Al Gore and the Enlightenment Ethic

By Chris Mooney | June 23, 2011 1:18 pm

Everybody is talking, and rightly so, about the big Al Gore piece in Rolling Stone on science, reason, and the climate crisis. And it is, indeed, quite a tour de force. Gore is not only a charismatic leader (now that he’s not running for president), he’s a great writer.

Nevertheless, I’m afraid to say that Gore is operating, big time, in liberal Enlightenment mode–precisely what I critiqued in The American Prospect. Let’s give some examples of Gore’s Enlightenment rhetoric:

Admittedly, the contest over global warming is a challenge for the referee because it’s a tag-team match, a real free-for-all. In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.

And:

We haven’t gone nuts — but the “conversation of democracy” has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

I agree with one part of Gore’s message whole heartedly. We really have lost our grip on reality and this really is endangering our politics and our civilization. Without facts, we’re  screwed. We’re dysfunctional.

But I don’t agree with Gore’s account of why this happened. He blames the “powerful.” He blames the “Polluters.” He blames the media. But most of all, for him it’s special interests–money in politics, money in the fossil fuel industry, is blocking our progress and sowing misinformation.

Gore seems to assume that if these pernicious effects were vanquished–or controlled by better policy–then the “public interest” would triumph again and we would all rally around it–just as we would all embrace the same facts again. But that just isn’t true.

The truth is that we are psychologically programmed not to accept the facts; and moreover, we don’t all want the same things–liberals and conservatives, in particular, have different value systems and psychological needs. And liberals, in particular, need to think that society can be rational, and that science can fix our problems–and that if it isn’t working out that way, it must be due to some kind of wrongdoing or nefariousness.

But alas, while our state of dysfunction is very real, the cause is not some evil Machiavellian group of special interests (an argument that works less and less well, by the way, as more and more fossil fuel companies become supporters of climate action). No: the cause lies within ourselves, and our brains.

Comments (14)

  1. Jay

    That is an interesting and somewhat compelling point of view. However, I think that it is also flawed by the same sort of need for a particular kind of explanation that it is attempting to point out. The fact is, alien masonic nwo conspiracy theories aside, there most definitely ARE many such “Machiavellian group of special interests” in the world. They’re probably not the ones people generally speculate and fantasize about, but there are such things in the world I’m afraid. This in no way contradicts your assertion that our brains are (of course) at the root of our collective dysfunction. I’d say both things are to some degree true. They are not mutually exclusive realities.

  2. Carol

    This is twaddle. If a person is programmed for comfort, they also have brains that can be taught to think beyond comfort. To simply reduce the increasing disconnect between a subset of our population and reality to “programming” and to allow the merchandisers of lies a pass is deterministic to a fault. And nothing in neurophysiology says that increasing numbers of people simply lose touch with reality because they are programmed to do so. There is room for disinformation and psy-ops. Because they actually work, even if part of it is because they appeal to our comfort zones.

  3. Isn’t it both? i.e., the arguments of special interests resonate because of psychological predispositions that are being deliberately taken advantage of.

  4. Mark

    If conservatives can be taught to believe that government regulation can end terrorism, they can be taught that government regulation can end climate change.

  5. Mike H

    Gore is operating, big time, in liberal Enlightenment mode

    Remind me, is that the “mode” where you call on people to have fewer children, even though you have four of your own? Is it the “mode” where you rail against other people’s rampant consumerism while buying a 100’ luxury houseboat? Is it the “mode” where you fire off angry articles berating the general population for not living sustainable from the comfort of you 20 room, 8 bathroom, 10,000 square foot home in Nashville, 4,000 squarefoot home in Arlington or your 3500 square foot home in Carthage (I know, he paid his indulgences on one of these with LEED certification)? Does the “mode” include berating others of driving gas hogging SUV’s while owning an SUV yourself?

    If this is sustainable living, then cound me in baby!

    Now let us all eat some cake!

  6. Nevertheless, I’m afraid to say that Gore is operating, big time, in liberal Enlightenment mode–

    Oh really?

    I’ll drone on about this if I have to, but Al Gore, while making noises about science and reason had the following to say in “Earth in the Balance”:

    “Bacon’s moral confusion — the confusion at the heart of much modern science—came from his assump­tion, echoing Plato, that human intellect could safely analyze and understand the natural world without reference to any moral principles defining our relationship and duties to both God and God’s creation.””

    Similarly at one of the endless UN meetings on this he started going on about “the truths contained in primitive cultures”. This is not the language of the Enlightenment. It is the language of superstitious reaction.

    You’re very good when you note that it’s not some mysterious group of “polluters”. Correct. Pollution is part of the price we pay for civilization. The key distinction between those who are serious and those who are not is as follows: Do they say that global warming is a problem that needs fixing or that its a sin for which we need atone?

