Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Environmentalism of the Spirit: An Interview with Senator Al Gore
by Jordan Fisher-Smith
In the short history of the response of civilization to its own destructiveness, certain books have been central to our understanding of the strained human relationship with the rest of life on earth. We will not know for a while whether Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit will be counted in this lineage but it seems likely.
Thirty years ago two such volumes appeared. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring discussed the lethal side effects of pesticide use. The broader implication was that any evaluation of human enterprise must consider not only the narrow economic definitions of the good, but also the effects of that enterprise on the earth as a whole. The second book, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though not an environmental book, may contain a conceptual solution to the problems revealed in Silent Spring. Kuhn's theory was that all work was limited by fundamental assumptions or paradigms. Revolutionary change occurred when the paradigms shifted.
In the thirty years that separate the works of Carson and Kuhn from Gore's Earth in the Balance, libraries have been filled with new paradigms in fields like economics and environmental ethics, which could serve as counterforces in what Gore calls the "collision of civilization with the earth." Now the question is, who will carry these new paradigms from bookstores and college-town cafes into public life? What politician will validate, at the risk of his or her career, what many of us now believe: that there is no political concern more important than putting a stop to the massive damage we are doing to the earth and its atmosphere, and to accelerating population growth?
Al Gore, for one, seems to be ready to hang his career on the new paradigm. In his book and in a variety of articles, he states, "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." Gore's record in politics reflects this conviction. He held the first congressional hearings on the greenhouse effect more than ten years before NASA's James Hansen told the Senate Energy Committee that global warming was underway, in 1988. And in that same year, Gore ran for president on an environmental platform. It didn't sell well. But instead of retreating from his position, Gore returned four years later with Earth in the Balance.
Earth in the Balance is a landmark book not because it moves into new theory--many of Gore's ideas have appeared somewhere before--but because of the breadth of its vision. Gore has woven together the best ideas from a wide variety of fields, drawing from concepts as diverse as John Bradshow's addiction theory and Herman Daly's economics. The book moves from the personal and spiritual to the political, reflecting Gore's Gandhian view that the condition of the society is an extension of the state of individuals and families. He portrays a "dysfunctional civilization" addicted to the consumption of resources to kill the pain of its separation from nature. He calls for the United States to assume a leadership role in healing the human-nature relationship with what he calls a Global Marshall Plan: five strategic goals for the world community, and specific steps to meet them.
I met Al Gore in a bookstore in Berkeley, where he was making the last in a full day of appearances on a tour arranged by his publisher. We got into an Oldsmobile driven by the publisher's escort and started across the long bridge to San Francisco, with the stars and the lights of the city reflecting off the bay. Gore, who spent seven years as a journalist, answered my questions slowly and thoughtfully, hanging each word in the air in front of him as if working on an old linotype machine where the words, once formed, were cast in a bar of metal.
As we drove up Nob Hill toward his hotel, the tires slipping and grabbing on the rain-slick cable-car tracks, we were just getting into the spiritual roots of his philosophy. It was close to midnight, and the senator had a plane to catch in the morning. Still, in what struck me as a gesture of courtesy--there was a deep earnestness in Gore--he invited me inside to finish our conversation.
Jordan Fisher-Smith: What is the most hopeful indicator you see that people of the world are capable of making the changes you believe are necessary in their relationship to nature?
Senator Al Gore: The fact that school kids are nearly unanimous in pursuing this as a top priority. Also, the collapse of communism enlarges our global political imagination and makes it possible to dream things that were inaccessible before.
Fisher-Smith: But isn't there also a peril in the collapse of communism? You have stated that the central organizing principle of society should be the preservation of the environment, but it almost seems that the classical economics you criticize is being sold to these new nations as a central organizing principle.
Gore: It cannot sustain, it cannot serve as the organizing principle. It is a noble process, but it is not a noble purpose.
Fisher-Smith: It does seem, though, that people are going to act in self-interest. What role does self-interest have in solving our environmental problems?
