Barnstorming For Balance

Our reporter catches up with Senator Al Gore, whose new book is a bold statement on how to rescue the global environment

One of the articles in Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32)
Originally published in Summer 1992 on page 36
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute


Al Gore has a well-earned reputation for being the most outspoken proponent of sustainability on the Senate floor. His credentials include staunch support for the Earth Summit (he will lead the Senate delegation to Rio) and international diplomatic initiatives (Gore helped found an international association of lawmakers concerned with the environment), as well as a failed bid to run for president in 1988 on what began as an environmental platform.

His voice in the Senate has become a bit more lonely since Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, another outspoken voice for environmental sanity, announced his decision not to run for re-election. But lately Gore has been attempting to speak not just more loudly, but more deeply, on the issues that matter most to him – and to all the rest of us concerned with a sustainable way of life.

IC executive editor Alan AtKisson tagged along briefly with Gore during his whirlwind book tour to promote Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, published by Houghton Mifflin in Spring 1992.

I walk up to the front door at KIRO News in Seattle, where I’m to meet Senator Al Gore and travel with him between radio stations for a brief, in-transit interview about his new book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. I’m nervous; I’ve never interviewed a senator before. I’ve also just finished the book only an hour ago, and it was so surprisingly profound, self-revealing, and courageous in tone that it caused me to leap out of my chair and say "Yes!" out loud. So I’m also politically in love, and wondering whether the man will measure up to the image I’ve recently constructed of him.

The door is locked; Gore himself, chatting with someone just inside, opens it for me. I introduce myself, shake his hand – it’s a big, beefy, very presidential hand. JoAnn, Gore’s Seattle publicity person, comes up and points him toward a camera for a quick TV interview, then invites me to follow them back to the radio newsroom.

In the KIRO newsroom, Gore’s interview has been delayed. CNN is about to broadcast the verdict in the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, and we’re all in front of the monitors, watching CNN while KIRO broadcasts the soundtrack. Dahmer, who committed a series of grotesque murders, is pronounced sane, which means he’ll get life in prison instead of life in an insane asylum. Somehow, most people take this to be more "just." I note with irony that a comedian I’d heard recently was telling Jeffrey Dahmer jokes. Gore grimaces, and remarks that it’s probably a way of dealing with the sadness and fear around such a horror story.

The interview with the two radio hosts – which I tape off the monitor in the studio next door – goes quickly. Gore is informal, yet polished; he’s trying to communicate in a fairly genuine fashion, but he’s clearly in command of his public persona. Here’s how Gore sums up his basic message for the AM radio audience:

"I decided not to run for president this time, not for political reasons, but for personal reasons. Almost three years ago my family and I had a shattering experience when my son was almost killed [after being struck by a car]. And the process of healing that he, and we, have been going through since then is just inconsistent with me ripping myself out of their lives to run for president full time.

"I actually started writing down ideas for this book in his hospital room, and after his accident I began to question a lot of things in my own life and set some new priorities. After visiting the front lines of the ecological crisis all over the world – and as I write in the book, I went to the North Pole to talk with scientists about the thinning of the ice there, the South Pole, the Amazon, the Aral Sea – I began to look inward. I began to see the patterns in my own life that contribute to this crisis. A lot of us take three thousand pounds of metal with us everywhere we go. All of the oil well fires put together in Kuwait on the worst day represented one percent of the pollution we put into the Earth’s atmosphere every single day. We’ve got to make some changes. I see this book as a declaration of all-out commitment to do what’s needed….

"I argue that we’ve got to make the saving of the Earth’s environment the central organizing principle for the post-Cold War world. In the last half-century, the central organizing principle in the western democracies was the defeat of communism: the interstate highway bill was the Defense Interstate Highway Bill, federal aid to education came in response to the launching of Sputnik, and the like. Now, if we look at this new turning point in world history, it seems obvious to me that saving the Earth’s environment has to be the new common purpose that brings the world together."

The interviewers ask him how that message can play in a political system increasingly seen as broken, and Gore bemoans the fact that the average "sound-bite" on TV and radio these days is 6.9 seconds: "I can’t even say ‘global ecological crisis’ in 6.9 seconds." He says the American people are hungry for "real dialogue," and he notes that "writing this book has been … a liberating experience for me. It has allowed me to address these issues in a lot more depth, and what I’m finding in response is an overwhelming reaction." (Later I will hear him say that it’s also liberating because "I’ve put such personal things into this book, and they’ve now printed so many copies, I can’t take ’em back.") After ten minutes, it’s time for a commercial break; the KIRO interviewers get their books autographed.

