The fake morality of Al Gore's convenient lie


The fake morality of Al Gore's convenient lie After years of ignored warnings and predictions of imminent ecological cataclysms, environmentalism is now all the rage.

Spurred on by the immense success and world-wide appeal of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, environmental issues have dominated airwaves and print media over the past eight months, tapping into the public’s latent green sympathies, and sending corporations scrambling to acquire 'green friendly' endorsements and logos for their products.

Sensing a shift in the popular mood, many politicians who formerly claimed that the ‘jury is still out’ on a direct link between climate change and the concentration of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) now seem only too happy to assert their green credentials.

The deeper question – leaving aside the still-contentious issue of the actual science of climate change – is this: Why now? Why are these environmental concerns suddenly centre stage?

After all, the predicted consequences of a 'business as usual' approach to development and energy consumption are far from new, and little additional hard data has been presented to warrant so radical a shift in public opinion and Federal policy.

In a time such as ours, remarkably devoid of any altruistic impulses, it would not be surprising to discover another, more self-absorbed motive behind this sudden environmental concern.

The Federal Government’s refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocols is an example of this ‘enlightened’ self-interest. The refusal was extraordinary, especially given concessions granted to the Australian delegation (including permission actually to increase its GHG emissions by eight percent until 2012).

The reason for the refusal was not the failure of climatologists to demonstrate a direct correspondence between global warming and carbon emissions, but rather an unwillingness to act against ‘our unique national interests’. In other words, environmental sustainability would not be allowed to take precedence over robust economic growth.

But now that a political and economic climate exists that makes heightened environmental awareness expedient, even profitable – fuelled, in part, by the immense economic potential of a broadened nuclear industry – the Federal Government seems willing to acknowledge the need actively to explore alternate energy models.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that the greatest ethical travesty is to do the right thing, but to do it in the interests of personal reward. If this is true, then what often passes for public morality in our time, being a responsible global citizen, is in fact little more than a thinly disguised, particularly vile form of self-interest.

This kind of fake morality was displayed prominently in a document that marked the turning of the political tide late last year: The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

Its approach – both to highlight the economic consequences of failure to curb GHG emissions, and to outline co-operative strategies for climate stabilization that will not adversely effect economic growth – is a troubling indication of our unquestioned assumption that everything must, ultimately, be weighed up against the dominant economic realities of our time.

Further, while stressing the need for 'international collective action', The Stern Review effectively condones national self-interest by offering the reassurance that, through technological innovation and a complex series of financial incentives, ‘stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentration in the atmosphere is feasible and consistent with continued growth’.

Despite all this dialogue and debate, carried out under the constant scrutiny of the public eye, the one possibility that must be considered – altering the seemingly immutable laws of economics themselves, which means curtailing the very excesses we call 'freedom' – is never considered. We have no choice, it seems, but to place everything in the service of the ebbs and flows of the global economy.

The fake morality of Al Gore's convenient lieBut before hurling invectives at the Federal Government, and accusing it of lacking sincerity in its commitment to environmental issues, one might ask if it is just mirroring our own insincerity.

For many people, it is fine to indulge moderate green sympathies, but only once the effects of climate change touch us directly, and only up to the point that we have to pay some personal cost. George Megalogenis has made a particularly chilling observation regarding such self-serving environmentalism in his book, The Longest Decade:

"Even support for the environment, the ultimate expression of altruism, can be traced back to house prices. Labor pollsters Hawker Britton found in early 2004 that concerns for green issues were greater in those suburbs where property was more expensive. In other words, the ordinary Australian who favours protecting the environment can source his or her green values to the selfish calculation that more development in their neighbourhood equals less trees equals poorer views equals lower house prices."

Perhaps even the slick advocacy of Al Gore’s pop environmentalism is, in the end, the convenient lie of our time: a way of baptizing lives that are already excessive, self-seeking and idolatrous with a sickly green tinge; of not changing our consumption habits, but feeling much better about them (rather like drinking Diet Coke).

