Sunday, June 24, 2007

The difference between hypocrisy and unilateral disarmament

A charge of hypocrisy always carries with it the Biblical echo of Matthew 23 and thus seems like a weighty and serious condemnation coming directly from God. That is why it is a favorite among those who have lost an argument on its merits and who must now resort to ad hominem attacks.

Such was the case with attacks on Al Gore's personal energy use earlier this year which, in some instances, found their way into major media including USA Today. Gore has responded to some of the attacks, and I'll let you judge his effectiveness.

But it is undeniable that we would not even be discussing Al Gore's energy use today had he not crisscrossed the globe in jet aircraft to make his global warming slideshow presentation more than 2000 times. Nearly everyone now alive is enmeshed in systems that rely heavily on fossil fuels. Even simple household tasks such as cooking and mowing the lawn use fossil fuels. Even if you have a push lawn mower, fossil fuels were used to make it and ship it. Gore's point, of course, is that we have to change the system so that it doesn't run on fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Naturally, it would be very hard for him to advocate for such a change while living in a lean-to in the forest. And so, Gore uses the tools available to hydrocarbon man: air travel, slideshows, microphones, television and radio appearances, the Internet, and now, his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

I've never met Al Gore, but I do know many people who are trying to inform the public about the twin dangers of global warming and peak oil. Most of them think carefully about the energy they use in trying to get the message out. And, most do a balancing test that amounts to this: Does the good I'm trying to do exceed the damage I must do, say, through travel? It's not an easy judgement to make. There is no simple equation into which to plug a set of appropriate numbers. I know at least one prominent person in the peak oil movement who says he can no longer justify attending overseas conferences because of the energy used and the greenhouse gases emitted.

And yet, to forego travel and modern methods of communication altogether would be to engage in unilateral disarmament. And, isn't that what the global warming and peak oil deniers really want?

The truth is that all of us are hypocrites. None of us measures up to our own ideals unless we have set our standards so low that they don't deserve the name ideals. And, yet our ideals point the way even as we stumble toward them.

Meanwhile, the propagandists, pundits, and so-called scholars aligned with the fossil fuel industry jet about freely with their cellphones and BlackBerries in hand as they burn untold quantities of fossil fuel while spreading their disinformation. Since they've lost the scientific argument about global warming, they now turn to the savagery of personal attacks. (The peak oil debate doesn't yet have the traction of the global warming issue. But we can look forward to a similar dynamic when peak oil reaches the same level of public awareness.)

These deniers often tell us how they can respect a principled person with whom they disagree; but the one thing they can't abide is a hypocrite. Naturally, because the deniers don't believe we have a problem with global warming or fossil fuel supplies, they are free to go on gorging themselves on fossil fuels without any feelings of shame. (By that logic, it seems, they could kill people they don't like without shame as long as they believe it to be consistent with their principles.)

How convenient, then, to deny the inconvenient truths that get in the way of one's personal desires and narrow self-interest! Apparently for the deniers, all it takes to live a blameless life is to cultivate a certain state of mind that makes virtues out of all one's vices.


Conrad Nobert said...

Your posts are always very insightful. Much more value-added than most bloggers.


gregory said...

I would agree that each person is responsible for assessing their own living patterns, while consciously considering the impact of their actions. Nevertheless, the cultural fiction underlying the dominant pattern of living doesn't strike me as consciously rationalized, yet your conclusion--"cultivate a certain sense of mind"--insinuates conscious intent. Further, your extension of logic--"principled, yet shameless, murder"--elevates the conversation to an unreasonable tone and tenor. Should you expect reasonable behavior, if your own reasonableness is in doubt? No. The exact opposite should be expected. I am forced to wonder if you are being fully honest with yourself.

Similarly, the insertion of Al Gore into the conversation raises many flags. I am left feeling that you see Al Gore as a legitimate spokesman on issues of climate change, and somehow his contributions justify the impact of his lifestyle, since you seem to deflect the criticism through justification.

Al Gore’s aims to serve Al Gore; the fact that climate change has entered the public discourse is only secondary. The fact that it has been politicized at the federal level virtually ensures counter-effectual policies, as the state of numerous policy issues of critical importance highlights the manner in which the mechanism for solving societal problems only serves the established few. Al Gore’s lifestyle certainly establishes his “credentials,” and a serious proponent of democracy and freedom would dismiss his legitimacy as a spokesman.

U.S styled democracy, prosperity and freedom hinged on property ownership, and it’s productive capacity. Globalization has slowly re-organized the productive nature of most communities, and resource depletion and environmental degradation only testify to the inevitable, and painful, reorganization that awaits communities in the long run. Solutions come from actions, and the demise of the academic-styled intellectual will result, for all they do is talk at you. In other words, conferences are for resolutions, not solutions.

Al Gore, and most people in the fractured sustainability community live their solutions, and that’s the primary way humans educate action. Infants learn thorough observation and imitation. The level of the public debate points clearly to the educational approach necessary: live your solutions.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with "the Fly", Al Gore sees the problem and takes the most logical course of action to begin solving it, i.e. to increase public awareness.

The argument has been made that, for many reasons, civilization would be better off rapidly depleting its resources rather than slowly doing so. From that perspective, Al Gore is certainly on the right course!