JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Gore's personal ecological memory in An Inconvenient Truth

Gore's collective memory

Gore's river memory

Gore's nostalgia for the family farm

Gore's memories of tobacco's effects

Gore's view of polluted city.

Gore's explanation of how ocean currents are affected by global warming.

Mt. Kilmanjaro in the past...

... compared to how it looks now.

--

JunkScience.com: "All the junk that's fit to debunk."

--

--

---

Reason.com: "Free minds and free markets."

--

 

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and its skeptics: a case of environmental nostalgia

by Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann

Critics of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) base their negative reviews on what they see as Al Gore’s inaccurate predictions. In an article distributed at Gore’s film as a response to the film’s science, “The Real ‘Inconvenient Truth,’” for example, JunkScience.com seeks to debunk predictions surrounding what has been called catastrophic planet warming, asserting instead that

“activists and zealots constantly shrilling over atmospheric carbon dioxide are misdirecting attention and effort from real and potentially addressable local, regional and planetary problems” (13). [open works cited in new window]

Steven Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience, is a Fox News columnist with links to Phillip Morris and ExxonMobil; he has a B.A. in Natural Science and a Master of Health Sciences in Biostatistics from Johns Hopkins and Law degrees from University of Baltimore and Georgetown. In addition, Ronald Bailey, science consultant for Reason Magazine, a libertarian magazine voted one of the “50 Best Magazines” three out of the past four years by the Chicago Tribune, asserts that Al Gore

“exaggerate[s] the dangers by propounding implausible scenarios in which sea levels rise 20 feet by 2100” (6).

Instead of arguing from science, we argue that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth mainly succeeds not because of its predictions but because of the eco-memories it evokes. Like eco-disaster films from the 1970s, Gore’s film argues most powerfully when it draws on environmental nostalgia, a nostalgia we share for a better, cleaner world. Although environmental nostalgia is by definition limited, since a pure, untouched, and unpolluted past projected onto a now lost wilderness cannot recuperate that wilderness' history, Gore’s message gains rhetorical force in the ways that the film uses a comparison and contrast mode to evoke an environmental nostalgia with emotional appeal.

Gore’s framework of ecological memories

An Inconvenient Truth argues powerfully for sustainable environmental policies by invoking both personal and universal ecological memories, as do Silent Running (1971), Omega Man (1971) and, even more closely entwined with Gore’s narrative, Soylent Green (1973). Gore's film opens with two scenes illustrating two historical memories of the world thirty years ago. One of those memories grows out of a meandering river that flowed near Al Gore’s family farm, a river we see flowing clean and clear through a pristine green landscape. The year is 1973, and Al and wife Tipper float along in a canoe over gentle ripples of the Caney Fork River. Living nature is highlighted here by the river, the foliage that lines it and the fact that Tipper is close to giving birth to the Gores' first child. The footage also indicates the film stock's age, showing us that this is a memory, not a view of the present, and that it rests on personal history.

The other more universal historical memory is highlighted by images of planet Earth shot from outer space, beginning with the 1968 shot from Apollo 8 and the 1972 shot from Apollo 17 (the last Apollo mission) and continuing through a series of satellite images that show all Earth’s continents and seas. In the 1968 and 1972 photographs, white clouds seem to swirl above clear blue oceans and, in the 1972 example, grasses and deserts on the African continent. The images serve as a starting point for a poignant slide presentation that shows us the impact humans have had on the earth, especially the last thirty years. In addition, beginning with thirty-year old shots of a river and photographs of Earth shot in outer space from the Apollo missions, the film narrative introduces the most powerful tool behind the documentary’s success  —  environmental nostalgia or what we see as “eco-memory.” The dates of both the river scene and the two Apollo photos become relevant here, since they coincide with the birth of the environmental movement and the EPA. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth harks back to a past that personalizes Gore and his message and memorializes an Earth less tainted by human exploitation, the Earth that was present when the first Earth Day was established in 1970.

Rhetoric of environmental nostalgia

The powerful move back to eco-memory that Gore evokes to illuminate his points about global warming is a rhetorical strategy that seems to work both for advocates and skeptics of environmental politics. In an article celebrating the thirty year anniversary of Earth Day, for example, Ronald Bailey  —  the science correspondent for Reason Magazine  —  argues that “Earth Day 1970 provoked a torrent of apocalyptic predictions” (“Earth Day, Then and Now”). For him, Earth Day and the environmental policies it represented were necessary in 1970. Yet he insists that what he calls “prophets of doom” were “spectacularly wrong” (emphasis Bailey’s). In fact, he says,

“many contemporary [2000] environmental alarmists are mistaken when they continue to insist that the Earth’s future remains an eco-disaster that has already entered its final act” (Bailey).

To substantiate these claims, Bailey delineates categories of predictions provided by these prophets of the 1970s that have since, in his mind, been proven wrong: “soylent greens,” “polluted thinking,” “synthetic arguments,” and “nonrenewable anxiety” —  categories relevant to 1970s eco-disaster films that are still invoked when discussing Gore’s documentary. Although Bailey attempts to debunk predictions from the 1970s in order to justify mass capitalism and consumption, his categories align with cinematic reactions to the environmental movement. And even though Bailey seeks to discredit what he calls doomsday prophets, his solution to environmental problems — wealth, another form of profit — would lead to a world where “forest growth … will increase” and “air and water quality will begin to improve.” Bailey, like the prophets he critiques, harks back to a world where humans and nature coexist harmoniously. Even though he advocates development more than preservation, he believes (or at least claims) that development will result in a more ecologically sound Earth like that we may be close to destroying.

Both Gore and his critics, then, draw on ecological nostalgia to reinforce their sometimes conflicting solutions to a phenomenon that all now agree was at least partially caused by humans: global warming. Both Bailey and the editors of “JunkScience.Com” now concede that humans have contributed to the rise in temperature on Earth. An April 21, 2006, “Junk Science” article argues against global warming claims for its first eleven or so pages, but on page twelve they admit that they didn’t say “humans aren’t affecting the planet or its temperature.” In fact, they claim that “human endeavors have significant local effects” (12). And Ronald Bailey, who includes himself as someone who “doubted predictions of catastrophic global warming” (Reason.org, April 11, 2005) admitted more than a year ago that “anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up.” And in a June review of An Inconvenient Truth, Bailey states,

“On balance Gore gets it more right than wrong on the science.”

The differences between Gore and his skeptics seem to respond to two issues: the amount humans contribute to global warming and answers to the question: “What, if anything, should we do about any future warming?” (Bailey 6). Responses from both camps rest on eco-memory, however, more than future predictions. We contend that the environmental nostalgia presented in An Inconvenient Truth carries more force because it draws on both pathos — in relation to the personal memories Gore discusses — and logos — in relation to the slide show that prompted the documentary in the first place.

To page 2


To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

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