The Inconvenient Truth about An Inconvenient Truth
The Inconvenient Truth About An Inconvenient Truth
Film review by Dave McArthur
Sorry Al and Laurie. The perhaps inconvenient truth is that An Inconvenient Truth is perhaps convenient and not the truth. Science suggests the movie not based on science and it does not reflect reality. It’s a trace out of focus. Here’s why:
Yesterday I got to see this much-hyped “documentary” movie at the Wellington (New Zealand) annual Film Festival. I had read enthusiastic reviews about it on the “global Green web” and our national radio two weeks ago featured an interview with its creator, Laurie David. For six years now I have been attempting to clear the smog that obscures our vision of how the atmosphere works. Maybe Al could perform this Herculean task.
There can be few finer places on Earth to view that movie that the Embassy theatre here in Wellington. It has been restored to its former 1924 glory largely because of the efforts of Peter Jackson and was the scene of the launches of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is equipped with a very powerful projector, wonderful sound, comfortable seating and a huge screen. I could not have wished for a more convenient place to experience one of the greatest and inspiring shows on Earth – our global climate.
The movie lived up to the theatre. Much of the movie featured Al giving his lectures to audiences and often these were in auditoriums with screens that dwarfed a human and helped express the scale and grandeur of our Earth. Somehow to see graphs of carbon emissions and temperature gradients that were as large as our range of vision helped remind us we are talking about global scale events. The thunderous slow motion sound of great towers of ice slewing off and crashing into the ocean reverberated through our bodies. The portrayal of the endless looped flow of the thermohaline currents had graphic intensity. The ocean movement became planetary poetry in motion on the huge screen. Wonderful stuff.
The glittering expanses of Artic ice were a sensual treat and made for memorable scenes. Possibly the most memorable was when this land of pristine beauty erupted on scale before our eyes as a great dark monster heaved its way through the ice, shattering the scene.
It was a US military submarine and Al used it to dramatically illustrate how the ice has thinned. The submarines can only surface through the ice when it less than 3.5? meters thick. In the past this could not have done this here. The US military had been monitoring ice thickness for five decades now but their research had been kept secret from us until Al, ex Vice President of the US, forced its revelation. The data shows a dramatic thinning of the ice this last couple of decades, reflecting a more general retreat of ice systems around the planet.
If our grandchildren know a civilised existence, this scene may become iconic of how their grandparents created a militaristic, violent and uncaring society that very nearly destroyed all their options. If they do not enjoy that civilised existence the scene may explain why they do not.
And the audience at the Embassy? It was a packed house. I guess many people were avid movie fans that spend this winter fortnight in a film limbo. I suspect many of the remainder were city-based “environmentalists”, people concerned about our impact on climate balances. And me? I will be honest as it may affect what I write.
I woke yesterday with a neck-lock as periodically happens to me. Perhaps I worked too late on this computer on Saturday night? I find it interesting that I seem more vulnerable when the weatherglass rises showing a drop of barometric pressure. Perhaps a nerve or blood supply gets pressured as my fluids expand? Anyway I end up experiencing ringing ears, blurred and unfocussed vision, nausea to the point where I cannot retain fluid even, quite a lot of pain and generally have to sleep it off for 12 hours. It is a credit to Al and Laurie that I could sit out the movie. It is possible I missed much and the fog I will talk of was me.
The audience at the Embassy was of people of all ages though it was predominantly people of European extraction i.e. the wealthier strata of New Zealanders. My recollection is that Al’s audiences in the movie too were white people and my dominant impression is that they tended to be all young, fresh-faced people. Was this a deliberate decision? Is this his only audience in the US and China? Or does it reflect our Botox Age, our increasing tendencies to only see beauty in youth and in general our denial of our mortality? As we shall see, this must be considered a real possibility.
This reflection may help explain why watching the movie was like trying to see my reflection in a fogged bathroom mirror or viewing through a car windscreen. You clear the condensation and suddenly, for a moment, all it clear. Then with equal suddenness you become aware all is indistinct yet again. You know reality is there. It is so near and yet so far. You know that a tweak upwards of the temperature of the glass and all will be revealed. The fog will vanish.
Well that tweak or trace change never quite happened in the movie. It was full of wonderful statistics, graphics and inspirational scenes from our natural world. There was even spectacle in some of Al’s shows with their giant screens and enthralled audiences. We saw early photos from the US moon expeditions three decades ago of an ethereal blue water Earth floating in intergalactic space. I know how that first photo of Earthrise galvanised me and I have a replica of it, framed in honour of and dedicated to my daughter.
