Apocalypse Gore

The vice president's vision of our civilization "in crisis."

By Adam Wolfson, executive editor of The Public Interest
Copyright 1999 National Review (reprinted with permission)
March 8, 1999

Before the 1992 vice-presidential debate, Al Gore's camp reportedly said that it would allow Dan Quayle to bring a copy of the Gore book Earth in the Balance to the debate, but only if Gore were allowed to show up with a potato. Not so, says Quayle in his memoirs. He would gladly have traded the potato for the book; but the Gore team simply would not hear of it-potato or no potato.

Apparently, the book was thought by Gore's own staff to be damning. What could have scared them? Certainly, Earth in the Balance is one of the most unusual books ever written by an American politician-though not for the reasons ordinarily given. Yes, the book is full of wild speculation about the environment, and, yes, Gore offers some silly ideas about how to address the problem. But it is the book's political and moral content that is remarkable, even frightening. Al Gore is truly our first postmodern national leader.

Gore will run for president in 2000. Indeed, the hustle and bustle of his campaign has already begun. But who exactly is Gore, and what does he stand for? Is he the Boy Scout who cannot tell a lie? Or the fellow who tried to exonerate himself from illegal fund-raising with the chilling phrase, "There is no controlling legal authority"? Is he the moderate New Democrat, a founding member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council? Or the wildly partisan, left-wing demagogue who pelts conservatives with insults? Is he the radical, tree-hugging green who despises technology? Or the avatar of technology who is credited with coining the phrase "information superhighway"? Is he the "practical idealist" who would continue Clinton's legacy of triangulation? Or the revolutionary who would take America in truly new directions?

To find the real Gore, one can hardly do better than take a close look at Earth in the Balance. This may at first seem an odd claim. The 400-page book bristles with references to chaos theory, relativity theory, and "self-organized criticality" theory. The science it contains is complemented by long discussions of Aristotle, Descartes, and Bacon. Interspersed are maps, charts, and graphs, along with almost 20 pages of notes and bibliographic material at the end.

But if the book has a scholarly veneer, it is also quite personal. As Lance Morrow wrote in Time, the book "speaks with a certain passionate authenticity." By nearly all accounts, Gore wrote the book himself, without assistance from a ghostwriter-something almost unheard of today. Earth in the Balance is unmistakably his book, reflecting how and what he thinks. He even takes trouble to record in a note, "The discussion of Greek philosophy is based on my own reading of Plato and Aristotle."

In March 1992, Gore confided to Roll Call, "I put my whole heart and soul into this [book]." This is undoubtedly so. In his introduction, he describes "a single horrifying event" that changed his life and led him to write the book. In 1989, he saw his 6-year-old son get hit by a car, badly injuring him. Later Gore would put the incident to political use, sharing it with the entire nation at the Democratic convention in 1992. He even turned his son into a political symbol, likening America to his son's limp body. It was in his son's hospital room that Gore began to write his book, and one should not disregard the effect he claims the ordeal had on him:

For me something changed in a fundamental way. I don't think my son's brush with death was solely responsible, although that was the catalyst. But I had also just lost a presidential campaign; moreover, I had just turned forty years old. I was, in a sense, vulnerable to the change that sought me out in the middle of my life and gave me a new sense of urgency about those things I value the most.

Earth in the Balance thus describes Gore's spiritual journey at mid-life and his personal philosophy. These aspects were largely missed by reviewers, however, who tended to treat Earth in the Balance as primarily a policy statement on the environment. But to overlook the book's larger aims is, as Gore might say, to miss the forest for the trees.

Gore sets out to inquire into "the very nature of our civilization." From this lofty vantage, he claims to see what most have not-that the environmental "crisis" is rooted in certain other "crises": in an unresponsive political system, in a dishonest economic system, and in a philosophical blunder that has brought about individual and cultural dysfunction.

According to Gore, "there is . . . a fundamental problem with the political system itself"-it "is simply not working"; it is "itself in a deep crisis." Some of the problems he mentions are familiar enough. For example, he singles out the undue influence of special-interest groups on our politics. He also complains about "large campaign contributors" who have more access to decision-makers than do average citizens. (Evidently, he got over this worry once he became vice president and made some 46 calls from the White House to Democratic fat cats.) But he also claims that the political problems are spiritual in origin, attributing them to a lack of authenticity among politicians.

Not only our political system but our economic system is in "deep crisis." Gore does admit that democracies with free markets have better environmental track records than the Soviet bloc ever had. (One need only mention Chernobyl to settle the point.) But Gore is never satisfied with the obvious. He always wants to probe deeper, to get to the bottom of things. In his view, one of the fundamental facts about capitalism is its blindness. It "sees" what can be bought and sold-food, clothing, manufactured goods, and the like. But it is blind to other, equally valuable goods: "fresh water, clean air, the beauty of the mountains, the rich diversity of life in the forest." This blindness, in Gore's opinion, "is the single most powerful force" behind our inadequate and shortsighted environmental decisions. It is not a technical oversight but a moral failing. It is, says Gore, "a form of dishonesty." Gore goes further still in his attack on capitalism. Its blindness, he says, is "philosophically" speaking similar to "the moral blindness implicit in racism and anti-Semitism."

For Gore, though, the political and economic deficiencies of our civilization are but "superstructure," as the Marxists used to say. Yet unlike the Marxists of old, Gore does not look to some economic substructure to explain our problems; instead, he attacks the philosophical ideas that undergird modern Western civilization. In his view, today's crisis can be traced back 300-odd years to "the Cartesian model of the disembodied intellect," and even further back to "Plato's conception of a disembodied spiritual intellect hovering above the material world." He accuses these thinkers, along with Francis Bacon, of cutting people off from their roots in the earth and fostering a predatory attitude towards nature. More specifically, he criticizes Descartes for bringing about a separation of mind from body, thereby encouraging the cultivation of intellect while stifling the expression of feeling. Bacon, he charges, took Cartesian dualism a step further, separating science from religion and fact from morality. Under the spell of these two great thinkers, the world would cease to be man's bower. It would become a mere object to be mastered and subdued for man's own rational purposes.


Such dualism produces, according to Gore, "intense psychic pain," which is no small or incidental thing but lies "at the very root of the modern mind." Basically, our psychic pain is brought on by modernity's overemphasis on rationality at feeling's expense. Gore offers two elaborate metaphors to help the reader understand the causes and consequences of this psychic pain-one relying on addiction theory, the other on family-dysfunction theory. The exact nuances of these metaphors need not detain us here. What is crucial in both instances is this: They supposedly illustrate our alienation from the world. We modern men and women are either like drug addicts or the children of dysfunctional families, both of whom suffer enormous psychic pain. Like addicts or emotionally damaged children, we will do anything to distract ourselves from that pain. But not just any distraction will do. The distraction of our "dysfunctional civilization"-that's the title of Chapter 12-is, writes Gore, the "consumption of the earth." We run about buying and selling, ever on the lookout for new amusements and "shiny new products." Why even shopping has become a form of amusement, Gore laments. All the while our "dysfunctional civilization" wreaks havoc on the natural environment. And for what possible end? "The froth and frenzy of industrial civilization mask our deep loneliness for that communion with the world that can lift our spirits and fill our senses with the richness and immediacy of life itself."

Gore's juxtaposition of the emptiness of industrial civilization with nature's richness brings into clearer view one of the book's leading ideas: authenticity. According to Gore, we live in "an inauthentic world of our own making":

Life can be easy, we assure ourselves. We need not suffer the heat or the cold; we need not sow or reap or hunt and gather. We can heal the sick, fly through the air, light up the darkness, and be entertained in our living rooms by orchestras and clowns whenever we like.

Well, what's wrong with such a world, authentic or not? The answer is to be found in Gore's metaphors of addiction and dysfunction. This inauthentic, "false world" was created by people only to distract themselves from their psychic pain. The world of leisure, air conditioning, industrial agriculture, modern medicine, and home entertainment is, in other words, not good in itself. It is but a fleeting sideshow. Only by somehow awakening from such inauthenticity will the cycle of psychic pain and environmental plunder be broken.

