absolutely hilarious self-deprecating humor, his “phantom limo disease” was a kill’ah.  He even used an old Minnie Pearl joke!  At this point, humor is greatly appreciated because if we didn’t laugh at the current situation, we would cry, or blow oneself up, like so many virgin seeking martyrs (are the women suicide bombers promised the same thing!?). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since the first calls to environmental alarm, so little has been done and it seems things are a lot worse than we had thought and headed that way right fast.

Right off the bat, Gore nailed it, giving immediate attention to the power of money and special interests to manipulate our political system and keep us from achieving easily attainable solutions.  His book chapter is scathing.  He was appalled by Supreme Court’s decision to strengthen corporation’s role in society by affirming their right to be viewed by the law as individual citizens.  And as a “recovering politician,” he spoke very precisely about how politicians and corporate leaders are driven to maximize shareholder value and power.  In fact, he spoke too precisely, seeming to rationalize behaviors by which he is now continuously haunted.

He went on to identify three things that have caused the relationship between humans and the Earth to “change” (better word may have been “disconnect”?):

1)      the industrial revolution,

2)      population growth, and

3)      technology.

Flexing his bicep (Al has lost some weight, which is good) while pacing the stage, he spoke to the power we now have to severely alter the planet.  Our favorite line was when he spoke to the drive to develop geo-engineering technology to sequester carbon, he said, “….we already have one, the tree, and when taken to scale this technology is called a forest!”  The geo-engineering people are scary and truly reflect how self/human absorped and disconnected we have become.

He spoke about the need for a Marshall Plan and Apollo Mission mentality and recited the African proverb,

“if you want to go fast, go alone,

if you want to go far, go together.”

He ended stating that we need to go far fast, a daunting task imparting to the young that they have the power to solve these problems.  We need political will, proper market signals through a carbon law and agricultural reform, he said.  He ended with the Margaret Mead line about the few committed, and that the young needed to be active and the old lead.

This stuck in our craw as disingenuous and simply false, as both MK and I know so many who have worked 30 and 40 years in the movement to see everything slipping away.  We are further away than ever from achieving sustainable policies.  Enormous resources, talent and time have been given to attempting to stop our self-destructive behavior, all to no avail.  Neither MK nor I believe we should do what James Lovelock (Gaia hypothesis) said to do, kick back and enjoy life as we have no idea what Mother Nature is going to do.  We are headed for catastrophic events and Gore well identified that the poor and those in most need of development will be affected the most.  We are careening into an evolutionary choke point.  Sadly, the system is so broken and captured by the wealthy elite and uneducated status quo, I can’t see how we can make progress without the system collapsing, and have to wait to achieve some incremental change after each higher frequency catastrophic event.  This is the reality.

MK and I went away with a feeling that his closing passionate plea about the morality of this issue was not well supported.  Yes, the inter-generational issue is important, but there is so much more.  He also failed to address what is dividing this country, and the role the Christian right has taken seemingly the moral high ground in affecting policy: blabbing on about the not so free free markets, fomenting anti government and anti taxation hysteria, and destroying population planning and foreign aid, and then not wanting action as the “end of times” will sort things out. Huge social, economic and fundamentally deep psychological issues divide us and keep us from understanding or making a cosmological spiritual shift. Each and every one of us needs a sole searching and to “redefine ourselves as species on this Earth,” as Thomas Berry was fond of saying.

It was a great honor to have had the opportunity to sit with so many gifted people and to hear a well-deserved Nobel prize winner, one of the great leaders of our time.  But leaders need to not only tell us the facts and be truthful, but to not to smooth icing over the real hard stuff in an effort to inspire or avoid alienation.