Given the similar function of religion in our culture, maybe Michael Crichton wasn’t too far off the mark when he called environmentalism "the religion of choice for urban atheists."



submit a comment

Existing comments

Scott Stephen's article is correct. Envrionmentalism is historically something that those affluent enough can afford to engage in. And, people with less money probably do less environmental dameage purely because they have less purchasing power.

Consumption, in the current system, leads to environmental degragation.

But, he is also overly cynical about Al Gore and the rise of the green movement. Environmentaliam is not altruistic, I don't think it can be seen in that way anymore. Our own health depends on a healthy environment and we all get benefits from improving our environment. Maybe this is why envrionmentalism is taking off in the well-to-do suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney because once you've got the wide screen TV and all that you realise it is all pretty useless if your environment is not a pleasent place.

Environmentalism may be "the religion of choice for urban atheists", but if it remains that way we are all in trouble - athiest or not.

Daniel Donahoo | 23 January 2007

Stephens' polemical article fails miserably in its attempt to do what - make the entirely unsurprising connection between his version of so-called 'environmentalism' and the middle class? What is he really trying to convey? What does he mean by 'environmentalism' - a term at least as poorly defined as 'spirituality'.

Just like Christianity, there are environmentalists, Christian and otherwise, who have only a shallow understanding of the issues and pick and choose what they are comfortable with from this broad cannon of ideas. Traditional Aboriginal culture is arguably environmentalist but would not have conceived of itself as such.

There is no credible scientific debate about the mechanism of anthropogenic climate change. The only 'debate' is the inevitable conflict between the vast majority of the scientific community and a very very small minority of 'scientists' who have personal and/or professional conflicts of interest. The lack of total consensus is not proof that the majority are wrong or even that their views remain suspect. If Stephens is to enter into a commentary about the science of climate change, he'd best address the substance of the matter rather than dismissing it with an out-dated, simplistic and uncritical claim that there is still some 'contention' in this area. Stephens' position reflects the conclusion of several authors who note the division between theologians and ecologists in the context of the ecotheological literature i.e. theologians have no training in ecological and related scientific fields and thus it isn't surprising that they generally fail to understand quite how to move from a theology of the 'head' towards a theology of the whole.

Sure, most politicians are self-interested opportunists - what's new? Arguably most people are largely self-interested opportunists too. But why Scott? What do you suggest we do about it? Isn't that where the spiritual aspect of religion is supposed to offer some salvation?

I agree that so much of the popularist 'environmentalism' we see is little more than 'greenwash', especially in the context of corporate policies and government rhetoric. Whilstever economic 'rationalism' remains the dominant 'religion' of mainstream Western politics, you'd have to expect that even the most profound moral issues will somehow be cast in economic terms i.e. 'save the planet because if you don't pay now, you'll pay even more later'. Yep, 'enlightened' self-interest - useful, to a point, but ultimately not enough to get us where we need to go - little wonder public faith in politicians and politics is dismal.

It is also increasingly evident that a lot of self-identified environmentalists (remembering that we're yet to clarify what that really means) don't fully appreciate the magnitude of personal and societal changes needed to genuinely address the ecological crisis. None of that's surprising given society-wide problems with inadequate technical knowledge and a cultural founded on the failed dream of secular ratioalist consumerism. But what does Stephens offer as a solution?

Citing Megalogensis' quote about the alleged correlation between house prices and environmentalism is anything but scholarly. What a connection to make and based on such a paucity of data completely lacking in critical analysis. This qualifies as one of the 'best' items of propaganda I've encountered for some time! What were you trying to prove Scott? Do you hate 'environmentalists', envy the middle class, or just like to build specious arguments for the sake of it? Perhaps its just the bitter ramblings of someone who witnesses the death of mainstream Christianity and the rise of that undefined 'environmentalism' of which he appears so suspicious. What about Christian environmentalism? Maybe that's the only form of which he'd approve, as long as it isn't middle class!

