(Many thanks to Roger Gathman at Limited, Inc, for a very incisive response to my preceding post on the Liberty Mutual commercial. The issues he raises concerning the relationship between personal and public/corporate "responsibility" (together with the cluster of related issues of global warming which Roger discusses in a recent post) are, in turn, very relevant to Guggenheim's and Gore's new documentary, An Inconvenient Truth).
David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (together with Al Gore’s book and slide show on which it is based) is framed by two photographs of the Earth (both of which appear twice). As Al Gore explains, the first of the two pictures
is the first picture most of us ever saw of the Earth from Space. It was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission, the first of the Apollo missions that left the confines of near-Earth orbit and circled the moon….
One of the astronauts aboard, a rookie named Bill Anders, snapped this picture, and it became known as Earth Rise. The image exploded into the consciousness of humankind. In fact, within two years of this picture being taken, the modern environmental movement was born. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, The Natural Environmental Policy Act, and the first Earth Day all came about within a few years of this picture being seen for the first time (here and throughout, quote is taken from the book, but is identical or nearly identical to corresponding passage in the film).
This relationship between the initial appearance of this photograph and the subsequent development environmental movement is an extremely interesting one, suggesting the inherent power of visual images to radically transform our understanding of the world, and of our position in it.
The ideological and philosophical significance of this act of picture-taking is developed more abstractly in Heidegger’s influential essay, “The Age of the World Picture,” in which he argues that it is precisely this ability to conceptually the world (as a picture) which is one of the defining qualities of the “modern age”:
The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. The word picture [Bild] now means the structured image [Gebild] that is the creature of man’s producing which represents and sets forth.
However, as Heidegger goes on to explain, this act of picturing the world implies not merely a straightforward act of representation, but more importantly a transformation in our understanding of the world as representable: “Hence, world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture.” Finally, Heidegger argues, this process of “modern representing” has equally important implications for the way in which people, as representers and representatives, are themselves situated as subjects:
That the world becomes picture is one and the same event with the event of man’s becoming subjectum in the midst of that which is.
An Inconvenient Truth is an important and powerful movie, and the lessons it teaches about the realities of global warming should be taken to heart by all. These lessons should, and must, lead to fundamental changes at the level of both individual behavior, as well as public policy.
While An Inconvenient Truth does an excellent job of articulating the problem, however, it is less effective in presenting truly effective solutions. Both movie and book conclude with a variety of suggestions regarding “what you personally can do to help solve the climate crisis.” These suggestions range from the concrete (bag your groceries with reusable bags) to the more ambitious (e.g., “write your congressman, and if that doesn’t work, run for Congress…”). The end goal, we are told, is to reduce one’s carbon emissions to “work toward living a carbon neutral life.”
What precisely does it mean to lead a “carbon neutral life?” We should begin by becoming more aware of the ways in which our activities result in the emission of carbon dioxide, and reducing those emissions as much as possible—both of which are clearly laudable goals. An Inconvenient Truth presents quite a few concrete suggestions regarding how one may reduce energy consumption (e.g., “Choose energy-efficient lighting…. Choose energy-efficient appliances when making new purchases…Properly maintain your appliances… Heat and cool your house efficiently…).
However, the fact remains that, as Jeff Goodell points out in The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, every American consumes, on average, 20 pounds of coal every day in the form of electricity; and coal, in turn, accounts for 40 % of America’s CO2 emissions. Given this and other factors, Gore’s book correctly acknowledges that
So many things we do in out day-to-day lives—driving, cooking, heating our homes, working on our computers—result in greenhouse-gas emissions. It is virtually impossible to eliminate our personal contributions to the climate crisis through reducing emissions alone.
Despite these bleak realities, Gore encourages us not to despair, assuring the reader that, “You can, however reduce your impact to the equivalent of zero emissions by purchasing carbon offsets.”