We whisk off to KUOW, a local NPR affiliate and university station. This car ride was the time slotted for my interview with Gore, but first JoAnn breaks the news to him that there’s no time in the schedule for lunch, or dinner. It’s interviews straight through to 10 p.m. "Want an apple?" she asks. "Nah," says Gore, and grabs a small box of chocolates out of her snack bag. He inhales one, then offers me the box with a distinctly impish grin. Of course I take one, though I worry that in so doing I’ve breached some journalistic code of ethics. The drive to the University of Washington gives me time for very few questions:

Alan: What’s your current assessment of the prospects for the Earth Summit?

Al: Well, I’ve just been named the chairman of the US Senate delegation to the Earth Summit. And I think that President Bush will, in the next few months, be shamed into going. He will belatedly discover that the California primary occurs right in the middle of the Earth Summit, and that every other major leader in the world – and all the television networks in the world – are going to be there, and that his absence will be an enormous political liability. He will be dragged kicking and screaming by circumstances, as he normally is whenever the global environment is at stake. It will be too late for him to adopt any meaningful substantive position, which he doesn’t want to do anyway. Then, either the Earth Summit will blow up as a failure, or, more likely, it will muddle through toward a meaningless place-holding document that squanders the enormous opportunity that the Summit represents.

Alan: In that case, what do you see as the next national/international political steps toward realizing something like the global plan to rescue the environment that you describe in your book?

Al: Well, there’s still a chance that the Earth Summit will prove to be successful somehow. The outcomes I mentioned are the ones that are the most likely. But if we don’t get a meaningful treaty signed, then we’ll have to continue the negotiations and set a new deadline of some sort to try to force action.

Alan: In the book you hit on something that you probably don’t get to talk about much on the Senate floor – the idea of civilization being basically "dysfunctional," like an addictive personality. How has that message been received?

Al: I find that people who are familiar with that way of thinking respond quite enthusiastically to that section of the book. But those who are not conversant with that way of thinking – and there are many, particularly among the older generations – read through it, find it interesting, but aren’t really sure what it’s about. A lot of people in older generations still don’t think there’s such a thing as the unconscious.

We arrive at the next radio station, and the conversation drifts into musings about why Seattleites read so many books, and how the mountain ranges and Puget Sound determine the character of the place. Gore, in a rolling, orator’s baritone, quotes the poet William Blake: "There are two voices here. One is the mountains, one the sea. Each, a mighty voice."

This second interview is a half-hour taping for a show called "Seattle Afternoon." The interviewer wants Gore to explain his "Global Marshall Plan." "I can ask you questions if you want," he adds, but Gore says, "No, I’ll just start," and plunges into his rap, sounding like an IN CONTEXT contributing editor – talking about developing and sharing ecologically friendly technology, reducing our consumption, changing the "economic rules of the road," empowering women in the third world, doing global environmental education, getting over our "strange way of thinking that we’re separate from nature." Would Gore continue to talk like this if he were elected president? Would the country – and the world – listen?

After the interview, I hitch a ride downtown with Gore and the publicist. Like every other interviewer I’ve observed today, I turn the tape recorder off so I can ask some questions off the record. Gore with his guard a little down is even more forthright, witty, engaging. We talk about various Democratic convention scenarios and simmering political scandals – no surprises, but Gore confirms my sense that there’s a wide gap between public and private conversation on politically hot topics. Then he’s back to studying his grueling book-tour schedule, which Gore calls "a cakewalk" compared to presidential campaigning.

I see my name on his neatly typed schedule cards, which tell him exactly what he’ll be doing when, with whom, all day long. This is a lifestyle beyond Day-Runner. My "short interview" has stretched to a couple of hours of tag-along. We’re stuck in Saturday traffic, inching toward his hotel, and Gore decides to hoof it. After gracious thank-you’s and another muscular hand-shake (some politicians have hands like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body), I watch him weave through traffic. I find myself wondering if this person – intelligent, polished, caring, self-questioning, but still very ambitious and highly political – will ever be president. Al Gore wants to be president some day, and most people who want to be president give me the willies. But if given the chance, would I have voted for him in 1992? Absolutely.

The Tectonic Process Of Change

The following is excerpted from a talk given by Senator Al Gore at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, WA, February 1992.