Sure, An Inconvenient Truth isn't about making the radical personal and societal changes that are really needed. But if it was, very few people would have read the book or watched the movie. It is just a first step, albeit a flawed one, but it is in the right direction. Buying a new hybrid car as Gore recommends is not 'the answer' and indeed full analysis of ecological costs shows that doing so costs more than using a low-emissions conventionally-fueled vehicle (because of the impacts associated with manufacture and disposal of the batteries needed to operate the hybrid car). It is relatively shallow but it does offer hope for genuine progress, even if it is only the first step.

Rather than decrying an undefined environmentalism, perhaps Stephens can offer his alternative?
Steven Douglas | 23 January 2007

scott stephens seems to be suggesting that there is some higher altruistic (presumably spiritual) reason to 'go green' that transcends personal benefit and that choosing to be an environmentalist for non-altruistic reasons is "is in fact little more than a thinly disguised, particularly vile form of self-interest." Why so? Of course the only way society will move towards sustainability is out of self-interest, or is he suggesting that the only acceptable way to be an environmentalist is to adopt some sort of Franciscan simplicity out of piety?
chris gow | 23 January 2007

Part of me doesn't really care why people/big business/government move to more sustainable ways of living and doing business, as long as they do. I suspect that 'the selfish gene' has a role to play in averting environmental catastophe. Most of us do most things from a whole host of selfish (and some unselfish) reasons.
Vivien Holmes | 23 January 2007

Scott Stephens has done for rural Australians what all the National Party politicians couldn't do, expose pop environmentalism for its sick reliance on the urban dwellers' dreams of living 'with a green tinge'.
Here in Bombala and other wool growing areas, we have become victims of PETA and other 'green tinge' animal rights groups over the issue of mulesing, a technique used to prevent unwanted deaths in the flock due to the pain and suffering on sheep from blow fly strike.
As a result of PETA's 'green tinge' crusade, wool growing families have been impoverished, yes here in Australia, almost becoming third world families amid the 'green tinge' pop environmentalists who support PETA while having all the consumerist products in their urban cocoons.
I only hope Scott Stephen's work becomes the springboard for further exposes on this distraction to the Gospel work.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala, NSW | 23 January 2007

It is just me? Or is there a wonderful irony in a website that publishes something like this also displaying ads for ethical investment.
Steve | 23 January 2007

With no desire of repeating again your article, as you have wondered <>

Through mankind's history, we clearly see that humans are be able to learn the undeferable truth when we have only made all errors firstly. As we see, the sources of knowledge are very limited to human beings, and getting up once we have fallen down is not the only but the easiest way for human beings to learn.

Therefore, the deeper question we might do is asking for the causes of the global warming and not, as the author suggests, accusing some snobs of the way of life they have. There are two solutions for the problem: Either we believe that, as the author, public morality must stop these people in the way they consume, or we might re-think our idea of liberty, at least in the way some modern societies consider -That is, freedom for polluting.

Ignacio Nuche | 24 January 2007

Is it really self-interest to come to the realisation that we are together in the one lifeboat on planet earth?

Environmentalism is ultimately about the realisation that we all stay afloat together or we sink together!

There are no winners when the quality of the air we all breathe has deteriorated to the extent that it is a health risk or when we do not have ready access to clean drinking water or when our world becomes more divided and confrontational because the resources necessary to sustain life have become scarcer as a result of climate change.
michael donnelly | 24 January 2007

I can afford both in time and in material comforts to take an active interest in the climate challenge, so I do.
Motives are always mixed. There is a combination of altruism, self interest and a desire to behold creation as the unmarked face of God in the decisions I take.
By the way, I was in the Green Building in Leicester St Melbourne the other day and noticed a calendar called 'Climate Justice' - an excellent term, I thought.

