Peeking over to the Other Side
Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth tells people to consider global warming a moral challenge. Eric Lee, Participant Productions/Paramount Classics
By Brin Stevens
This is one scenario of the end of the world: It’s 2027 and our planet has become a toxic wasteland so polluted that women have become infertile—not one child has been born in 18 years. Human beings have less than a century left on Earth. All-out war blankets the globe. Life is so unbearable that the most successful corporation is a drug company that produces a suicide pill called Quietus. This is the backdrop to director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Children of Men, from a novel by P. D. James.
This movie is not your typical science fiction thriller portraying a future swelled in the successes of advancement. This is the story of the failure of technology and science, the death of faith, the loss of innocence, and the slow, hopeless demise of humankind without struggle. Or is it?
Out of the madding crowd, an erstwhile political activist named Theo (Clive Owen) stumbles into the role of foolhardy hero when he comes face-to-face with the only known pregnant woman on the planet. He manages to transport child and mother to safety by delivering both to something called the Human Project, where, presumably, dark clouds will part and the future of the civilized world will be restored. The planet is saved, Hollywood-style. Again.
Here is another scenario of the end of the world: It’s 2027 and consecutive years of record-high temperatures have melted Greenland’s ice sheet and most of Antarctica’s ice shelves. Global sea levels have risen over 20 feet. Southern Florida, most United States coastal cities (including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and a good portion of Manhattan); the coasts of Europe, South America, Africa; and major cities in southeast Asia are all completely under water, devastated. Inland areas are suffering from droughts, bug infestations, wildfires, plagues. Hundreds of species are becoming extinct daily. Beyond this point, ecosystems start to break down quickly, until, finally, things stop happening. Life stops happening. And the planet sleeps.
This is not science fiction, and there is no happy ending. This is the condensed version of Al Gore’s recent documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and his message is powerfully clear: human behavior is destroying the planet, global warming is a serious threat to biodiversity, and in 10 years, if we continue to live without a collective sense of moral responsibility, we will reach a point of no return. In other words, the damage will be irreversible.
I haven’t met too many people who have actually seen this second movie. Statistically speaking, a great many moviegoers haven’t. An Inconvenient Truth has grossed $42 million worldwide since its release in May 2006—and this includes DVD and VHS rentals—but Children of Men, for example, grossed $56 million in just its first four weeks in theaters. To be fair, global warming is not a new topic, and the idea of watching a soft-ripened Gore analyze data in limpid prose is not the height of entertainment (although this movie is riveting, I assure you). The sad fact is, most Americans aren’t particularly worried about global warming. In a survey done by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in June 2006, a month after An Inconvenient Truth came out in theaters, only 19 percent of Americans said they worry a lot about global warming. Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) expressed little if any concern at all. In contrast, roughly two-thirds of Japanese (66 percent) and Indians (65 percent) said they worry a great deal about global warming.
The majority of U.S. newspapers and magazines still question the existence of global warming, even while “100 percent” of scientists say it’s real. The dispersal of misinformation by the media, Gore explains, is a hangover from the 1990s, when energy industries successfully repositioned global warming as a “debate”—similar to the way tobacco companies presented the hazards of smoking. This is the simple fact: in the last 15 years, we’ve witnessed the 10 hottest years in history (history meaning billions of years). This is not fiction and it’s not some cyclical weather pattern where temperatures will return to normal. This is our planet in the process of transforming into a malignant tumor. And we should be worried. Very worried.
In his new book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press), philosopher Jonathan Lear examines how a society might equip itself for a cultural collapse. Working from his study on the devastation the Crow Nation Indians experienced after life as they knew it was replaced with reservation life, Lear writes: “If a people genuinely are at the historical limit of their way of life, there is precious little they can do to ‘peek over to the other side.’ Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken.” He explains that when we are successfully able to conceptualize our anxiety, we’re at our creative peak—this is what Lear calls imaginative excellence: “At a time of radical historical change, the concept of courage will itself require new forms. This is the reality that needs to be faced—the call for concepts—and it would seem that if one were to face up to such a challenge well it would have to be done imaginatively.”
In regard to sustainable living, we are starting to see new concepts take shape in the form of large-scale movements. The United Nations, for example, has declared 2008 the International Year of Planet Earth, led by UNESCO and its division of Ecological and Earth Sciences. This means that throughout the next three years, international industry and governments will raise millions of dollars and spend it solely on environmental research and outreach programs. It will mark the largest transcontinental effort to promote the wellbeing of our planet. With money flowing into the marketplace, other surprising shifts have followed. Ten major U.S. companies, along with four environmental groups, just announced the creation of a U.S. Climate Action Partnership (the group includes major corporations like Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, DuPont, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, Duke Energy, etc.) that would limit carbon dioxide emissions leading to the reduction of emissions by up to 30 percent over the next two decades.
Probably the most encouraging form of radical thinking came on January 17, 2007, when 28 prominent evangelical leaders and secular scientists set aside their differences to write and sign “An Urgent Call to Action,” a statement that promises that two of the most powerful forces, science and religion, will make a serious and unified commitment to work together to fight global warming and other environmental ills. The two groups spearheading this effort, the National Association of Evangelicals and scientists at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, quickly discovered during their three-day retreat in Georgia that when they moved past rhetoric, they shared a sense of purpose and passion in the protection of creation. “We agree that our home, the Earth, which comes to us as that inexpressibly beautiful and mysterious gift that sustains our very lives, is seriously imperiled by human behavior. . . . It requires a new moral awakening to a compelling demand, clearly articulated in Scripture and supported by science, that we must steward the natural world in order to preserve for ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment. For many of us, this is a religious obligation, rooted in our sense of gratitude for Creation and reverence for its Creator.” (I urge you to read the entire statement at http://chge.med.harvard.edu.)
While An Inconvenient Truth tackles the big issues head on, there is intrinsic value to successful apocalyptic movies like Children of Men. Any form of mass culture that will allow large audiences to encounter and experience an alternative future, one of immense emptiness, ultimately helps us to decide between living in abstract systems of morality where we continue to behave badly, or living courageously and deciding to embrace a Promethean approach to saving the planet from extinction, whereby we will find our happy ending—or, if we’re lucky, no ending at all.
Brin Stevens is managing editor of the Bulletin.