Al is only correct within a very limited framework when he says these photos of Earth gave rise to the “Environmental Movement”. Powerful environmental connects have always been elementary to sustainable cultures and many modern “environmentalists” I know don’t hesitate to invest in the airline industry to attend conferences around the globe in a way their parents never would have.
Mention of our Trace Beings, Al nearly got there but never quite. Something held him and/or Laurie back. At one point he talked of how he was impacted by the near loss of his young son when a car hit him. Al explained how this insight into the transitory nature of our existence transformed him, as such insights do. It caused him to become passionate about caring for our environment.
At another point he talked of how there is such a tiny margin between denial (of global warming) and despair (about global warming). In between is this tiny space for action (about global warming.) Al articulates a very real problem here. Oscillation between denial and despair is a common phenomenon surrounding the issue, as many people know neither the wonder of our atmospheric processes nor the power to feel to responsible for their actions.
My recollection is that not once did Al illustrate the reality that the issue at stake is our impact on the balance of trace gases in the atmosphere. Actually the issue of our impacts affects even finer balances that just the trace gases. Not all trace gases have the capacity to retain thermal energy to a significant degree. The reality is that just a few of the trace gases, collectively less than one thousandth of our atmosphere, are responsible for life on Earth, as we know it. Without them Earth’s surface would be 33C colder.
And, most vital, the dominant Warmer Trace Gas is water vapour, which Al barely mentioned, if at all. I think I would have noticed if he had. Not only would Earth’s surface be over 20C cooler without water vapour, it is the gas that engages our sensibilities the most. It is weather, as we know it.
It is how water vapour responds to changes in the thermal balances of the atmosphere that is most critical and it is essential that we understand the trace nature of its existence. This omission leaves the movie wide open to criticism that it lacks science in its portrayal of atmospheric processes and in its communication of climate issues. Few dispute carbon dioxide levels are rising. The debate stems around how water vapour systems will react and the film did not advance this awareness.
The movie did attempt a brief portrayal of the fineness of the relatively silk thin film surrounding Earth that is our atmosphere. Maybe I expected too much of modern graphics but the reference was so fleeting and the graphic so hard to decipher that I was left feeling disappointed that the trace nature of our troposphere had not been better revealed.
Instead of clarifying the fact that it is our lack of knowledge of trace elements and their powers of leverage that is the most pressing issue, Al sent us down the foggy path of “greenhouse gases”. Worse, he used cartoons to attempt to explain the unhelpfully named “greenhouse effect”.
Now understand I live with a sparkling clear vision of that exquisitely beautiful phenomenon that is global warming. I welcome it with every cell of my body. Even as I write this room is 9C. I await with pleasurable anticipation the warming-up impact the sun’s rays will have on this house causing the temperature to rise to a more comfortable 15C.
I know my delight in the global warming process is shared by all life forms on Earth. I watch the flowers on my doorstep open their petals and turn their heads, tracking the path of the sun daylong. I see it in the tree rings where leaves have reached for solar energy. I see global warming in the movement of the clouds and the waves on the oceans and hillside forests around me. I have little doubt that at a cellular level all people know global warming is good. All sustained civilisations recognise global warming as good, if not divine. Our civilisation, by comparison, walks with eyes cast down, reserving reverence for holes in the ground. It says global warming is bad.
Is it a mistake then that Al takes all these beautiful manifestations of the wonders of global warming in the movie and then frames them as bad? Surely he confuses them with a very different process – the human-induced thermal build-up at Earth’s surface? How much less fog and confusion the film would have generated if it had portrayed global warming as an exquisite and wonderful thing and had then framed the possibly of more extreme weather events and land losses with a human induced Thermal Build-up?
As mentioned, the movie used cartoons to portray the global warming process. Also understand that I live cartoons. Books of cartoons fill my bookshelves. I am aware of their power to reveal essential truths in every culture whether it is in the Palaeolithic cartoons of men chasing reindeer on cave walls or in the hopes of the Pharaohs inscribed on the Pyramids’ walls or in the insights of the Buddha cleft into rock walls or in the grimacing stone faces of gargoyles guarding European castles or eyeblazing wooden figures guarding Polynesian maraes or in Walt Disney’s dancing figures on celluloid. A cartoon can express the essence of a thousand hours of musing and writing at a glance.