What are carbon offsets, and how do they enable consumers to reduce their impact “to the equivalent of zero emissions?” There is not direct explanation in An Inconvenient Truth itself, but the relevant paragraph in the book version invites the reader to visit a site which opens with the following example of how carbon offsetting works:
Sample: a mid-sized 30 mpg car driving 12,000 miles/year will create about 3.55 tons of CO2/year. Using Carbonfund.org's calculator we figured this would cost only about $19.50 or $1.63/month to be offset! This means that for a very small amount of money you can drive the equivalent of a zero-CO2-emission car! [emphases in the original]
Similarly, the “take action” tab of An Inconvenient Truth’s own website also instructs readers on how to “become carbon neutral” by helping them to calculate their carbon footprint, and then providing a single link to how to “reduce or even eliminate your emissions of carbon dioxide”—a link which redirects readers to yet another site. There, readers are reassured, “You don’t have to switch power companies, modify your home or car, or change anything to participate.” What specific purpose this money will serve, however, is left rather vague:
By helping build new renewable energy projects on tribal lands and family farm land you are helping people who depend on the gifts of the Earth for their very survival to develop sustainable economies in accordance with their core cultural beliefs.
Even more perplexing are the specific dollar amounts involved. By contributing $3/month to these wind farms on native American lands, for instance, one can thereby, “offset” the carbon emissions operating a “small car.” (Drive an SUV? No problem. A “large car” is only $8/month, “Conveniently billed to your credit card each month until you cancel.”)
How are these amounts calculated? This is not clearly explained (as far as I can tell) on either of these sites, or even any of the sites which are linked to them (the carbonfund.org calculator referred to in the www.ecobusinesslinks.com site cited above provides a detailed explain of how carbon emissions are calculated, but absolutely no explanation for how the carbon offsets amounts are calculated).
The implication of course is that, by paying for carbon offsets, you are paying for the difference between electricity produced with methods resulting in carbon emissions and green ones which are not (since the electricity from both sources is mixed together in the same grid, and most consumers are not able to control where their electricity comes from). This makes sense in theory, but the actual monetary figures don’t seem to add up. For instance, the “Native Energy” site suggests that $8 a month will offset an average US household’s entire monthly electricity usage. If the difference in price between a month’s worth of electricity for an entire household (and remember Goodell’s claim that each individual American uses 20 pounds of coal worth of electricity every day), then presumably it would be a very simple matter to kick the carbon-emitting coal habit. In fact, however, as Goodell and others explain, we derive most of our electricity from coal precisely because it is vastly cheaper than electricity from other sources (and while it is possible to process in such a way that carbon is either “sequestered,” or otherwise controlled, these approaches also carry a substantial price tag).
Furthermore, even if carbon off setting might make sense for electricity use (at least in theory), it is not at all clear how it even begins to address the problem of carbon emissions from, say, automobile use. How is paying one to three dollars a month to help pay for windmills going to “offset” in any meaningful way the carbon dioxide that will be produced by that same vehicle. One to three dollars a month wouldn’t even begin to cover the price differential between a gasoline car and a hybrid, much less addressing the carbon emissions resulting from the process of producing the electricity for the hybrid itself.
The implicit logic in each of these examples pernicious: By contributing a “very small amount of money” each month, consumers can thereby absolve themselves of guilt from their carbon emissions. Furthermore, these sites explicitly reassure readers that they won’t have to “modify your home or car, or change anything to participate.” Therefore, in soothing readers’ consciences, these carbon offsetting programs actually provide a disincentive for the radical changes in consumption and behavior that would be necessary to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale.
In China during the 17th and 18th century, a kind of morality book, known as “Ledgers of Merits and Demerits” (功过格) became popular in China. Originally of Taoist origin, these texts subsequently came to be adapted to Buddhism, and basically consisted of keeping a detailed record of all of one’s good and evil deeds so as to insure that, at the end of each month one could try to be at least morally neutral. This practice is frequently referred to as a kind of “moral bookkeeping” and, indeed, one of the principle means of accumulating merits is through financial contributions. As Cynthia Brokaw explains in The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China, one could accumulate “merits” by donating cash (or the equivalent) to widowers, widows, orphans, the childless, and the poor or, of course, the local monastery
Like the Chinese Ledgers of Merits and Demerits, An Inconvenient Truth seems to advocate an energy conservation policy premised on inciting a strong sense of guilt (i.e., the ledgers of demerits, or the individual carbon footprint calculations), and then giving people a way to absolve that guilt through convenient (and very affordable) monetary contributions. The question remains, however, of how an energy conservation policy premised on allowing consumers to absolve their “carbon guilt” from, say, automobile usage by contributing the equivalent of one venti cappuccino a month to help build windmills on Native American lands, going to provide any real incentive for them to drastically reduce gasoline consumption?
