Al Gore's Ideological Limitations: A Commentary on Earth in the Balance

By David Orton          


   "The United States has long been the natural leader of the global community of nations."
                                                                                                            Al Gore,  Earth in the Balance, p. 171.

            This is a commentary on Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, by Al Gore (paperback,
        Penguin Books USA Inc., 1993, ISBN 0-452-26935-0). I have had this book sitting on my bookshelf for
        several years. I bought it because it was frequently mentioned favourably in some environmental circles. Earth in
        the Balance
, I came to feel, was one of those "duty" books (about 400 pages), that I felt I should read, but did
        not have much enthusiasm for. I was also curious how Gore had manifested his environmental principles (which
        I knew included particularly a concern for global warming), while serving as the Vice-President of the Clinton
        administration - an administration marked generally by environmental evasiveness within the dominant industrial
        capitalist paradigm, including on climate change.

            What made me finally read Gore's book, were the sharp polemics which erupted within the US environmental
        community in the recent presidential election campaign, in which Gore was the Democratic candidate, Ralph Nader
        ran for the Green Party, and George W. Bush ran for the Republicans. (I am leaving aside here the even sharper
        but different kind of discussions which arose over the vote-counting in the state of Florida for the presidency,
        which Gore ultimately acquiesced to following a "partisan" US Supreme Court ruling. This showed, in my view,
        that for Gore, under pressure, it was more important to uphold the continuity and institutions of American society -
        here the ruling of the Supreme Court, than his former basically just principle of "one person, one vote", which he
        used to argue for a recount in Florida.)

            Supporters of Gore frequently referred to his environmental credentials, while Nader opponents pointed out
        examples of Gore's environmental duplicities. I knew then that I had to read his book, and see whether or not I
        could at least support the theoretical position outlined. The following comments express my views on Gore's basic
        position as expressed in Earth in the Balance. They are given from the perspective of someone who is a
        supporter of deep ecology and, within this philosophy, the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism.

        Basic agreements

            This is generally an erudite and environmentally informed text. Gore describes the degraded environmental
        situation well. He brings out that we are all part of a global civilization. Because of who he is (elected to the
        House of Representatives in 1976 and to the Senate in 1984), Gore has had access to and has tapped into the
        thinking of scientists and other academics, well informed about environmental destruction and the accompanying
        social decay. He discusses the usual ecological issues intelligently. Some of the ideas in his book were new to me.
        Two examples of this: we need to redefine technology, so that as well as tools and devices, it includes systems
        and organizational methods "that enhance our ability to impose our will on the world." (p. 211) Or, he notes
        how fertilizer use discourages genetic diversity among crop varieties by "compensating for differences in local
        environments and soil types."
(p. 142)

            His agreement with deep ecology (which he ignorantly and contemptuously dismisses), is the call for a
        fundamental change in values in how humans should relate to the Earth:
                "...the same philosophical error that has led to the global environmental crisis as a whole: we have
                assumed that our lives need have no real connection to the natural world, that our minds are
                separate from our bodies, and that as disembodied intellects we can manipulate the world in any
                way we choose. Precisely because we feel no connection to the physical world, we trivialize the
                consequences of our actions." 
(p. 144)

            But he differs from deep ecology in that his is a God-centered "stewardship" vision, with humans still at the
        center, but exercising their "dominion" intelligently with, say, a "seventh generation" perspective and
        "intergenerational equity" in mind. For him, this is a Christian requirement because, in the end, the Earth "also
        belongs to God"
(p. 244) not just humankind. Yet any experienced environmental activist knows that those who
        exercise "dominion" by working the land or sea, e.g. loggers and fishers, usually become vocal exploiters, not
        environmental defenders - and vigorously oppose new woodland-containing parks, or marine protected areas
        which exclude commercial fishing.

            He also states a fundamental organizing principle in _Earth in the Balance_ that deep ecology supporters
        would also agree with, but note the qualifier which discredits the principle:
                "...the new ‘central organizing principle' of the post-Cold War world - namely, the task of
                protecting the earth's environment while fostering economic progress."
(p. xv)

            Gore sees the need for a fundamental spiritual transformation, like most deep ecology supporters, to resolve
            the global environmental crisis, but unfortunately interprets this in a narrow, sectarian manner.

            Many of the ecological and social reforms which Gore proposes in his ecological restoration "Global Marshall
        Plan" could be supported in themselves, but are undermined by some basic beliefs which are taken for granted.
        Such beliefs reveal a kind of ideology - and hence become serious limitations for the new required thinking. The
        US fixation on economic growth and a consumer lifestyle is, it seems, a given and basic belief, which cannot be
                "Who is so bold as to say that any developed nation is prepared to abandon industrial and
                economic growth? Who will proclaim that any wealthy nation will accept serious compromises
                in comfort levels for the sake of environmental balance."
(p. 279)
            The proposed reforms then can be seen as ultimate tinkering, while the Earth continues to be destroyed.
        Moreover, the basic beliefs to which Gore subscribes are also part of the global environmental crisis and have
        helped to bring it on. Gore turns out to be not bold, or deep enough, by far, even if "balanced" from a shallow
        ecology perspective.

        Ideological limitations
            Some positions in the book which reveal Gore's ideological limitations:

        * Gore accepts a modified market economy as the only possible economic system and links free markets,
          "democracy" and social justice. "Ownership" becomes necessary to protect the environment. He supports
          the global economy and bemoans that economic decision-making so far does not include environmental
          values. He also supports trading in emission rights, is for biotechnology, and says that nuclear weapons
          "over the long term may prove beneficial" (p. 205). Gore does not want to acknowledge that the economic/
          social system he continually celebrates in his book has to be replaced, to resolve the environmental global
          crisis. He ultimately remains, in his thinking, a prisoner of his own culture.

