Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: The...

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: The Environmental Ethic versus the Big Business Ethic

A documentary film with Al Gore, 2006

(Paramount Classics and Participant Productions; Jeff Skoll and Davis Guggenheim, executive producers; directed by Davis Guggenheim; produced by Laurie David, Lawrence Bender and Scott Z. Burns; co-producer, Leslie Chilcott.)

Environmental Literature and An Inconvenient Truth

Cover image of 'An Inconvenient Truth' DVDBrowse the internet for a reading list of environmental books and you’ll find familiar titles such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and many others, depending on the compiler of the list. Farther down the list you might find Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to name just a few. But you can probably bet that Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit is not on it.

Earth in the Balance was popular among those already convinced that our use of fossil fuels is causing a greenhouse effect resulting in global warming. But the book is anything but compelling or gripping. Indeed, many would claim that Gore’s book is as uninspiring as his 2000 presidential campaign.

Will that change with An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s documentary movie on the same topic? Designed to spur us to action to save the earth from global warming caused by the industrial revolution, the message of this documentary is the same as the book, only the medium has changed. I hope the film will open people’s eyes to the crisis we face, though I fear that this may be wishful thinking. When I saw the movie at a local church last month a comment from an audience member struck me: “where was this Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign?” He was Al Gore “the professor,” engaging, informative, authoritative and the documentary itself was gripping, despite basically being a ninety-minute power point presentation featuring Gore lecturing to several audiences around the globe.

Gore’s Case for Global Warming

Gore’s interest in global warming derives from a chance encounter he had with pre-eminent oceanographer, Roger Revelle, in an undergraduate class at Harvard in the 1960s. After directing the Scripps Oceanographic Institution in La Jolla, California from 1950 to 1964, Revelle went to Harvard University where he served as Professor of Population Policy and Director of the Center for Population Studies. It was from Revelle, one of the great American scientists of the 20th century, that Gore learned about the study of CO2 concentrations measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The graph on this page shows measurements from Mauna Loa which document the increase of atmospheric CO2 in a continuous pattern since 1957. Revelle had showed Gore this trend after only eight years of measurements. Gore uses this graph in his documentary as primary evidence of the increased “greenhouse” effect caused by increase in CO2.

When Rick first saw the Mer de Glace in the early 1970's, the glacier came all the way down to the bottom of this photograph.  In 30 years, it has retreated several hundred meters.An Inconvenient Truth, which everyone should see, documents the evidence which the scientific community has accumulated to prove that global warming, clearly the result of our use of fossil fuels, is affecting and will continue to affect the environment, possibly even in the lifetime of many baby-boomers, but certainly in the lives of our children and grand-children.

The popular press is full of discussions about this topic:

1) The British government recently issued a report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern suggesting that global warming could impact the world economy negatively by about 20% by 2050. The same report claims that an immediate but small investment of 1% of annual global economic output could avoid this result.

2) Newsweek economist and columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in the Nov. 13, 2006 issue that neither developed nor developing societies are capable of grasping this reality and doing anything about it since the technology to affect our current use of energy is too expensive. Also, politicians, he argues, won’t impose harsh economic sanctions to improve conditions only decades from now. Finally, claims Samuelson, even if the developed countries chose to do something drastic immediately, the developing countries such as China and India are not likely to follow suit since they are just entering a period of prosperity and economic growth that they are not willing to forego.

So how does one get the attention of the world’s fossil fuel consumers and convince them to change their ways today? I’m afraid to say, Al Gore’s film won’t do it, not alone at any rate.

Al Gore, Edward Abbey, Jared Diamond and Amory Lovins

What Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern need is a combination of Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and futurists such as Arthur Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) or Alvin Toffler (Future Shock and The Third Wave) with geographer and writer Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse) to convey this message to an all-too-lethargic public, on one hand, and to the political and business movers and shakers, on the other. Maybe Amory Lovins is the person to convince this latter group.

Lovins is the co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit energy think tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. In the September 2005 Scientific American Lovins summarized his study, The , a 2004 publication which Lovins and colleagues produced, in part with a contract from the US Department of Defense. Their solution to weaning us off massive fuel consumption is easy, he claims. We just have to decide to do it by “artfully combining lightweight materials with innovations in propulsion and aerodynamics [to] . . . cut oil use by cars, trucks and planes by two thirds without compromising comfort, safety, performance or affordability.”Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security

Lovins writes further in the same Scientific American article that “despite 119 years of refinement, the modern car remains astonishingly inefficient. Only 13 percent of its fuel energy even reaches the wheels – the other 87 percent is either dissipated as heat and noise in the engine and drivetrain or lost to idling and accessories such as air conditioners.”