By contrast, there already exists a very simple solution which would contribute directly to a very dramatic decrease in fossil fuel consumption—a solution which is not mentioned anywhere in An Inconvenient Truth (either movie, book, or web site). This solution is, of course, a gasoline tax. It is a fact that the price of gasoline in the US is significantly lower than in most of the rest of the world, and that higher gasoline prices would provide a very strong incentive both to reduce overall consumption. Indeed, as James Surowiecki noted in “The Financial Page” of The New Yorker last year,
Gas taxes are unpopular in the U.S., although they’re remarkably low compared with those in other countries—and even, adjusting for inflation, much lower than in the late nineteen-fifties. But, of all taxes, a gas tax is among the most fair and efficient. In the late nineties, a survey of forty top economists found disagreement on nearly every issue, but gas taxes had unanimous support.
Apart from giving the market a concrete incentive to develop more fuel-efficient alternatives, higher gasoline taxes would provide considerable revenue which could be allocated toward the development of alternative fuels (what is an extra $3/month, under the “Native energy” plan, as compared to, say, an extra dollar for every gallon of gasoline purchased?). Finally, as Surowiecki notes,
The other, more fundamental virtue of the gas tax is that it brings the price of gasoline in line with its true cost. When all is said and done, cheap gas is an illusion, because our reliance on gas creates a whole series of costs that aren’t factored in to the pump price—among them congestion, pollution, and increased risk of accidents. The most rigorous study of these “externalities,” by the economists Ian Parry and Kenneth Small, suggests that a tax that took them into account would come to $1.01 for every gallon of gas.
In Gore’s defense, one might argue that he refrains from pushing for (or even mentioning) the possibility of a gasoline tax because it would be political suicide for him to do so (but isn’t An Inconvenient Truth supposed to be about the environment, and not about politics?). In fact, however, a February 2006 New York Times/CBS poll found that, when asked
“What if the increased tax on gasoline would cut down on energy consumption and reduce global warming, then would you favor or oppose an increased federal tax on gasoline?”
It was found that 59% percent of respondents said they would favor such a tax, and only 34% were opposed. Furthermore, The New York Times reports (via environment.about.com) that many mainstream economists believe that raising the tax by as much as a dollar a gallon would substantially reduce consumption.
The implications of An Inconvenient Truth's mixed messages can be aptly summarized if we return to the second photograph of the earth (paired with the Apollo 8 Earth Rise one) which also helps frame the work. As Gore explains,
This is the last picture of our planet taken by a human being from space. It was taken in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission—the last Apollo mission—from a point halfway between the Earth and the Moon.
What makes this image so extraordinary is that it’s the only photo we have of the Earth from space taken when the Sun was directly behind the spacecraft….
For this reason, this image has become has become the most commonly published photograph in all of history. No other image comes close. In fact, 99 times out of 100, when you see a picture of Earth, this is the picture you are seeing.
Eminently clear, reproducible and consumable, in part because it is lacking any trace of a shadow, this latter photograph could be seen as a useful metaphor for An Inconvenient Truth. Perhaps Truth’s greatest failing is that it avoids addressing its own most “inconvenient truth”--which is that, if one accepts the implications of its own argument (that carbon emissions are leading to a dramatic increase in global warming, which in turn will soon reach a point after which the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland icecaps will become virtually inevitable), the solutions it proposes fall dramatically short of what is needed. The US, and the world, needs to make some hard policy decisions which will lead to a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions, but the once-future president of the United States deliberately avoids allowing the “shadow” of those decisions intrude on the paradoxically sunny picture that he presents. Instead, An Inconvenient Truth reassures its viewers/readers that they can do their part by making relatively minor adjustments to their ordinary behavior, and absolve the rest of their “carbon guild” by contributing very modest amounts of money to environmentally correct causes.
In short, I would suggest that, in the process of providing a Heideggerian “world picture” which is simultaneously alarming and oddly reassuring, An Inconvenient Truth constructs what Rey Chow (in another context, but also building off of Heidegger’s essay) calls a “world target”--whereby the Earth as we know it is positioned in the cross-hairs of imminent destruction