Cartoonist Walk Kelly might have been hip to the real problem before Al Gore. In his “Pogo” cartoon strip beginning in 1949, Kelly defended conservation as it was called then and dangerously satirized American political events such as the Communist blacklist. But Kelly is often best remembered for the time his Pogo possum character commented on the eve of Earth Day 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That line is certain to haunt older viewers of the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, a presentation of Al Gore’s global warming slide show cut with stories of Gore’s youth, his family and his path from tobacco grower to presidential candidate to ecology guru and back to – well, is he going to run again?
The film is worthwhile in the truest sense. Gore’s presentation of the facts doesn’t waste time and doesn’t condescend. In matter-of-fact language and with just enough humor to negate the wonk “robot” image Gore has unfortunately been saddled with, the former VP clearly lays out the problem and the deadlines to deal with it.
But most importantly, Gore identifies the terrorist criminal mastermind behind global warming: us. And our lassitude in impacting destiny by means of political will. In other words, what Pogo knew.
If there is one singular obstacle to the creation and administration of environmental protections – and, in Gore’s persuasive arguments, to human survival – it is the notion that these problems have a dimension that makes solving them impossible. They’re too big, they’re too imposing and regular folks just can’t make a difference.
But at the core of most environmental issues is something small, not large. Witness the recent struggle over the 14-acre urban farm area in South Los Angeles. Daryl Hannah literally hugged a tree, as did Joan Baez before her. But as a deadline approached, the owner of the land refused a $16 million offer to save the garden. It was the amount he had been asking for. His reason for still refusing? His feelings were hurt. Some of the protestors trying to save the garden had made improper remarks about him and were squatting on land that had cost him $25,000 a month to maintain. Said the owner: “If the farmers got a donation and said, ‘We got $50 million, would you sell it to us?’ I would say no. Not a chance. It’s not about money.”
One can argue that the urban farm issue was more social than environmental, but anytime trees and plants are taken out of the cycle of life and replaced with buildings or malls or parking lots, it’s environmental. And when that happens and the only benefit of that change is somebody making some money, or they get some weird revenge, then we’re dealing with an issue of small proportions. Somebody is being, well, tiny.
Gore’s film concludes with seemingly modest proposals that include unplugging some of our appliances and reducing our need for electricity. He attacks the notion that negative “economic impacts” are an excuse to veto environmental measures by citing the faltering, gas-gulping products of the U.S. auto industry. He dramatically underscores the fact that while Bush has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocols, over 200 American cities have committed to meet or beat the U.S. emissions reduction target cited in the treaty.
At the heart of each of these is something very small and manageable: using fewer plug-in gadgets, selling cars people actually want to buy and electing politicians with vision. Ain’t no big thing, this saving the planet business.
And yet, I’ll concede it can be overwhelming and even emotional. Friends who have seen Gore’s film use one word repeatedly: moved. Maybe that emotional component is different for each person, but it’s my guess that people are shaken by a sense of loss. We had a beautiful planet, and now we’re killing it. In my neighborhood, someone put up a cross memorial where a large, old beautiful tree had recently been cut down. There were pictures on the cross of the tree, before and after. But the real “after” picture was the site itself: nothing now, where before life had been.