It is worth noting that the two major players in energy efficiency in the U.S., namely the automobile manufacturers and the US Congress have refused to increase fuel efficiency standards for US autos (the famous Corporate Average Fuel Economy – CAFE standards) since 1975. Concern about dependency on foreign fuel and more awareness of global warming is beginning to nudge the congress toward changes in the CAFE standards, but nothing to the extent of the changes recommended by Lovins’ group.

What We Really need are 500 Million (Yes, that’s 500,000,000) Efficient Cook Stoves

Bryan Willson of Colorado State University holds a model of a two-cycle taxi common in the Phillipines and other developing nations.In the midst of stonewalling by the U.S. automobile industry and by the U.S. congress, small scale entrepreneurs have been working to introduce new and efficient solutions to the energy problem. One of these innovators and entrepreneurs is Dr. Bryan Willson, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Under the radar and out of the spotlight, Willson has created one of the most innovative laboratories to study energy efficiency in the nation. Willson will tell you that he and his students have purposely avoided working on automotive engines. Instead, they’ve directed their research at two stroke engines in the third world – mostly motorcycles and mopeds with sidecars – and also to snowmobiles, large diesel engines (including truck engines), and cook stoves.

In cooperation with companies such as Woodward Industrial Controls, Caterpillar, John Deere, Cummins and others, Willson has been performing research and retrofits on diesel engines to cut both pollution and energy waste by as much as 95% in some cases. This type of efficiency conversion is just what Lovins is promoting for the automotive industry.

Bryan Willson of Colorado State University explains his facility for testing emissions of primitive cookstoves.A fascinating spin-off from Willson’s research on air pollution has been the Advanced Stoves Laboratory (ASL) at The Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (EECL) at Colorado State (see details here). As Willson and others have noted, most of the world’s population cook and heat with inefficient stoves that consume vast amounts of coal, wood, and dung. The result is serious indoor air pollution, over-consumption of these fuels and a major contributor to global warming.

As awareness of this source of CO2 increases, more and more efforts are being made to provide the developing world with efficient stoves (See “Soot From Wood Stoves In Developing World Impacts Global Warming More Than Expected” in Science Daily, Oct. 24, 2006) . Of course, any change in cultural traditions that requires adjustments in food and food preparation habits is notoriously complex to implement. The same is true, it would seem, of our cultural attitude toward automobiles and the wasteful use of fuel.

The Environmental Ethic vs. the Big Business Ethic

As I meander through this “movie review” I can’t help but ask myself, “why do I care?” An even more pressing question is “how did I come to this place,” and how is it that we, as a society, have gotten to the point that the issue of global warming has divided us between “environmentalists” and “big business,” between liberals and conservatives, between left and right?

The answer, of course, is in the history of the US in the last seventy-five years in general, the last forty years (since Vietnam) in particular, and specifically in the political climate in the country in the last decade, more or less. Needless-to-say, this is not the place (nor do I have the time) to delve into this. Not only would it require a book-length review of political and social history of the US but it would require a full exposé on the history of the environmental movement during this time. We’d have to talk about Rachel Carson, hippies, the Vietnam war, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, Ronald Reagan’s role in eliminating alternative energy credits, Monica Lewinsky, and Sept. 11, 2001.

Let me short circuit this essay now by quoting John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Markets about the “ultimate purpose of business.” Mr. Mackey claims that it is a "myth that the ultimate purpose of business is always to maximize profits for the investors.” The myth, he asserts, comes from the earliest economists just after the Industrial Revolution who observed that successful businesses always made a profit. “The economists,” he writes, “soon concluded that maximizing profits is the only goal they should seek.” He further asserts that “the classical economists went from describing the behavior in which they observed successful entrepreneurs engage while operating their businesses, to prescribing that behavior as the correct behavior that all entrepreneurs should always engage in all of the time.”

So here we are at the dawning of the 21st century almost two hundred fifty years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and big business, namely big oil and big automobile manufacturers, are very focused on profits to the detriment of an open discussion on environmental degradation, namely in the form of global warming caused by our wasteful use of fossil fuels.

Will Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth change minds and turn heads? Alone I don’t think it will. Will it help? I don’t think it will hurt, although there is the potential that it may help to further widen the gulf between the “environmentalists” and “big business” until such time as more solid, physical evidence hits us in the pocketbook to cause the general public to raise their voices. The hit to the pocketbook would involve:


  • Increasing natural disasters, including hurricanes, drought, and floods;
  • A rise in sea level causing erosion and flooding of coastal areas;
  • An increase in contagious diseases caused by climate change;
  • Famine;
  • Increase of fuel costs for air conditioning in large cities;
  • An increase in fuel costs in general;
  • Further degradation of air quality.

The bottom line, of course, is that by this time it would be too late to do much about it.

Further Reading:

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabet Kolbert (often cited as the global warming equivalent of Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring).

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery.