Gore shows one cause for the inconvenient truth: overwhelming fires

Global warming explained

Explaing 2003 heat wave in Europe...

... and in India.

Hurricane Frances image, Sept. 2004

Hurricane Katrina, August, 2005, from Gore's computer,

Increased tornados, with new record in United States in July 2004, are a sign of global warming.

Increased typhoons (here Japan 2004, 10 typhoons) are another sign of global warming.

Increased flooding goes hand in hand with increased storms. In Mumbai, India, July 2005, there was 37" of rain in a day and water levels reached seven feet.

Two policies on trees from two adjacent countries

Silent Running: a robot waters the last trees in a film built around a narrative of environmental nostalgia.

Silent Running's opening shot of the last biodome

Silent Running's last shot — the last biodome

Nostalgia for forest life in Silent Running

How An Inconvient Truth frames collective memory

Gore's memory framed

Omega Man: Charleton Heston

Soylent Green opens on a polluted city and has a plot built around population explosion.

Omega Man's plot is built around war's consequences.


Personal eco-memories

Gore’s personal memories not only add to his credibility by eliciting empathy from his audience; they also serve as powerful environmental messages that connect tightly with the science on display in his slide show. Caney Fork River footage frames the narrative, from the 1973 shots of Tipper and Al in their canoe to current scenes of the river that offer hope for a natural landscape. Both the 1970s and 2000s views of the river and its bank look lush and fertile, with the fecundity promised by Tipper’s pregnancy in the earlier shots followed by evidence of continuing life along the river shorelines. The river also serves as a symbol of Gore and his family’s journey as well as that which we are taking here on Earth, suggesting that both as individuals and as a people we have choices that we can make regarding the earth’s future.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore notes several experiences along his journey that remain poignant memories with lasting effects on his quest to share his views of global warming and ways to address its repercussions. The first of these personal experiences — his son’s near-fatal accident — serves as a catalyst for his work as an environmentalist. In fact, Gore lines up what he calls the story of his son’s accident with what he again calls a story — of global warming's impact. According to Gore, while his son was recovering, Gore began writing Earth in the Balance. His son’s accident had prompted him to reflect on not only his life but his priorities, making time for his family but also rethinking what it meant to be a public servant.

Other personal experiences coincide with his life on the family farm. When not living in a cramped Washington D.C. apartment, Gore and his parents and sister lived on a farm. There Gore says he learned about nature and caring for the land from his father, as the father walked Al around the farm, and about the possible impact humans might have on nature from his mother, as she read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to her two children. These scenes from the family farm in Tennessee which connect Gore with the natural world gain force when he speaks emotionally about his sister Nancy’s battle with lung cancer, because the Gores' chief cash crop until the 1980s was tobacco. For Gore, the battle against tobacco parallels that against global warming, since scientists recognized tobacco’s link to cancer and heart disease long before public opinion and public policy agreed. Gore sees the same disconnect between science and public policy in relation to global warming’s dire repercussions.

These personal reflections establish Gore and his family’s eco-memories, the memories that sparked Al Gore’s crusade and the memories of the Tennessee farm and river, which drive his nostalgia for what he sees as a better world environment. Such memories gain weight, however, because they are reinforced by science and by universal experiences that have become a part of our collective memory. Gore’s slide show, with the help of the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, draws on emotions as well as reason because it draws on our memories of Earth as a living world of green and blue, the Earth of the Apollo space program photographs, eco-memories we all share.

Aligning personal eco-memories
with universal environmental nostalgia

The film adeptly points to these memories, highlighting what we have, what we have already lost, and what we can regain, if we take the small, ecologically sound steps Gore outlines at the end of his film. In other words, the scientific slide show on display coordinates with the personal experiences Gore reveals, since they both hark back to a remembered Earth, drawing on the power of nostalgia — environmental nostalgia — to skillfully frame global warming as a problem we share but can solve together. And the solution takes us back to the environmentally sustainable world that, according to the film, may soon be lost. 

Gore’s early shots of planet Earth shot from space provide not only a view of an eco-memory but of what some may see as the present state of our world — pristine and untouched. But the views also serve as a bridge to Gore’s discussion of our thin atmosphere and how our changing its composition has contributed to global warming and its repercussions. The juxtaposition of the shots of Earth from space with shots of a polluted Earth below draws further on our nostalgia for an environmentally sound world.

Gore reinforces this message by countering photographic evidence from thirty years ago with that from today, highlighting clear changes in the global environment. For example, a shot of Mt. Kilimanjaro from 1970 sharply contrasts with photographs taken thirty years later. The amount of snow capping the mountain has obviously receded, and in a shot from 2005, the mountain is nearly clear of ice and snow. Similar photographic evidence shows Glacier National Park losing more and more of its glaciers. And images around the world tell the same story of rapidly receding ice, snow, and glaciers. These images gain force in opposition to images from years before. The current views of parks and mountains, even those now without snow, mean nothing unless juxtaposed against earlier shots that show the devastating changes that have occurred there, at least partially because of our contribution to global warming.

