Al Gore gave a stirring speech in Oslo on Monday, upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.
As you might have expected, he made the case that people all over the world are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to global warming. With his unique tone (mixing, as it always does, self-consciousness and high-mindedness), Gore urged that we all need to pull our heads out of the sand and open our eyes. As he put it:
"'[W]hen large truths are genuinely inconvenient, whole societies can, at least for a time, ignore them. Yet as George Orwell reminds us: 'Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield'."
When reading this part of Gore's speech, I experienced an epiphany. A goddamned epipany. And it wasn't just about global warming.
Here's what hit me: Gore is wrong on one crucial point. People are not ignoring the inconvenient truths of our time, such as the rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, or the extreme disparities in wealth in the world. On the contrary, despite their uncertainty as to specifics, people are very aware of these issues. Innundated by images and data from the internet and the media, people know what is going on.
I am not saying that people know the finepoints of the science or how to analyze the numbers. But we are not "imprisoned by a dangerous illusion," as Gore suggests; we do not need to awaken to a new "truth force"; we are not looking to be "steered by the stars". We get it.
It's how we're dealing with it that's the problem.
I would go so far as to say that, increasingly in the last 20 years or so, the central orienting position in people's minds in the developed world is that the good times are not going to last much longer.
So Gore is speaking to his audience of solutions and readiness, "a bright and hopeful future." He ends: "We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise, and we will act."
But people have already heard the news. And they are not rising to the purpose he's got in mind. They are acting more and more out of a sense of scarcity -- they are digging in, battening down the windows, putting up higher, automated gates and fences, enjoying the holidays within their own small circle, shutting the world out.
Why do I say this?
Take a look at our political landscape. The health care debate, for example. Last night I saw Michael Moore's Sicko. In the film he points to the mystery of why, in a country of so many good, kind, charitable people, we do not consider it important to provide health care for all citizens. Well, guess why, Michael? It's because people have a sense that this ship is sinking anyway, and they better take care of their own family first. They have lost confidence in the idea of making a difference. At least, they reflect, they have their own private insurance plan, however unreliable. The idea of risking that for the larger community is suspect.
Or take our national debt and the growing debt for American households. What explains the conspicuous consumption of the superrich in this country? And the apparent lust felt by the consuming masses when they see the TV shows and the magazine spreads on this conspicuous consumption? What explains the desire of the many to imitate the luxury lifestyle of the few, even when it means falling into debt? The attitude, again, is: You better enjoy it now. It ain't gonna last.
Or take the so-called "hotbutton" issues in today's politics. The heat is the result of people's fear that America is in its end of days -- and the things we hold most dear are going to be snatched away soon. Immigration? What your hear on the Right is that the Mexicans are stealing our opportunities and want the land back (the myth of the "Reconquesta"!). The environment? The market-driven ads suggest that you better drive your yellow Humvee fast, while you can, before the oil supplies run out. Religion and politics? The impulse seems to be: if the end is coming, my values are my last defense -- and so I need to see them enshrined in law.
The global awareness brought on by the arrival of the information age has changed domestic priorities.
This is the secular end of days.
This is how good people get greedy.
What can I add from the perspective of a parent?
Well, let's bring it home.
It's like when you shouldn't eat those two remaining Christmas cookies on the plate left over from the party... but then again, if you just take them both then they will be gone and the anxiety you feel will be over. So you reach out and begin the binge that will herald the end. I don't mean to trivialize it, but ours is the left-over Christmas cookie era.
So how do we stop it? How do we reverse course? How do good people get un-greedy?
That is the true challenge ahead. It's not a question of ridding ourselves of ignorance; it's a question of ridding ourselves of our sense of coming loss.
As a parent, I try to emphazise to my children that they can have a cookie later. Or there will be some other treat after their nap. I emphasize that this is not their last great idea.
It strikes me that the environmental movement to end carbon emissions and reverse global warming will only work effectively when people have a vision of a treat on the other side of it. We have to develop a vision of a society which functions without carbon emissions, and with a more equal distribution of resources between and within nations.
But Communism is discredited. "Socialism" is vague. Green has become another political slogan. A widescale return to small, aboriginal communities is impractical. So what's the vision? What is the secular and nonreligious vision of the Second Coming? We need it more than we would like to admit.
And as Gore says, we may not have long. We have to learn to dream again.