The power of reason and the market
Simon Wells is not impressed by the market solutions to climate change advocated by Al Gore in Davis Guggenheim's film An inconvenient truth
An inconvenient truth is a documentary film about climate change, especially global warming, fronted by former United States vice-president Al Gore. It is also an unconventional film, where for the most part Gore stands on a raised platform before a large screen in front of an audience. At other times we see him at his laptop, staring out of the car window, talking into his mobile phone or passing through airport security.
At the start of the film he jokes, "Hello, I'm Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States." But this is certainly not the wooden number two of the Clinton presidency: he is portrayed as a passionate and knowledgeable campaigner warning of the dangers of global warming. Using maps, graphs and images, he effortlessly interweaves scientific facts, personal drama and moral imperatives into a slick and polished show he has been developing since 1989.
The film is also interspersed with his own emotional highs and lows. It was in 1989 that his son was knocked down by a car and nearly died. This event reoriented his priorities and he started on the first draft of the slide show which he has shown over a thousand times throughout the world and which forms the basis of the film.
Gore presents the consequences of an increase in worldwide temperatures, ranging from melting glaciers to loss of biodiversity. This, he says, is caused by an increase in man-made carbon emissions. He shows there is a strong correlation between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperature variations. Using the latest evidence by examining air pockets in Antarctic ice core samples from the past 600,000 years, scientists can accurately map rising and falling temperatures over the years and the carbon in the atmosphere by measuring the oxygen isotopes.
Gore says there is no longer any controversy about the facts: "Out of 925 recent articles in peer-review scientific journals about global warming, there was no disagreement. Zero." However, he points out that a database search of newspaper and magazine articles shows that 57% question the fact of global warming. This is the result of a 15-year disinformation campaign by the energy industry to relegate global warming to a mere theory. The tobacco companies adopted a similar strategy to cast doubts over the link between smoking and lung cancer.
Gore is no recent adherent to environmentalism. Over 30 years ago, when he was at Harvard University, he taught alongside professor Roger Revelle, who later set up the research station at Mauna Loa in Hawaii and launched weather balloons to measure carbon dioxide. Upon entering Congress, he called Revelle as a witness to the first congressional hearing on global warming 26 years ago. His colleagues were singularly unimpressed.
When Gore was vice-president, he promoted a carbon tax and helped negotiate the 1997 Kyoto protocol to reduce carbon emissions. During the 2000 presidential campaign Gore ran on a pledge to ratify Kyoto. Since the 2000 defeat he has been delivering his presentation slide show around the world, most recently in Australia (which, along with the US, is alone among advanced countries in not having signed the protocol), provoking the response from prime minister John Howard, "I don't take policy advice from films."
Gore, though, is part of America's imperial capitalist class and his solutions are based on that perspective. He is an adviser to Google's senior management and on the board of Apple Computers, whose name and logo we see emblazoned on Gore's laptop throughout the film. His solution is that we need to understand our relationship with the earth in three ways: population, technology and how we think about what he says is the "climate crisis". He says: "Our new technologies, combined with our numbers, have made us collectively a force of nature." For this reason, he says, it is easier not to think about the problem.
However, when we do it is difficult to comprehend the scientific conclusions that are obfuscated by self-interested lobbyists. But Gore sees no contradiction between the insatiable drive of capital to create surplus value and the need to protect the planet. He rejects the "false belief that we have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment". For him the marketplace can be adapted to fit in with maintaining the environment. He cites the market capitalisation of the large automobile companies between February and November 2005 as an example, showing that those with the greatest fuel economy, Toyota and Honda, had a positive increase, while Ford and General Motors, whose fuel economy was the lowest, suffered a negative increase in capitalisation.
When it comes to the giant transnationals, then, a little bit of cajoling and the odd incentive will do the trick. Meanwhile, "Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can become part of the solution "¦ we are capable of transcending our own limitations and rising to take responsibility for charting our own destiny." Such vacuous phrase-mongering is no doubt an attempt to mimic one of his heroes of the past, Winston Churchill, whose 1936 speech he quotes: "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."
He also looks to Ghandi and Martin Luther King as examples of those who have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges and concludes that, in order to overcome climate crisis, we can use our "god-given ability to reason with one another about our future and make moral choices to change policies ..." That is about as good as it gets.
The problem, however, lies in the system of capital, where social needs - including those related to environmental sustainability - are subordinated to profit. Because the problem crosses national borders, only an internationalist perspective can overcome the metabolic rift that capitalism has imposed on humanity's relationship with the earth.
So what is the solution? Writing in Socialist Worker, Martin Empson says: "I believe that we can stop climate change. But it will require ordinary men and women in their millions forcing states and governments to confront some of these powerful companies. In doing so, those people will also confront the priorities of the society we live in. Firstly we have to convince millions of people of the need to act" (September 23).
But how, exactly, should they act? Since comrade Empson leaves it at that, we can only conclude that mobilising for the next demonstration, the next rally, is what he has in mind. That is, after all, in line with the Socialist Workers Party's 'strategy' for the Stop the War Coalition. Unfortunately, however, while large numbers are often prepared to join the initial demonstrations, without a positive programme numbers will tend to get increasingly smaller. By deliberately excluding the possibility of winning the movement to a radical programme for the sake of numbers, the SWP ends up with a lowest-common-denominator approach that insults the intelligence of the working class.
Everyone might agree that wind, wave and solar power could be harnessed, and energy could be produced and consumed much more efficiently. Most will also agree that the actions of the transnationals are a big part of the problem. But what is the solution? Capitalism is an exploitative system that must endlessly grow and overcome all barriers to that growth. It is also an uneven system, where the developed societies can manage the effects of climate change better than others. The UK can ensure that the Thames Barrier, at a cost of £500 million in 1984, protects London from flooding, while people living in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta of Bangladesh have to survive as best they can. The rich of New Orleans lived on the high ground and escaped the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while the poor were left to rot in the Superdome.
To overcome the problems highlighted in Al Gore's film, we have to be consistently wary of any solutions that capitalism offers. Capitalism markets the energy-efficient Toyota Prius, as modelled by the rich and famous. More modestly, it offers energy-efficient light bulbs. But it is all sell, sell, sell. The left for the most part simply bolts on policies advocated by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party - sources that the oil corporations such as BP also use when devising their greenwash campaigns.
There are no short cuts. The answer can only be to confront the current social relations of production - and for that we need a Communist Party, armed with a programme for extreme democracy and socialism.