Jacquie Pryor | 24 January 2007

I always suspected this article would generate discussion, even anger, but I must say I was very surprised both by the overall tone of resignation (yeah, the various forms of environmental concern today are self-serving – but that’s just how it is) and the personal vitriol of Steven Douglas’ post.

For a piece of provocation so necessarily brief, Steven certainly has set me an ambitious task: to address the immensely complex issue of the science of climate change, to provide a solution to rampant self-interest and opportunism, to provide a remedy to unsustainable consumerism, and to lay out an alternative conservationist program. From the outset, perhaps we can acknowledge the nature of the piece, and its necessary limitations.

But now for a few actual replies.

When last I checked, my precise point was that ‘entering into commentary about the science of climate change’ was not only beyond the scope of so short a piece, it also wasn’t my primary concern. But, while we’re on the subject, for Steven to declare the debate over, and to dismiss dissenting opinion as a minority of pseudo-scientists ‘who have personal and/or professional conflicts of interest’, is staggeringly ignorant of the scientific calibre of those dissenters, wilfully unaware of the non-linear and multi-causal nature of our ecosystem (which consistently bedevils most attempts at climate research and modelling), and represents a particularly arrogant form of enviro-funda-mentalism.

My aim in this paper was not to establish a rather spurious link between chic environmentalism and the middle class, but rather to use the sudden rise of a popular, sentimentalized, limited conservationist attitude (that’s my best definition of what I’m referring to by ‘environmentalism’) as a means of raising the problematic status of ethics in general today. And it is at THIS point that Christian ethics must stake its claim: not a spiritual solution, nor a well-nigh Lutheran absolution of our economic debauchery, so that our activity is sanctified by nominal adherence to environmental sensitivity, BUT the relentless interrogation of our feigned morality itself.

It is imperative that genuine alternatives to our global economic behaviour be found, but the only way to discover such alternatives is by the persistent, faithful analysis of the inherent immorality and contradictions of our situation.

One of the most painful moments from Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ provides a crucial point of reference here. On their way up the river to Kurtz’s compound, the trigger-happy gunman decimates a flimsy Viet fishing boat, wounding a young girl. In accordance with the rules of engagement, the captain calls in a medical helicopter to treat the badly wounded girl – then Willard walks over onto the boat, and shoots her. ‘That’s what we do’, he muses. ‘We saw them in half with our machine guns, then try to patch them up with a bandaid.’ For Willard, realization of the brutal insanity of the American troops is held a bay by the belief that they are civilized in their treatment of wounded ‘enemy combatants’. By killing the young girl, he removes the hypocritical support the bandaid altogether, and fully confronts their horrifying blood guilt.

My point is that pop environmentalism – like our many forms of self-help religion – is little more than a bandaid that makes us better about our consumerist atrocities. Maybe removing these feel-good supports, but taking away this form of absolution, would help us really confront the immorality of our economic behaviour.

And, yes Steven, this makes me a ‘theologian of the head’ … and proud of it!
Scott Stephens | 24 January 2007

I think the Stern report was an important milestone simply because it put the immediate danger of the environmental catastophe into language the 'movers and shakers' of this world can understand, and actually listen to.
Caroline | 24 January 2007

Twice during the seventies when oil prices quadrupled within a very short space of time the world and especially the U.S. was forced to look at oil conservation and to look hard at alternatives. The only way there will be a shift from runaway energy consumption especially of finite fossil fuels is if the proper price signal is sent to the market. The Europeans can put a price on carbon if they like but it won't have any effect on the emerging markets of China and India.
Kevin V. Russell | 25 January 2007

Having read this article and the various comments it has generated, I actually wish Scott Stephens' reply to Steven Douglas had been the published article instead of the actual article itself, as it was somewhat clearer and more to the point than the original piece. Granted that maybe Mr Stephens wasn't able to explore the issue in sufficient detail due to space restrictions - and perhaps that is a matter the editors/publishers need to take into consideration with respect to the format of "Eureka Street" - however, this piece did strike me as a rather unfocused tirade against two targets: 1) the possibly dubious motives of politicians previously identified as climate change nay-sayers who are now embracing the issue with enthusiasm; and 2) the possibly dubious motives of the well-heeled denizens of the so-called "leafy suburbs" who are likewise apparently fervent in their embrace of "environmentalism". At least Mr Stephens' reply to Mr Douglas had the virtue of clarifying the the basis upon which his views were expressed, but as I say, it would have been preferable to have seen this basis identified in the article itself.