Because of these earlier shots, we look back nostalgically on this world on which people's footprint might seem lighter. And then Gore shows us further evidence that we have created the negative conditions those shots of glaciers imply. Ice cylinders taken from Antarctica paint a picture of Earth’s temperature over the past 650,000 years, pointing to 2005 as the hottest year in the cycles revealed there. Gore shows us some of the repercussions of this overall warming trend, focusing on heat waves and strengthening storms across the world. He reinforces his more general claims with a series of images showing the devastation following Hurricane Katrina, images that not only remind us of the destruction there but also of our cry to save the city of New Orleans, our nostalgia for an untouched city prior to the hurricane and levee breaks.

The same pathos exerts an effect when Gore notes other consequences of global warming, including increase in pests like pine beetles that destroy trees we yearn to save. Trees serve as reminders of a natural world we seem ready to preserve, and images of a treeless Haiti beside a tree-covered Dominican Republic again broach our environmental nostalgia. The images of the impact development has on the world add weight to the wish on which the film seems to rest, a wish for a return to a world like that of 1970. In fact, a fiction film, the sci-fi Silent Running, from 1971, sends a similar message about saving trees, but that film ends tragically, with hope for life other than humans in the hands of a lone robot. An Inconvenient Truth, on the other hand, ends with some effortless (and painless) ways we can change our future, without sacrificing ourselves.

Strengths and limits of nostalgia

Critically, nostalgia has been critiqued, reified, and recovered in the past few decades, with a resurgence of research in memory studies complicating negative views of nostalgia built on postmodern views. Postmodern responses to nostalgia critique its move toward essentialism. In her 1988 article, “Nostalgia: A Polemic,” Kathleen Stewart engages postmodern cultural critics’ views that see nostalgia as a social disease. According to Stewart,

“Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context — it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present” (227).
[open works cited in new window]

Drawing on the work of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Jonathan Culler, Donna Haraway, Fredric Jameson, and Raymond Williams, Stewart elucidates why nostalgia is also a powerful rhetorical tool: she argues,

“on one ‘level’ there is no longer any place for anyone to stand and nostalgia takes on the generalized function to provide some kind (any kind) of cultural form” (227).

According to Stewart, a negative aspect of nostalgia is that it serves as a powerful rhetorical tool that placates and paralyzes the disenfranchised:

“Nostalgia is an essential, narrative, function of language that orders events temporally and dramatizes them in the mode of ‘that’s what happened,’ that ‘could happen,’ that ‘threaten to erupt at any moment’” (227).

Stewart sees the seductive nature of nostalgia in a postmodern culture as not only culturally situated but reductively negative, resulting in what she calls mirages — either a “grand hotel” of affluence or a “country cottage” of romantic simplicity. For Stewart, then, nostalgia is a negative consequence of attempting to replace postmodern relativism (labeled good) with an essential past based in recovery of a “self” (labeled bad).

From the perspective of earlier cultural critics, their writings implied a vanishing point of striving and looking for the pure or untouched, unpolluted past, projected into the wilderness of the past of history. But that kind of striving really is an ideological project. Much of Earth's physical past, in terms of today’s environmental issues, is substantially lost because of population explosion, irrevocable global warming, loss of biodiversity, and unknown effects of pollution. Each year the people born will not remember the same past as previous generations. Our own literatures consider America's past through the lens of nostalgia and that is how our educational system often presents the past to us, with themes like the vanishing Indian, the disappearance of the buffalo, and the disappearing prairie. And all these themes were broadly interpreted in U.S. culture in relation to Frederick Jackson Turner’s recuperative thesis of the frontier, a thesis that promotes progress at any cost, whether it be genocide or the expansion of industrialism in the United States.

More recent work, especially in anthropology and cultural studies, however, complicates visions of nostalgia as inherently and inescapably retrograde, as a perspective accompanying an imperial view. In contrasts, other anthropologists see nostalgia within local cultures not only a way to learn from the past but to recuperate real community. For example, in Ethel Pinheiro and Cristiane Rose Duarte’s 2004 article, “Loaves and Circuses at Largo da Carioca, Brazil: The Urban Diversity Focused on People-Environment Interactions,” nostalgia in the form of collective memory and appropriation is what “led Largo da Carioca to survive in spite of all the political and urban changes.” Pinheiro and Duarte draw on both an historical evolutive approach and participant-observation data. In this case, their historical-evolutive research demonstrated that the open plaza maintains functions from Ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, especially those related to performance; and their participant-observation resulted in interview data that revealed how “people link social activity in the largo’s physical structure.”

Answers to the anthropologists' question asking local participants to “choose a word that could explain the place” illustrated the pull of nostalgia — one of the terms given to explain Largo da Carioca. Others gave related answers, highlighting outdoor performances, culture, and tradition. The piece is not based an a critical perspective that informs much of postmodern anthropology but it does reveal a positive impact nostalgia might have, actually impacting on the city’s shape, ensuring that a people will appropriate a public space for performance and art because their collective memory draws them to it. In this case, the power of collective memory — of nostalgia — seems to be manifested in the continuation of Largo da Carioca.  

