Al Gore: Questions and Answers
United Artists Pavilions Theater, Denver, Colorado
11 May 2006
"I'm a recovering politician. I'm on about Step 9."
- Al Gore
Does An Inconvenient Truth present only the left-wing ramblings of a madman jilted out of the Oval Office? Hardly. Al Gore's passion and humanity are both on display in the movie. Also, during a recent question-and-answer session following a screening of the film, he no longer seemed to be the stiff automaton (the one who also staked claim to creating the Internet). Extremely well spoken and comfortable in his own skin, Gore peppered many of his responses with a good-natured sense of humor.
The Q&A session started with a brief introduction by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who told of his days as a geology student back in the '70s, when climate change first struck a chord with him.
Hickenlooper has shifted from geologist to restaurant entrepreneur to mayor and now he leads Denver as a pioneering city advancing efficiencies through "Greenprint Denver," a sustainability initiative, comprised of members from public works, parks and recreation, and other agencies, that focuses on water, energy, and land use/transportation issues to ensure continued quality of life in the City of Denver.
As for the movie, Paramount is donating 5% of the film's gross to a bi-partisan educational campaign and Gore is donating 100% of his profits from both the movie and its companion book to the same campaign.
During the Q&A, Gore fielded questions from audience members. What follows are some of the highlights of that dialogue, which Gore kicked off by stating, "We face a planetary emergency. It is a challenge to our moral imagination. It is hard for us to believe and accept and absorb the new reality we face. I've been at this for more than 30 years and it's hard for me to really absorb the reality of this, but it is a moral challenge to all of us and getting the message out, mobilizing people, is critically important."
How can I push the use of alcohol fuel?
Alcohol fuels, particularly cellulosic ethanol — and I'm sure you know the distinction — there has been a widespread effort for many years to promote alcohol fuels made from corn and I've always been for that, but there are better versions now. Cellulosic ethanol, coming from less valuable plants, inherently, like switch grass and saw grass, are more efficient and you can use the waste products as a source of energy for the processing so that you don't have to use a lot of petroleum products to grow corn and process corn into alcohol. With that caveat, I will tell you I believe that cellulosic ethanol is likely to be a very large part of the solution for the gasoline part of this problem. It may also be true that before long we'll have new fuel cells that make electricity from cellulosic ethanol so that we can grow our own electricity, which would be pretty cool.
I began studying these problems at the same time you did, in 1968. My conclusion is that the human species now has all the major characteristics of a malignant process, that this is not a non-linear process; this is a dynamic process in a positive feedback loop. I think the situation is much worse than you say. Another component you mention is population growth; the human population is doubling every 39 or 40 years. I'm interested in knowing what you think are the implications of that in terms of the next century, for example, or beyond.
We can choose our own destiny. Let's be clear about that. We are an incredible mix of potentials. Our evolutionary heritage and the emergence process by which we have come into being gives us an unbelievable range of potential for good and ill. But we have the capacity to choose what we do and where we go from here. I choose to reject the parasite metaphor, the virus metaphor, the pathology, cancer metaphor. You can see humankind, as some are tempted to do, as a kind of malignancy that will run its course until the host rejects it.
I reject the metaphor because we don't have to accept the metaphor. We can choose a different path. Take population as an example. Population is, yes, one of the three factors that has radically transformed the relationship between the human species and the planet. But population is a success story, a story about how we collectively have chosen to alter the course of the population dynamic. It used to double that frequently (every 39 or 40 years), but now it is headed toward a leveling off, almost certainly within 40 to 50 years, and the dynamic is by now pretty well understood. There is something called the 'demographic transition,' a shift from one equilibrium state to another, from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and low death rates. Every nation in the world is some place on that "S" curve, as the statisticians present it.
For example... if I asked you how many children, how many brothers and sisters did each of your grandparents have, most of us would say six or seven or eight. And our great-grandparents had more than that. But here in the U.S. now the average family size is much smaller, less than an average of two children per family. That's true all over the developed world and the increase in family size, even though Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have the highest birthrates in the world, they're lower now than they were.
What causes that? Four or five conditions, all of which need to be present. The education of girls and women. The participation by women in decision making in the society. The availability, number three, of culturally acceptable forms of birth control. Number four, a surprise for some, low child and infant mortality. Julius Kambarage Nyerere, a leader of Tanzania back when it was Tanganyika, said 40 years ago, "The most powerful contraceptive in the world is the confidence that your children will survive."
When children survive and women can participate in the decision-making process, then family sizes come down. We are choosing a different path. We need to choose a different technology path. We need to choose a different philosophical and investment path. The whole short-term mentality is crazy. We're operating the planet, as someone said, like a business in liquidation. We need to have respect for the future. But these are choices we make. We are not ringworms. We can transcend our limitations.
I'm sorry to get on my soapbox there.
What are the principal roadblocks to a more widespread public understanding of this crisis?
Number one, most people assume that the Earth is so big we can't possibly have any meaningful impact on it.
Second, the psychological concept of denial is a very real phenomenon. It's not that complicated that if a thought is associated with potential pain of some sort, we don't want to entertain it. That's natural and so we push it off.
Third, we live in a culture of mass distraction. Sustained reflective thought is more difficult in our society. It's possible to get the impression, in watching the nightly news, that Russell Crowe throwing a telephone at a hotel concierge is roughly comparable to the Iraq war in significance that day. The public forum in which we debate and discuss ideas is now no longer characterized by the rule of reason and a meritocracy of ideas with low entry barriers for individuals. It is, instead, a public forum that has been re-feudalized, used mainly for advertising, mainly to sell things, and is dominated by a relatively small number of conglomerates that control 90% of the outlets for what used to be called "news," which themselves infuse entertainment values into the so-called "news process."