Concerning the two targets of Mr Stephens' wrath,perhaps a certain measure of cynicism is warranted with respect to the apparent about-face many climate change deniers have been exhibiting of late. However, I would suggest that simply because Al Gore's documentary is "slick" that this is insufficient grounds to use it as an exemplar of this phenomenon. Indeed, I believe any proper analysis of Mr Gore's record on this issue demonstrates he has been one of the few politicians genuinely concerned about the issue prior to its emergence onto the centre stage of public discussion. "Slick" his documentary may be, but that seems to me to be insufficient grounds for accusing him of "pop environmentalism". Perhaps he has simply learned to fight the corporations and the advertising agencies with their own weapons. And perhaps a better target might have been politicians with a demonstrated history of climate change denial, who suddenly think announcements about water resources, or the appointment of well-known environmental scientists as Australian of the Year, will prove their green credentials.

And the same goes for this article's assault on the "middle class" psuedo-environmentalists who seem to attract so much of Mr Stephens' wrath. Granted, there are quite probably more than a few out there whose "conversion" to environmentalism is motivated more by a concern with property prices than climate change, but I hardly think the assertions of a single authority are sufficient grounds to lay this charge at the feet of entire neighbourhoods. Indeed, my own experience (as someone who solidly identifies themself as "working class") is that many of the residents of the wealthier suburbs are genuinely concerned about climate change for genuinely altruistic reasons - and have had to fly in the face, not only of public opinion, but of their own class and political affiliations to express this concern.

Indeed, if Mr Stephens' purpose was "not to establish a rather spurious link between chic environmentalism and the middle class, but rather to use the sudden rise of a popular, sentimentalized, limited conservationist attitude (that’s my best definition of what I’m referring to by ‘environmentalism’) as a means of raising the problematic status of ethics in general today", then why didn't he just do that, instead of engaging in a rather vague and largely unnecessary assault on the possible motives of generally identified and apparently homogonous groups (politicians and the middle class)? One might be cynically tempted to respond "Well, duh, Scott" - now tell us how it is that "at THIS point that Christian ethics must stake its claim: not a spiritual solution, nor a well-nigh Lutheran absolution of our economic debauchery, so that our activity is sanctified by nominal adherence to environmental sensitivity, BUT the relentless interrogation of our feigned morality itself."

I would have been much more interested in a discussion of the relevance and application of Christian ethics to this issue than a rather obvious tirade about how human selfishness is killing the planet, and how "self-interest" can undermine efforts to address the problem of climate change.

Brendan Byrne | 27 January 2007

I always feel a bit funny reading phrases like "bitter ramblings" or "Stephens' wrath" - my instinct is to plead, 'Really guys, I'm a pretty nice guy with not very much bile, bitterness or wrath!'

All that aside, I find it telling, maybe even a bit concerning, that the intention of my little piece is being so totally missed. Do you really think I could care less about the middle class, about Al Gore's good environmental record (or otherwise), or about the electoral cynicism of politicians? The point of my criticism of 'An Inconvenient Truth' had less to do with Gore, and nothing to do with the merits of the film (it's not a bad flick, all in all), but it had everything to do with the fact that this issue can gain the sudden popular prominence that it has only once it is made into a film! My problem with pop environmentalism is that it is a sentiment that is gaining traction in the electorate only once a social climate exists for it to flourish. In other words (this is the clearest I can put it): environmentalism is entirely a subset of global capitalism, which means the former must obey the latter's laws, which means that authentic environmental concern is emptied of its ethical merit. So, we can be concerned about the enivironment and try to do something to curb unsustainable ways of life (which we should do because this way of living is wrong) ONLY when the omnipotent laws of global capitalism permit us to be so concerned.

