Al Gore has done a great job of popularizing some unfortunate truisms about global warming, and he's helped me understand how the most uncomfortable and awful truths remain untold.
Sad but true, there's a danger that the halo shining over Gore and his Oscar-winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth, may postpone urgent discussion of shortcomings in both the movie and Gore-texted website (www.climatecrisis.net).
Interesting that when I rented the DVD, the clerk said, "You've done your bit," praising my choice of movie and pointing to the 100 per cent post-consumer recycled packaging. A pretty easy way of scoring green points, I'd say.
My problem is, I'm used to looking for impact, but what really seems to count in the Gore landscape is the demonstration of good intent. The truth that we may have to roll up our sleeves on an issue comes across as too close for comfort.
Let's start with the lone reference to food or agriculture that makes it in the movie action list startling since the food system is a major source of greenhouse gas. The scrolling script at the end of the movie asks people to reduce dependence on foreign oil by helping farmers produce alcohol fuels. If acted on, this would undo any good that comes from following other recommendations in the movie.
Alcohol fuels are the flavour of the month for agribusiness trading companies that want to flog corn and grain sales, and for politicians who want to look like they're doing the right thing by supporting local farmers over Arab and Venezuelan regimes.
It's almost too corny to be believed that this fuel alcohol suggestion made it into Gore's flick, but there it is.
The corn alcohol promotion violates two points Gore promotes: energy efficiency and ethics. Gore likes to say that responding well to global warming is an ethical imperative, not a political divider. How much more ethically impaired can you get than using prime farmland to grow crops to feed cars, when one person in seven around the world is chronically hungry and the world population heads from 6 to 9 billion?
The grade-school math proposed by ethanol promoters is that corn draws down carbon from the atmosphere into the soil while it's growing, and the amount stored in the ground pretty much equals the CO2 released into the air when the fuel is burned.
This equalization scenario has been debunked by a wide range of experts, most notably David Pimental from Cornell University's famous ag school, who's shown that fuel alcohol from corn is actually responsible for more fossil fuel emissions than regular gasoline from distant regimes.
That's because corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, meaning it takes lots of fertilizer made from fossil fuels. It's also very hard on the soil, and grown over the huge expanses needed for cheap fuel, it requires highly toxic pesticide sprays, the chemical hit that genetically engineered corn is specifically designed to overcome.
Odd that corn, cornerstone of the global grain trading giants at the top of the U.S. food export industry, gets off lightly in the Gore scenario.
The action list at the website does contain one short page of suggestions about food. It urges folks to shop at local farmers markets and bravely advocates eating less meat, though its rationale is flimsy.
As with all topics covered by Gore, the food items don't make one mention of what government and public institutions could be doing such as buying local as an across-the-board policy, or regulating reduced and reusable packaging. It seems like we're only supposed to engage the world as individuals, recyling our garbage or shopping for better light bulbs.
Though Gore encourages people to get active in politics, his entire to-do list leaves government regulations and interventions out of the equation, revealing the same old free market neo-liberal politics that he carried the can for when he was VP.
Lest we forget, he was one of president Bill Clinton's major attack dogs for North American free trade.
As VP, he was also point person for government reorganization efforts based on the shallow but then-popular ideas from Reinventing Democracy, by David Graeber, who said government's job was to "steer, not row," a recipe for massive privatization and downloading of government responsibilities.
For the first time since the 1930s Depression, the Clinton-Gore admin steered away from welfare entitlements, a move no neo-conservative government ever dared do. Canadians might note that Graeber's book was also a fave of then minister of finance Paul Martin when he was in his downloading phase, from which all cities continue to suffer.
Not much in the politics of deregulated free trade to warm the heart or cool the planet.
It's unlikely that failure to mention government regulation was a mistake or oversight in Gore's flick and website. Can the same be said of the fact that the former vice-prez doesn't advocate government incentives for local and sustainable growers and food processers on par with the multi-billions in subsidies for those who grow destructive corn and cotton?
The weight of the distinction between intent and impact reveals the shallowness of Gore's recommendations. But to give him his due, putting food and other practical issues on the table will be easier now that a major icon has helped clear away the oil industry's convenient fictions.