So when the movie portrays incoming solar energy quantum as little gremlins that are beaten into immobility by other little gremlins called “greenhouse gases” and then stacked up in the atmosphere to keep us warmed I am affronted. I was aware of a strong sense of nonsense and even stirrings of anger. I sense harmony in the global warming, not war.
After the movie I sat with a small group discussing it. These were people, one a meteorologist, who dearly wanted this movie to work. They were willing it with passion that Al be able to wake people to our potential impact on atmospheric balances.
All their faces clouded over with a vague horror when the subject of the cartoon portrayal of global warming came up. All expressed feelings of concern about it. However when I suggested that the cartoon might have revealed a fundamental flaw in the movie (climate change/global warming = bad) all went into major denial. They dismissed it as “just a cartoon” and hence something that should not be taken seriously. So I ask the question, what is it in these good people that intellectually denies what their primal being tells them – global warming is positive. And what is that causes them to describe me as negative and too critical for pointing out this fatal flaw in the movie?
Al says time and again, global warming is a moral issue. Well actually, the only way I can make sense of him is to think that he really means that our use of the atmosphere is a moral issue. And as he says, there is only a tiny space between denial of our possible impacts and despair about our ability to do anything about them. I would suggest the gap is hope. When it is filled with hope, people feel enabled to act in a sustainable way. Does the movie generate hope?
Well at the end it does flick on the screen a series of activities such as using efficient light bulbs, using public transport, biking or walking when you can, telling your member of congress to do something about global warming/climate change and if they won’t then stand for congress yourself.
The movie missed some great opportunities, for all that it accomplished. Al was upfront and honest about the USA– his country, like New Zealand, has a very inefficient vehicle fleet compared to other countries. It was good to see an American talking of this fact with distaste rather than pride as so often happens. It was great to see the giant graphs that reveal this wasteful reality. What was the average American or New Zealander to think at this point? How could they know there is sane, fulfilling life in communities such as Norway that put a higher value on oil, despite owning large reserves? A quick flick of the camera to that country would have revealed why their communities are so much more efficient and this could have brought the graphs to life with hope. (Last time I checked petrol was retailing in Norway at over $US8 a gallon compared to about $US2 a gallon in America. Most of that price is tax, which is reinvested in a smarter society.)
In the recent interview with Kim Hill on our National Radio Laurie enthused about what a wonderful guy Al is and how he have travelled countless miles in his mission to wake people up to our impact on the atmospheric balances. The movie portrayed Al as a real nice guy and I am inclined to think I would very much enjoy his company. It also portrayed how those miles were put up. We saw constant pictures of Al peering out of the windows of cars and jets. This was the central message of the movie. If you want to do something, then dig a hole for more oil and burn it up in a combustion engine. (I can also imagine the bankers of the Bulk-electricity industry will also love this movie if they have interests in nuclear reactors).
At the end of the
movie it suggested if we pray then we could pray for the
global warming issue. It followed this with an African
“When you pray, move your feet.” I reminded our little discussion group of this and asked, “Does anyone actually recall Al’s feet moving throughout the movie?” People had to think very hard and I found I just constantly came up with mental pictures of him peering pensively out of jet windows onto either despoiled or still pristine landscapes or putting us behind a steering wheel and driving us back to his boyhood.
The end credits also advertised the fact that “Energy Offset by Native Energy”. Now I presume this means that some carbon trading company balanced the fossil fuels used and carbon emitted making the movie with the creation of some carbon storing mechanism elsewhere. Can the average person find hope in carbon trading? I doubt not.
Science provides no evidence I know of that carbon trading works on any level. Arguably it is a means by which a small portion of humanity absolve themselves of responsibility and moral ownership of the fact they have used up a non-replaceable resource and in so doing perhaps put the future of their grandchildren at major jeopardy. In many cases it is simply a method of transferring wealth and land from the poor to the rich.
However I do believe Al is correct when he says our use of resources is a moral issue and I do believe he is a decent and well- intentioned man. Where I diverge is that I believe we must confront the central issue, which is our actual use of resources. Al clouds the issue when he says “climate change” and “global warming” are the problem and are bad. They are not. They are the natural order and to suggest otherwise is a denial of reality.