The truly worrying thing is that nobody seems to be bothered by this. Maybe MacIntyre's morbid diagnosis was right: we've lost the faculty for ethical reflection altogether.

Thanks to Brendan for his kind comments about the clarity of the subsequent dialogue. A lot of this stuff would have been in a longer piece, if time and space permitted. You've got to admit, though, this little missile had the desired effect!
Scott Stephens | 27 January 2007

I do to some extent agree with Al Gores' argument. Qe live in parlous times, and it has been well demonstrated that at least some climate change is taking place. By pleading that the least well-endowded are the less likely to consume is a furfy. We all must minimise our consumption of water, power and gas. We all must preserve trees, and to install a rain tank is good, and not in "good suburbs". And if you can think of other things, to help our environment, do them!
Theo Dopheide | 27 January 2007

Scott Stephen's analysis is mostly true - "not in my back yard and as long as I don't have to make a sacrifice". But his analysis begs the question - there is a problem. The science is there. The problem of global warming is happening. Humans are playing a part. If its not addressed now, it is highly likely we are heading into extraordinary catastrophe. No doubt many reasons for action are base. But much change can only occur at a policy level with governments. I too am sceptical about end of the world predictions. But this is another scenario all together. We must all stop emitting CO2 derived from fossil sources. We have to invoke the precationary principle now or it will be too late. An Inconvenient Truth is a stunning piece of educational material. I think Scott Stephens is fearful of the power of film. The "masses" deserve good educational material.
Ann Long | 30 January 2007

Thanks to Brendan Byrne for raising at least some of my concerns about Stephen's article, and in a more controlled manner than was my own critique.

In reply to Stephens' last comment, he still doesn't seem to understand that what he sees as a monolithic 'environmentalism' is a least as complex and diverse as Catholicism. To dismiss 'environmentalism' as Stephens seems to view it, is about as sound as dismissing Catholicism based on the rantings of Cardinal Pell! As an environmentalist, an ecologist, and a researcher in ecospirituality (principally Christian), I was offended by his gross generalisation about environmentalism. There certainly are those for whom their version of environmentalism is exceptionally shallow and self-interested, even arguably amounting to a conflict of interest in simple economic terms. But in my experience from deep with various forms of the broad environmental movement, such self-serving variants of environmentalism are not representative of the phenomenon - not in terms of its origin or where it is going. If Stephens' 'pop environmentalism' really was representative of the movement, I suspect I'd be backing his condemnation of it as lacking moral integrity. But it isn't - in just the same way that the Prosperity Gospel of certain emergent Pentecostal styles of Christianity aren't representative of the faith - though some claim they will be virtually all that remains of it Australian in 20+ years.

There is an abundance of literature addressing Christian environmentalism in its many and varied manifestations. Some of these forms come close to Stephens' 'pop environmentalism' but others are profoundly spiritual, moral, religious, and in my view offer a form of environmentalism or 'spiritual ecology' that may well contribute to our addressing the ecological crisis. I am concerned that secular environmentalism can readily fall victim to some of the very forces that it seeks to overcome. It is easy to find examples of peak environmental groups using economic rationalism and scientism to argue their case, not necessarily because they believe those propositions to be either true or the whole truth, but sometimes because they, perhaps like Gore's 'slick' film, see the use of such paradigms and languages as the most effective way to convey their message to an increasingly perverse society. But having been inside the engine rooms of mainstream secular environmentalism, I have seen how easy it also is for its adherents to run out of spiritual motivation. I'm not suggesting, unlike some, that all environmentalists need to adopt religion in order to be effective and authentic, but I do see a meaningful confluence between what I consider to be authentic nominally secular environmentalism, and the depth and power of spiritual / religious environmentalism such as that increasingly evident in parts of the mainstream Churches.