Gore: When people have an adequate amount of power--political, economic, and spiritual power--they naturally choose to live in a clean environment, a balanced environment with clean air and clean water, an abundance of life. It is only when the power of people is diminished that the environment suffers. That is why minority and poor communities are so much more likely to have hazardous waste dumps. That is why the subjugated countries of Eastern Europe have had the most devastated environments, and that's why I argue that an extension of democracy and market economics is a prerequisite for saving the global environment, and why we must address the shortcomings in our current iterations of democracy and market economics in order to maximize the empowerment of individuals and communities.
Fisher-Smith: We keep hearing the environment played off against jobs and economics. How can public discourse be raised above this kind of reductionism and manipulation in issues like the preservation of ancient forests?
Gore: I think people are prepared to understand that the issues are not as simple as the timber industry, for example, puts it. But the case has to be made, the information has to be presented.
The public opinion polls support the confidence that I express in people. The recent polling done on the Endangered Species Act runs completely counter to what some conservative ideologues seem to think is the prevailing sentiment. The American people are concerned about the loss of the old growth forest and living species, and they are anxious to protect them.
Fisher-Smith: Do you think that people are beginning to embrace the idea of the intrinsic worth of each form of life on earth?
Gore: Yes. I have often felt that it is sad when we have to find some human use for an endangered species in the rain forest before we can identify with the moral reasoning that leads one to preserve the rain forest.
Fisher-Smith: The deep ecologists believe all forms of life in the biosphere have an equal right to live and fulfill their evolutionary destinies. I didn't think you gave the deep ecologists a fair shake in Earth in the Balance. You said they view humans as a sort of Gaian disease, a foreign organism in the body of the earth. It seems to me that the central point in deep ecology is biocentrism, not the disease metaphor. Did you use the sick microbe image as...
Gore: As a straw man? Well, maybe. But that's my understanding of what they are saying. I don't want to be unfair to the deep ecologists, but I do feel that we human beings belong here, and that we have a unique and special role within the web of life.
Fisher-Smith: And that role is one of a responsible steward?
Gore: That's right. I'm quite aware of the critique of stewardship and the assertion by the biocentrists that stewardship is inherently flawed as a model for our proper role in the environment, and I simply disagree with their criticism. To the extent that you see me picking a bone with that view, I am.
Fisher-Smith: How would you answer the biocentrists' claim that Judaeo-Christian stewardship, because it gives human beings dominion over the rest of nature, is fundamentally at odds with the reunification of human beings and nature?
Gore: Well, just as light is both wave and particle, we are both a part of the web of life and separate from it. The notion that we are entirely separate and not connected to it is an illusion, but the notion that we are not in some way distinctive and different from all other forms of life is also an illusion. It is possible to hold in one's mind two divergent ideas simultaneously, and my notion of our relation to the rest of the web of life is based on two divergent ideas that are, in my opinion, both true.
Fisher-Smith: Some environmentalists believe that we need to step out of our human perspective and create new religious rituals of inclusion. Such rituals might have a person taking on the perspective of an animal, for example. What do you think?
Gore: To heal the global environment by preventing the collision that is underway between civilization and the earth, our immediate task is to transform the prevailing pattern of human civilization, so it seems to me justifiable to define my terms and express my ideas within the context of humankind and human perspectives.
Fisher-Smith: And within the perspective of your own religious tradition?
Fisher-Smith: Then you don't feel that we need some new "earth religion"?
Gore: No, we don't. The fundamental truths in existing religions are entirely compatible with the task at hand. It seems a nonecological waste of energy to mount a frontal assault on all the prevailing structures of religion, politics, and economics in advance of an effort to save the global environment. It just doesn't seem like a sensible way to proceed.
Fisher-Smith: In the acknowledgements at the back of your book there is a passage that struck me. You mention that during and after the near-death of your son in 1989, when he was hit by a car, you experienced deep grief. Quoting Robert Bly, you wrote that you "went into the ashes." Do you feel that we as a culture have some work to do in grief, before we can start healing ourselves and our relationship to nature?