The final third of my book [outlining Gore’s five-point plan to rescue the global environment] is focused on what can be done to solve [our environmental] problem. It is within the boundary of political pragmatism. I admit it’s on the outer edges of that boundary, but the definition of what is politically possible is expanding, because our ways of thinking are changing.

I have a model of change based on the metaphor of tectonic plates: two plates will press against one another, and the pressure builds up without any apparent change on the surface, until the friction locking the edges together eases just a bit. Suddenly one plate moves over the other, submerges it, and the shock waves knock over buildings.

Ideas can move through history in the same way. In Europe, the idea of communism came under enormous pressure from the idea of freedom, and that pressure built up along a fault line running right through Berlin. Not much of the change was visible on the surface until the idea of freedom reached a critical mass, and then suddenly and decisively it moved over communism, submerging it, and the shock waves knocked over the Berlin Wall – and all the political structures of Eastern Europe.

Now the idea that we are separate – from each other, from the future, and from the Earth – is under enormous pressure from an opposing idea: that we are connected to the web of life. That we have obligations to each other, and to those who come after us. That the future is not to be discounted, but to be believed in. That we are entitled to have faith. That there will be a future. People who believe in this idea are tempted to succumb to frustration when they don’t see change. But part of having faith is believing that as more people accept this idea, and as it reaches a critical mass, it will reach the point where it suddenly and decisively submerges that older way of thinking.

– Al Gore

Searching Our Political Soul

"Every culture is like a huge extended family," writes Al Gore in Earth in the Balance, "and perhaps nothing more determines a culture’s distinct character than [its] rules and assumptions about life."

This important new book is easily the most comprehensive and enlightening statement on the environment ever to issue from a sitting US senator and presidential contender. Gore attempts to articulate – with a rare combination of sensitivity, courage, and realpolitik -some of the most dysfunctional of those rules and assumptions in our own culture, and to map a political path forward. In fact, the book amounts to a public act of soul-searching that stretches the boundaries of mainstream political discourse.

Part I, "Balance at Risk," synthesizes the best current science in several key areas of ecological concern: climate change, toxic waste, threats to biodiversity, and other technical topics are described in very readable and engaging – if harrowing – terms. Gore is a former newspaper reporter and a gifted storyteller, and he skillfully mixes scientific data with anecdotes from his travels to global hot-spots and research stations. These chapters should convince anyone of the seriousness of our predicament.

Part II, "The Search for Balance," digs into the cultural, psychological, and even spiritual issues that undergird our physical plunder of the planet. Gore considers the obstacles to progress inherent in our economic and political systems, our relationship to technology, and our consumption-driven lifestyle. He surveys the messages of stewardship present in most of the world’s major religions, including his own Christianity, and shares something of his personal theology: "It is my own belief that the image of God can be seen in every corner of creation, even in us, but only faintly. By gathering in the mind’s eye all of creation, one can perceive the image of the Creator vividly."

Finally in Part III, "Striking the Balance," Gore maps out his plan for making the gargantuan changes in human civilization that are required to return to harmony with the planet. He outlines five "strategic goals":

* "stabilizing world population" (by making birth control technologies universally available, lowering infant mortality, and empowering and educating women);

* "the rapid creation and development of environmentally appropriate technologies" (to be shared freely with developing nations);

* "a comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the ‘economic rules of the road’ by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment";

* "the negotiation and approval of a new generation of international agreements" (regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement mechanisms, and incentives that are sensitive to differences in developing and developed nations); and

* "establishment of a cooperative plan for educating the world’s citizens about our global environment" (includes research as well as dissemination, with the ultimate goal of changing the relationship of civilization to the environment).

The discussion and specific actions Gore delineates under each goal carry a surprising amount of the thinking represented at the front lines of the sustainability movement – reorganizing economics à la Herman Daly, for example, or pushing energy efficiency à la Amory Lovins. The bibliography is full of such familiar faces.

Still, I have some quarrels with him: Gore stresses the role of government overmuch and neglects the pivotal role of voluntary action and nongovernmental citizens groups. He nick-names his five-point strategy a "Global Marshall Plan," an unhappy reference to the massive industrial investments that helped create our problems. But better that we quarrel about how to "rescue the global environment" (as we do it) than about whether it must be done. Read this book, give it to your friends, and pray that many more political leaders have the courage to choose real hope by confronting the hard truth, instead of perpetuating a dysfunctional fantasy.

– Alan AtKisson

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