The Internet is the main source of hope and does allow individuals to once again play the role that Thomas Paine did in the 1780s. But the Internet does not mass-distribute television in real-time and television is quasi-hypnotic and that's why the average American watches television 4 hours and 39 minutes per day. That's up 4 minutes from last year. True.
It's amazing, isn't it? And John and I don't watch that much, so some of you are making up for us and watching more.
When those conglomerates controlling that airspace, which controls those brainwaves, interview public officials, they don't ask them about global warming. We need to change the public dialogue. We need to get this reality before enough people so that any members of the news media, any political leaders of whatever party or persuasion, who don't talk about this and make meaningful proposals for solving this quickly will be run out of town.
Where do you think nuclear power and uranium fit in? Do they?
I used to represent Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where we are immune to the effects of radiation, so I've always had a fondness for nuclear power. I am not reflexively opposed to it, but I doubt that it will play a much larger role than it plays now. I think this is a significant uncertainty, but let me tell you what I think the problems are.
You know about the long-term waste storage issue.
The vulnerability to terrorist attack, another issue. Let's assume we can solve that problem. There are still issues. For 8 years in the White House every nuclear weapons proliferation problem that we faced was connected to a civilian reactor program. And right now some of the same people who are waxing enthusiastic about nuclear reactors are beside themselves about how to contain Iran's nuclear weapons program because they will not put all of the different safeguards into their reactor program.
If we used nuclear reactors to back out a significant part of coal, and coal is the real issue here, if we used it significantly, we'd have to put 10,000 reactors everywhere on the planet including in a lot of countries that we really would not want to have a nuclear weapons program.
And we would quickly run out of uranium. It is in finite supply. Unless — and there is an answer — we can go back to a breeder cycle or a reprocessing technology or some variant. All of which dramatically increase the availability of weapons grade or near-weapons grade nuclear materials, greatly worsening the other part of the problem.
Final concern: nuclear power plants in their present generation of technology are the most expensive, largest increment, longest to construct sources of electricity.
How much time might we have left before "business as usual" would lead to our crossing a point of no return?
There are people who I really respect a lot, who are on the cutting edge of scientific expertise, who I think do know what they're talking about, who are now saying that we probably have around 10 years in which to make significant changes, not to do everything, but to make significant changes lest we cross a point of no return.
It's not a statement that the world would end in 10 years, not at all. But crossing a point of no return would be the beginning of an end stage process for human civilization.
The question that I pose at the end of the movie, from our children's generation in the future, thinking back and asking backwards across the years, "What were our parents thinking? How could they have allowed this to happen?" is a question that we want to prevent them from ever having to ask. We need to hear that question now and answer it now. Not with our promises but with our actions.
At the political level, is there an acknowledgement that global warming is a serious issue?
If Bush and Cheney do believe this, I wish they'd tell us.
The quote from Upton Sinclair, a hundred years ago, is actually relevant to this, I think. Maybe this is slanderous, but he wrote, as you will recall, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it."
We as human beings have a vulnerability to convincing ourselves that something obviously true to another observer is not true.
George Orwell wrote, I believe in the 1950s — and I'm paraphrasing here, you can ask Dr. Google for the exact quote — roughly it was this: people are capable of believing something long after the full weight of all the accumulated evidence shows very clearly that it is wrong. They can continue to believe it indefinitely and they can base policies on it. But sooner or later there is a collision with reality, often on a battlefield.
I cannot look into the hearts and minds of George W. Bush and Dick "W." Cheney. I just don't know what they're thinking and feeling.
Dick Cheney... I don't know what his middle initial is. That was a pathetic attempt at a slur, wasn't it? I couldn't help it, you know? I'm sorry. He's not a good hunter, either. I went 8 years as vice president and I didn't shoot anybody. (Thank you very much.)
I don't know what they're thinking and feeling, I really don't, and how they could continue to profess this in spite of the evidence I really do not know.
This crisis is the most dangerous one our civilization has ever faced, but it has more opportunity as well. The opportunity is for new jobs, new products, new technologies, new improvements to our standard of living, new patterns that will make life more enjoyable, smart growth, light rail, etc.
But there is a larger opportunity, more important than all of that. This crisis actually presents us with an opportunity to experience something that few generations ever have the privilege of knowing: a shared moral purpose, an overriding challenge that calls us to transcend our limits. A necessity imposed by circumstance to set aside more of the pettiness and bickering that we as humans are naturally vulnerable to getting bogged down in.
Rising to meet this challenge can give us the vision and moral authority to see other crises that are masquerading as political problems but are actually moral imperatives. My parents' generation, the same as some of you, became known as "The Greatest Generation" because they rose to meet the challenge of global fascism, winning World War II in both the Atlantic and the Pacific simultaneously. As they rose to meet that challenge, they gained the vision to create the Marshall Plan and they gained the moral authority to convince the American taxpayers to pay for it, willingly, enthusiastically, proudly, to lift up enemies that we had just been facing on the battlefield. To create the international institutions and the foundation for 50 years of peace and progress, would that we had not coasted in the tail end of that period.
Now we face crises that are horrendous that masquerade as political problems. HIV AIDS. 20 million AIDS orphans on the continent of Africa alone. Chronic civil wars with mayhem and suffering fought by child soldiers. Genocide in Darfur going on right now. Famine. Tens of millions dying of easily-preventable diseases. The killing of the oceans and the rain forests.
These are not political conundrums, these are moral imperatives that we have to find a way to face up to. This crisis gives us the opportunity to rise and in meeting it gain the vision and moral authority to solve these other crises and to make them what they are: moral imperatives.
We can do it. And, as has often been the case, leaders like those of you here can lead the way.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.