Gore: Yes. And the beginning of that passage had to do with a lesson I learned from those who had suffered a great deal in their own lives and who seemed as a result to have a great deal to offer me and my family. The outpouring of empathy and the sharing of the healing grace that had come from their own suffering served to give me, in a sense, permission to fully experience my own grief.
Fisher-Smith: Then how did this personal grief relate to the environmental crisis for you?
Gore: When you break through denial and realize the enormity of what is occurring, there is immediately a temptation to experience despair, which is not fundamentally an intellectual conclusion, but rather another more exotic form of denial. Despair gives you a way of avoiding the emotional exploration of what you have come to realize. Despair can be a substitute for fully experiencing what is causing the despair. Despair is another form of distraction, whereas grief is a way of experiencing what it is that needs to be understood, emotionally as well as intellectually.
Fisher-Smith: Understanding how bad things really are?
Gore: Yes. And while that can seem to be painful and often is, and while it can seem to promise even greater paralysis, it actually has the potential to liberate one from paralysis, because when you fully experience the grief, you drain away the fear that is such a heavy component of what we call despair.
Fisher-Smith: Who are the people who inspire you? Who have been your heroes?
Gore: Jefferson. His essential genius, and his understanding of the human spirit.
About heroes I might have right now, I don't know. It's not entirely a friendly act to make someone a hero!
Alexei Yablokov is the leading environmentalist in Russia, and a real tower of integrity. Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who alerted us to the problem of ozone depletion, is a hero to me. Again, he is a man of uncompromising integrity and commitment. Wangari Matthai, a woman in Kenya who started a tree-planting movement--she just went to prison again a couple of months ago--she has a very strong spiritual faith. There are lots of people I would put in that category.
Outside the environmental movement, I have a friend named Doug Coe who devotes his life to the message of Christ in a completely nondenominational, noninstitutional way. He just lives it, and is incredibly loving and strong.
Fisher-Smith: In Earth in the Balance you describe a remarkable series of experiences, from seeing effects of Agent Orange to being on the airplane on your way to see Chico Mendes just as he was shot, that have informed you about the real dimensions of the collision you describe between our culture and the world. But there is a piece of the puzzle missing for me. In the writing of the great conservationists like Muir and Leopold, there are accounts of moments of transcendent beauty in nature, glimpses of a kind of holiness, that have motivated them. Have you had such experiences in your life?
Gore: Yes, I have.
Fisher-Smith: Can you describe such a moment?
Gore: Moments like that are virtually impossible to capture in words, but I refer to my way of thinking about them in the chapter called "Environmentalism of the Spirit."
I refer to the relationship between Creation and Creator in terms of the hologram metaphor. It is my belief that one can see the Creator in every corner of Creation, but only faintly. However, by envisioning in one's mind's eye, envisioning spiritually, the totality of Creation, one can envision the image of God in vivid form, and that conception can be symbolized in an especially vivid corner of Creation that stands for the whole.
Fisher-Smith: Does such a glimpse tell you something about what is at stake?
Gore: It conveys the essential holiness of the Creation and the presence of the Creator.
Fisher-Smith: I remember seeing an article a couple of years ago about a national survey showing that a large number of Americans believe we are approaching some kind of Apocalypse, a catastrophic end to the world as we know it. What is that doing to people?
Gore: The Apocalypse is a very complex idea in Christian thought and one that should not necessarily be interpreted as primarily physical.
I think that idea is less powerful now than it was before the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union. I think there is a reassertion of hope now in the future. In my book I quote Teilhard de Chardin, who said, "The fate of mankind, as well as of religion, depends upon the emergence of a new faith in the future." I think it is a key concept.
Fisher-Smith: So a faith in the future is prerequisite to having a future?
Gore: Yes. Faith is a self-fulfilling act.
Jordan Fisher-Smith lives in Nevada City, California, and has worked as a ranger for twenty years and a writer for six. His essay "A Natural Death" was published in the Autumn 1997 issue of Orion, and is one of a series of essays which he is assembling into a book.
Al Gore is a former senator of Tennessee and the current Vice President. He is the author of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.
This essay was originally published in the Summer 1992 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.