I make a similar comment about generalisations and conflating concepts in relation to Fr Mac Andrews' concerns about the activities of the animal rights group, PETA. In the literature dealing with the origins and nature of 'environmentalism' (in the broad sense), the animal rights movement is noted as being a separate entity that is often in conflict with normative evironmentalism. The animal rights movement should not be confused with environmentalism as they have different philosophical and arguably spiritual foundations. Sometimes their agendas overlap but more often they don't. The animal rights movement isn't about being 'green'. In my view there is no direct ecological issue arising from the practice of mulesing. However, the waters get muddy when animal rights concerns get linked to broader environmental concerns about the ecological impacts of grazing introduced ruminant livestock in Australia - another story...
Steven Douglas | 30 January 2007

Well written, Stephen! I think you have finally identified what is at stake. No doubt, I should have been much more forthright about the role of the media in such 'pop phenomena' - because, ultimately, that is what we are addressing: environmentalism, not as it is, but as it appears to the public, the fleeting passions it arouses, the superficial alliances that form around it.

You say that films like Gore's (or even Michael Moore's) is an effective way of conveying messages and priorities to an 'increasingly perverse society'. I agree. But, can I ask, what happens then? There is a kind of placebo effect. We are concerned for a while, yes, but then there comes the media's version of the market righting itself: we all breath a little easier believing that the issue is being addressed because it's been on screen ... and nothing happens.

It is by now common knowledge that the very recent phenomenon of massive DVD sales, over against cinema-going, has led to a peculiar trend: people are buying films, not in order to watch them, but in order to have them. Many gain a deeper sense of satisfaction in their objective ownership than in their actual viewing. I think the same thing is taking place popularly. Again, this is nothing (or, very little) to do with Gore's film, and EVERYTHING to do with the relief we feel as the result of its objective existence.

So, Stephen, thank you for your clarifying post. Maybe we're not that far away after all ...
Scott Stephens | 30 January 2007

Having come to this discussion rather late in the piece, I find myself a bit mystified about the abuse Scott has garnered for what seemed like a provocative but hardly vitriolic piece - though I'm pleased to see a more temperate tone has prevailed! If I understand Scott rightly, his primary concern is not with whether the increasing popularity of environmental issues is undergirded by a 'spiritual' or religious framework, but rather with the complete inadequacy of any discussion of these issues without a full-bodied attack on the global capitalist system that continues to assure us that greed is good and economic growth must be the unarguable priority: the very values that continue to produce environmental degradation. If you find that convincing (and I basically do), you can simultaneously recognise the well-meaningness of those who are embracing environmental ideals while critiquing the broader ethical basis for much of the current interest - and Scott rightly, I think, points out that this is a deep flaw in An Inconvenient Truth. It is a problem not just without this broader critique we won't be able to fix our environmental problems (maybe too late for that anyway!) but because we won't really understand why environmental degradation is wrong. To draw a long (and perhaps contentious) analogy, it is perhaps like the humanitarians who developed charitable institutions for Aboriginal people in Australia while still affirming the values of the British imperial project that was destroying their cultures and societies. Those humanitarians felt deeply and meant very well and can certainly be praised on some counts, but the reality is that the lack of a deeper critique of the social and economic structures of which they were a part was fatal for those they were most concerned to help. And it meant that they were often unable to develop any meaningful analysis of what was ethically wrong with the situation of injustice they confronted. (Having said all that, I certainly do take Steven's point that there is much variety among environmentalists - the same was true of nineteenth-century humanitarians!) | 30 January 2007