        * For Gore, the US and other countries can have more economic growth, ‘sustainable development' is fine,
          and there are no economic limits to continual growth. He opposes "a simplistic conclusion by some that
          development itself is inherently undesirable." (p. 280)

        * He equates "democracy" with the US political process, and does not acknowledge any systemic corruption.
          There are also untouchables, such as any delegation of partial sovereignty to a global UN-type authority in
          the United States:

                    "The fear that our rights might be jeopardized by the delegation of even partial
                    sovereignty to some global authority ensures that it's simply not going to happen."
                    (p. 301)

        * He has an exaggerated, but often typical US view of that country's importance and leadership role in the
          world today.

        *  He says a person needs a "faith" to have an ethical system. As a Baptist, the Christian god is the center
          of his ethical understanding. Gore advocates a conscious role for humans as stewards of the environment
          or the Earth. He interprets the biblical "dominion" over the Earth to mean stewardship and in this way,
          looking after other "creatures":

                    "The old story of God's covenant with both the earth and humankind, and its assignment to
                    human beings of the role of good stewards and faithful servants was - before it was
                    misinterpreted and twisted in the service of the Cartesian world view - a powerful, noble, and
                    just explanation of who we are in relation to God's earth. What we need today is a fresh
                    telling of our story with the distortions removed." (p. 218)

          Other life forms clearly do not have equivalent moral standing in Gore's cosmology. He further makes the
          amazing claim that all the major world religions "mandate an ethical responsibility to protect and care for
          the well-being of the natural world." (p. 243)

        * Gore displays an ignorance of deep ecology, along with a two-page misrepresentation in his book, which
          enables him to arrive at the conclusion that "The new story of the Deep Ecologists is dangerously wrong."
          (p. 218) Deep Ecologists, according to Gore, have made "the deep mistake of defining our relationship
          to the earth using the metaphor of disease." (p. 216)

        * He still remains a Cold War warrior, with many denunciations of "atheistic" communism. There is lots of
          talk of "free societies." But at least, he is refreshingly frank about this:

                "Opposition to communism was the principle underlying almost all of the geopolitical strategies
                and social policies designed by the West after World War II." (p. 271)

          For Gore, the struggle in Europe was "democracy" versus communism, not capitalism versus communism
          (p. 178). For him, the features of communism "were infinitely worse" both individually and environmentally
          than anything "our" economic system has brought about. (p. 195)

        * In the US, he presents the Republicans as the main obstacle to environmental progress, so his book is
          partisan in this way.

        * He sees no contradiction between the US 'leading' environmentally and the creation of "millions of new
          jobs." (p. xvi)

        * A primary theme of Gore's book is the pressing need to address climate change. Yet he has served two
          terms as Vice-President in the Clinton administration, where nothing of substance concerning global
          warming has been done, except in an obstructionist sense.

        * Gore gives a number of examples where he supposedly asserts a leadership role, that can only be called
          boasting or hubris. (This boasting also became an issue in the electoral campaign for the presidency.)
          In his book he claims, "I helped lead the successful fight to prevent the overturning of protections for the
          spotted owl." (p. 121). For other boasting examples, see backhauling legislation (p. 154), and information
          superhighways (p. 327).


            Al Gore illustrates in his book what Arne Naess might call the full development of a "shallow" ecology, where
        the existing industrial capitalist paradigm of values is not fundamentally challenged. He is a reformer, not a
        revolutionary. He does not want to see the core beliefs to which he clings - which perhaps might be called "the
        American way" - undermined or replaced. I was surprised by his depth of knowledge of environmental issues,
        but also by his prejudices. Yet Gore is also an example of a certain style of "American" environmentalism, that is,
        mainstream, Christian, anti-communist, and seeing the United States as the center of the universe.

            I think Gore shows the futility of an individual, however informed, trying to change industrial capitalist society,
        even moderately from within the system, without any mobilized constituency for ecological ideals. Talk or eloquent
        writing do not overcome corporate and institutional self-interest. This should also be a lesson for some in the green
        community, who pursue electoral dreams. The problem of climate change, expressed so passionately in Gore's
        book, was not manifested positively in the Clinton administration. At the recent Hague climate conference in the
        Netherlands, the US - the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world - as usual led the obstructionists. The
        carbon sink demands for "carbon credits" were to minimize energy change in the US. (This also applies for
        Canada.) Those who live well and dominantly (and short-sightedly) off industrial capitalism, are not going to end
        the fossil fuel economy and quietly ‘reform' themselves out of existence. This is a lesson for many

            Al Gore, of course, had to be preferred over George W. Bush. But, for both of these persons, like former
        President Bush senior at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, at rock bottom, the American destructive consumer lifestyle,
        so promoted throughout the world, is not on the negotiating table. If I lived in the United States (not something I
        desire) and if I had voted, I would have 'wasted' my vote on Ralph Nader. He is someone I can personally
        admire - someone who seems to live by some Spartan principles, and a very knowledgable capitalist reformer.
        But wasn't the Nader candidacy about what the late US/German Green, Petra Kelly, would have called "ecological
        social democracy"? Is this enough for electoral greens? How will this assist and not obstruct the needed,
        fundamental industrial transformation?

        December 31, 2000

Printed in The Northern Forest Forum, Candlemas 2001, Vol. 8, No. 6.            

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