At one point Al says, “Sometimes I nearly despair because I know I put things so clearly.” Well, yes. It is a cause for despair when anyone confuses warming with warming up and believes that climate change is bad. Are they saying that the ceasing of all change in our climate is good then?
Fortunately we are quite well developed as Thermal Beings at a primal level and have developed a strong sense that warming is good and change is the reality. That is what sustains our species. Al’s despair derives from his confusion of basic thermodynamics. Clarity is lost in the confusion and the evil in humans thrives on the confusion.
This commentary may seem unnecessarily negative about a most worthy endeavour. On the contrary. My views are born of a very positive joy in life and change. Al showed a map of the world and spoke of how a boy observed to his teacher that Africa fitted into America like a jigsaw. His teacher scorned him for his observation and he suggest the boy became a drug addict or similar wasted being. The teacher went on to become science advisor to the current US administration. His audience and the audience at the Embassy all laughed at the irony, sure in our knowledge that the plates of the Earth do move.
I well remember my own great excitement as a boy in the 1950s observing the same phenomenon and being similarly crushed by my teacher. Maybe my memory does her a wrong but being an Irish Catholic nun she would have dismissed my enthusiasms with her traditional response “ Dearrrvid McArthurrrrh, I don’t know where you get these ideas from. You must have the Devil in you!!?*!”
Then Al went on to juxtapose graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels with average surface temperatures of the Earth for the past 400,000 years as measured in ice core samples. He likened the denial of those who cannot see the intimate relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature with the denial of those who could not see the relationship between the continents.
Well the Devil in me has been observing a few more Inconvenient Truths. Could it be that Al and all those who support this movie are in major denial too? The ice cores and the movement of the tectonic plates tell us a story of planet Earth. So does our choice and use of symbols to reflect our images of the nature of energy (and climate processes in particular) also tell a story – the story of our culture.
I have assembled a list of our nonsense (unscientific)
uses of key symbols. These include ones much used in this
movie such as global warming, greenhouses and climate
change. I have then reflected on the list and attempted to
identify a pattern behind the nonsense.
What, if any, common driver of behaviour determines this choice of nonsense use of these symbols?
One thing stands out very clearly about these symbol uses. They all tend to work to deny the nature of energy i.e. that it is bounteous and constantly changes form. In essence, our popular use of them is a great denial of our trace existence, that we are mortal and that we are responsible for our actions. So while the movie has excellent content it is all framed in a grand denial. That is why I experienced it as a fogged window on reality. The lens was just a fraction out of focus but as anyone knows who has driven with fogged windows or shaved with a cutthroat razor with a fogged mirror, it makes for a high-risk activity.
I predict that, on balance, the movie’s lack of science will make it work counter to its objectives. As the Potsdam Institute found when it researched The Day After Tomorrow, for which its was an adviser, the film worked to confuse and disempower viewers. And I suspect in that case most of the German audience researched were relatively educated about climate issues. What was not researched is the bigger question: what does the average non-movie goer learn from all the headline chatter, reactionary talk-back radio and general hype surrounding the movie?! As we saw with the recent Wellington Climate Change and Governance Conference, its lack of science and the publicity surrounding it generated further ignorance of the issues as reactionary-groups were established and compounded the confusion.
It so happens last week I visited Wellington City library and per chance spotted a magazine. I am fascinated by electricity in all its forms and the magazine contained an article detailing the recent discovery of the existence of a hitherto unknown type of electrical system. It seems possible this electrical system enables the psychology and communication necessary for a civilisation like ours to exist. This set me on a path of reflection around the issues of our abuse of energy, our high-risk belief in carbon trading, the New Zealand National Radio interview with Laurie David (creator of An Inconvenient Truth) and of the power of reflection.
I pulled it together in a blog for my website www.bonusjoules.co.nz.
I cannot post it at present because the website is built on a kind mate’s computer and it is in pieces at present. I like to think when I get the blog up, you will be able to see the power of reflection and why I am not being unnecessarily negative about this movie. You will also be able to see that the blog accurately anticipated this movie. This may give you cause to wonder if I might have a point and may in fact be a positive person with a rather wonderful vision of the nature of energy.
Essentially I argue our actions are the model and mirror our essence. I also argue that to the extent we mirror the trace balances of the environment that sustain us we can know joy. I think you will find the thinking in the blog as advanced as any in the world of how important it is that each of us reflect on the powerful role model we are and to know why we cannot trade away our responsibilities for our actions. And that’s the inconvenient truth.