I must say, Jo, that I am incredibly embarrassed by the clarity of your post. Thank you. The analogy that you made with 19th century humanitarians is self-evidently appropriate. I would just like to add one extra twist, a characteristic of our time that, perhaps, is not replicated in our times: Do you think that many of our well-meaning, but half-measure acts of charity, social conscience, global citizenship, in fact, stabilize our global situation by providing a moral pressure valve? In other words, we buy our peace of mind, when we should allow our minds to be plagued by the instability, the unsustainability and the injustice of our situation. This, I suggest, is the function of religion vis-a-vis capitalism today. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Scott Stephens | 30 January 2007

Thanks, Scott. I certainly think contemporary religion/spirituality can function that way (and I'm would accuse myself here) - whether it generally does, I'm not sure. I suspect that the criticism applies in a similar development, the Make Poverty History debt relief campaign. While I did my bit for the campaign in terms of writing letters etc. and I was delighted that so many religious people got on board with it - signalling a shift from a focus on charity to some kind of awareness of structural issues - it also seemed very self-congratulatory. I had sympathy with the slogan that the socialists here at Melbourne Uni developed while the campaign was on - 'Make Capitalism History'. But really, it breaks my heart to criticise Bono, when I've been a U2 fan for 20 years!
Joanna | 31 January 2007

Al Gore's movie didn't surprise, nor convince me. Truth is never convenient. The strangest thing was that his 'truth' conveniently promoted his ego.
From the time when I was studying Bush Regeneration at Ryde TAFE and trapsing through the storm-water 'reserves' of Sydney, expected to manage the problem of weed infestation without questioning the causes, nor expected to have power to deal with them.
I had to leave this inertia. I believe that knowledge has a purpose and must be allocated power. The approach to learning in which we just speak of 'facts' without linking them to real and collective action merely confuses people.
On another tact, Isaiah Berlin noted that romanticism is inherent in votes for 'sincerity'. In the last essay of the volume 'Roots of Romanticism', he describes this philosophical approach as successful in omitting absolute notions of truth. In this model, there are merely competing truths, there cannot be any conclusive, all-encompassing view. Whilst this may have led to a pluralist kind of respect for diverse opinions, it has not aided those of us who have sought to research and promote truth. For it is lost in the weight of words, in the vacuum of synthesis.
In contrast to romantic 'sincerity' is a quest for 'integrity', hailing from a more collateral Enlightened take on Reason. The outcome of this view is to say that humanity moves forward as a body - integral and one. There cannot be divorced 'truths' sufficing for Truth.
I go further upon this search, and identify that Al Gore's (et al's) quest for convenience fails precisely for its unsubstantiality to me as a believer in God. I cannot believe in human control of environmental destruction for I know God is in control. Likewise, I cannot become overwhelmed by the extent of global warming, nor by the conspiracy of culprits who deny its validity, precisely because my faith prevents my brainwashing by prophets of doom.
The romantic in me may admire Gore's sincerity. Yet my heart wants the world to be one. It can only be so when we humbly question pecuniary ends and dominantly financial means to look at problems. Stephen does this well. I ask: what do we choose - life or death?
Louise Jeffree | 04 May 2007

The story that I was told as a child was that we all grow old, we all die, and then we all live forever in Heaven.
Observation of phenomena since then has allowed me to conclude that the first two steps in this process do, indeed, occur.
There is no evidence whatsoever that the third step is anything other than wishful thinking; where does this leave us?
Given that our lives are ultimately pointless, should we kill ourselves before we do any more damage, or, should we recognise that our lives are merely small chapters in a great never-ending story?
If the latter is the case, perhaps we should seek to leave the world in no worse state than we found it.
David Arthur | 19 August 2007

Apart from the questionable causality between 'house prices' and 'support for the environment' quoted without scrutiny, the point Scott makes is correct.

My favourite feel-good practice is 'off-setting'. Who would have thunk it? We can fly-buy to our hearts content and save the planet at the same time! God, it is so easy!

Scott's mention of Diet Coke invokes Zizek and I think, in that context we might all consider the possibility that the world ended at the start of the industrial revolution and its 'second death' is now making headlines.
david akenson | 24 June 2008

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review