  7. Mark,

    “If conservatives can be taught to believe that government regulation can end terrorism, they can be taught that government regulation can end climate change.”

    The use of force against the other is not a stretch for the conservative mind. Finding a way to pay the two trillion dollars the GWOT has cost so far is a sticking point for some though.

    Conservatives have a much larger problem with AGW than acquiescing to regulation. Global warming (pollution) represents a failure of the free market. Probably easier to give up a leg than to believe that.

  8. Susan Anderson

    Consider the Roman circus that is our current default entertainment (and don’t forget advertisements). I don’t think anyone would give up their cell phone (why should they, they will say – they want a newer better one with more features). “Free” media – can anyone really say they and their families are uninfluenced by what finances it? We’ve come to regard it as a right, Just watching evening news – gaming the most profitable industry out there.

    So, what government regulation?

    While the welcoming human environment that has been earth for the last 10 millenia (more or less, with additions) is changing we can avoid discomfort because we have so many ways to escape it.

    How can we slow down infotainment and the desire for ever-accelerating product improvements? How about families and the instinct for procreation? Have you been nowhere near a sports contest or celebration? American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and their spinoffs? Morning news entertainment features? (And don’t forget the most expensive circus of all – our elections.)

    A recent ride on the subways showed me the only place where everybody reads? Go figure.

    Gore has become a target and it no longer matters that he brought the whole world to a sense of the reality with one great slide show. The “kill the messenger” now subscribed to by vast numbers will never allow him to be considered as a good man doing his best, with a life history like the rest of us. They couldn’t see, for whatever reason, that he has learned a lot and told the truth to the best of his ability, which is considerable.

    No doubt insulted nature will continue to wield its bludgeon more fiercely until enough important people get the message and begin slowing down. To reverse one must first slow down, then break even, then back up.

  9. I understand what you’re saying about Gore not taking into account how different people are motivated to believe one way or another but I think there’s another twist on this that’s very important. You’ve pointed out the structure that conservatives relish and their almost blind faith in authority or god-like figures; being led by emotion rather then reason. Don’t you think there are some in the Republican Party leadership who have molded their public views to take advantage of those whose thinking is influenced in such a way? Don’t they have a responsibility to use their position of authority in the conservative movement to push a fact-backed agenda in a manner that would persuade their base? It’s not an insignificant number of Republicans who have at one time expressed acceptance of climate change only to back down rather than frame the issue in a manor that could marshal other Republicans to the cause. These people can’t be dismissed as simply different types of thinkers. Their morally bankrupt behavior is simply shameful. That said, liberals, progressives, centrists need to learn to frame their arguments in a way that appeals to basic conservative thinking. It’s been done in the past. Long before Cap-and-Trade was vilified on the Right, it was not just embraced, it was pushed.

  10. Chris Mooney

    @3 is right. I don’t believe there are really many Machiavellis. I do believe that people always convince themselves that they’re right and they’re doing good things, and so if you are the head of a corporation that is causing environmental harm, you rationalize (but we create all these jobs, we provide needed services to hundreds of thousands/millions of people)…etc.

  11. JMW

    @10 Chris, I’m going to plug (once more) John Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards”. His point is that the modern elite has embraced Voltaire’s rationality, but forgotten and expunged Voltaire’s equal emphasis on ethics.

    The result is an elite that is trained up in making rational decisions, completely unfettered by any hint of the ethical. This is how you get West Virginia (read Roger Ebert’s review of “The Last Mountain”), this is how you get Bhopal, India…

    …and on a geekier note, this is how you get the episode of Enterprise called “The Andorrian Incident”, when the Enterprise comes across a Vulcan religious retreat on a planet called B’Jem. Andorrians, who recently fought a war with the Vulcans, are convinced the religious retreat is just a cover for an espionage post, something unambiguously forbidden by their peace treaty. In the end, it turns out the Vulcans have placed a surveillance post in the retreat – just the sort of thing completely non-emotional, logical people would do.

  12. TTT

    Conservatives are right about at least one thing: you cannot change human nature.

    It is perplexing to see Al Gore attempt to claim that Americans as a whole made better, more fact-based decisions in some glimmering Past, before too much of that nasty money got involved to confuse them, and THAT is why we have all this eco-denialism now. General knowledge of science and environmental issues, as well as the social commitment to environmental protection, has never been any better than it is today. And people have always loved money, and always been willing to put off tough choices for the sake of short-term convenience.

    It makes political sense to try to co-opt the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to try to win over undecideds for environmental protection; unfortunately, it simply isn’t true. And Gore’s delivery is particularly forced and ham-fisted. He might as well be saying we could stop global warming if we supported the troops more.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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