Recent cultural studies scholarship also seeks to complicate earlier reductive cultural critiques of nostalgia, noting that nostalgia need not always be constructed in negative terms. Situating nostalgia can minimize its essentialist draw, for example. According to Sean Scanlan’s introduction to a 2005 special issue of The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies,

 “In current work, nostalgia is no longer the programmatic equivalent of bad memory and the uses and limits of important theories from the 1990s are being reconsidered.”

Although cultural critics critiqued nostalgia because it “abused individual and collective memory and … problematized the relations between producers and consumers,” Scanlan suggests that nostalgia

“can cross several registers simultaneously. It can be felt culturally or individually, directly or indirectly … postmodernism’s negative critique only partially illuminates its various links to memory, history, affect, media and the marketplace, only partially accounts for nostalgia’s continuing power.”

Scanlan ends his introduction to this special issue with more positive conclusions about nostalgia:

"Nostalgia is often secondary or epiphenomenal, yet it can also be Proustian and epiphanic, generative and creative. Walter Benjamin’s 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' contains his vision of the angel of history — based on Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus’ — in which the angel’s face is ‘turned toward the past,’ while a storm from Paradise ‘irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned’ (257-8). Benjamin is right to call this storm progress, but he does not describe what the angel might be feeling while looking toward the past. The angel of history … is nostalgic.”

In fact, in the context of Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, nostalgia’s rhetorical power gains force when contextualized both personally — through Gore’s own narrative — and historically — through our collective memory of Earth’s changes from the 1970s to the present. Gore’s message gains strength because it draws on both personal and collective eco-memories. It gains validity because it situates both science and personal history in particular cultural contexts. Current cultural critics have re-appropriated nostalgia as both a term and history. Gore re-appropriates and expands it to include ecology. For Gore, it’s not the cultural critics but the conservative scientists who most forcefully attack the rhetoric of An Inconvenient Truth. Yet, like Gore, these critics draw on nostalgia to make their claims.

Critical environmental nostalgia
according to science fiction
and Ronald Bailey

Critics like Bailey and those writing for “JunkScience.com” suggest that Gore is a “global warming exaggerator” and that his message carries apocalyptic weight; it's an argument Bailey made about doomsday prophets from the 1970s to whom films like Soylent Green responded. But Bailey and “JunkScience” also harbor a nostalgia for a more environmentally sound world. And they seem to respond to Gore as if he were writing science fiction and promoting a fictional eco-disaster film from the 1970s like Soylent Green, Silent Running, or Omega Man. As in Bailey’s articles, those films responding explicitly to Earth Day, the establishment of the EPA and other environmental programs of the 1970s did look back nostalgically on Earth in its more natural state.

In a direct reaction to the environmental movement, Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and Silent Running (1971) all embrace the memory of an environment and ecology that no long exists on their Earth — an eco-memory. At the same time, though, these films reflect a nostalgia for a world that does still exist for its viewers, both in the 1970s and today. Unlike Gore’s films, these films represent the categories Bailey outlines in his article because they so clearly respond to the 1970s environmental movement (See articles by Gaylord Nelson and the EPA Website, for example). They also provide a way to exploit environmental ideas for commercial gain. But for both Gore and these 1970s eco-disaster films, nostalgia most directly connects the films to one another and to the ecology they all seem to have lost.

Few would dispute the idea that the U.S. movie industry responds to contemporary cultural trends, presumably for economic gain. And film responses to the environmental movement of the 1970s were no exception. For example, when the Soylent Green DVD was released in 2003, reviews from distributors like “Home Theater” claimed,

“Hollywood, never slow to jump on a trend, began to invest in ecological themed films [after the first Earth Day]. Perhaps one of the most famous is Soylent Green, released in 1973.” 

Soylent Green even serves as one of Bailey’s categories in his Reason article, since, according to Bailey,

“Imminent global famine caused by the explosion of the ‘population bomb’ was the big issue on Earth Day 1970.”

Silent Running seems to align with the “Polluted Thinking” category, since the only remaining forests were protected in outer-space biospheres. Images of dying forests on Earth reinforce the sense of loss that destroying these domes will ensure. Omega Man, on the other hand, goes beyond Bailey’s categories, amplifying Bailey’s “Synthetic Arguments” with biological warfare. 

Of these three films, Soylent Green falls most neatly into Bailey’s discussion of the “apocalyptic predictions” that he claims Earth Day 1970 provoked. Although Peter Biskind describes Charlton Heston as one of the “Old Hollywood Right” (130) and disregards Richard Fleischer altogether, Soylent Green is clearly a film of the 1970s. Unlike the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental movement was supported by a cross-section of Americans, including those with right-leaning politics like those of Richard Nixon, under whose presidency the EPA was founded. So it comes as no surprise that a film like Soylent Green directed by an old-school director and starring an “Old Hollywood Right” actor embraces so strong an environmental message.

To page 3

To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.