Education, Gore says, is the antidote. But what about those inauthentic people "who will not acknowledge these destructive patterns"? These are the dishonest and inauthentic "enablers," including "many political, business, and intellectual leaders" who deny "in aggressive and dismissive tones" their addiction. But they also are not beyond (re)education, and here Gore once again resorts to his analogy of the addict. Recovery is possible, he argues, if "rather than distracting their inner awareness through behavior, addicts . . . learn to face their pain-feel it, think it, absorb it, own it."

Though it is not always clear what to make of Gore's many analogies and metaphors, there is one that Gore particularly stresses. He intends the idea of "dysfunctional civilization" in the literal sense. "The idea . . . is by no means merely a theoretical construct," he asserts. In our own century, he points out, there are many examples of dysfunctional civilizations, including "Nazi Germany under Hitler, Fascist Italy under Mussolini, Soviet Communism under Stalin and his heirs, and the Chinese Communism of Mao Zedong and Deng Xaoping." Amazingly, Gore compares our civilization to these evil, totalitarian regimes, for he detects the same psychological principle at work in all of them. Just as Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini invaded other countries in search of inner validation, so we plunder the earth of its resources to mask our psychic pain. Gore asserts that Ethiopia has been victimized by both forms of dysfunctionality in this century. In the 1930s, the Italian Fascists invaded the country, and after World War II our civilization in its way-searching for wood-did so as well. "The millions who have starved to death are, in a real sense, victims of our dysfunctional civilization's expansionist tendencies." (To drive home the point, Gore includes on the facing page a picture of a starving child in Bangladesh, apparently also one of our civilization's victims.)

Yet, in Gore's mind, our civilization resembles Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany in a still deeper, more essential sense. The atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, he argues, followed from the same first principles of the "disembodied intellect" (recall Gore's discussion of Descartes) and the separation of fact from morality (recall his discussion of Bacon) that lead us to destroy the environment. In both instances, Gore sees the "ultrarational mind" at work, creating "an elaborate edifice of clockwork efficiency capable of nightmarish cruelty on an industrial scale." He notes that Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the Nazi bureaucracy's strange mix of ordinary acts and evil consequences. So too Gore finds in our civilization's technological assault on the earth "the banal face of evil." Both totalitarianism and "consumptionism" (his label for our civilization) are "examples of alienation and technology run amok."

Such bald assertions notwithstanding, perhaps Gore does not really mean to compare our civilization to Nazi Germany's or the Soviet Union's. Or perhaps he is doing so only to make a powerful, but merely rhetorical, point. One would be wrong to suppose any such thing. Gore intends the comparison in all seriousness:

It is not merely in the service of analogy that I have referred so often to the struggles against Nazi and communist totalitarianism, because I believe that the emerging effort to save the environment is a continuation of these struggles, a crucial new phase of the long battle for true freedom and human dignity.

And he intends the comparison in all of its brutal specifics. Thus in several instances he refers to the "ecological holocaust" now taking place, and in another instance he invokes Martin Niemoller's famous words ("In Germany the Nazis came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. . . .") in reference to the environmental crisis. He even invokes Kristallnacht-when the Nazis in one murderous night in 1938 destroyed synagogues and Jewish businesses, and killed nearly 100 Jews-to hammer home his analogy. "Today the evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht is as clear as the sound of glass shattering in Berlin."


Given such an understanding of the environmental problem-"this ungodly crisis," he calls it-Gore, as one would expect, is very impatient with half-measures ("appeasement," he charges). Many of his policy proposals have been widely reported and derided-for example, "completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five-year period." But his policy recommendations are broader still. "Those [institutions] still mired in the past must be swept forward and changed," he asserts. Our corrupt civilization must adopt as its "central organizing principle" the rescue of the environment, which means, Gore tells us, in typically grandiose fashion, "embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action-to use, in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system." One now understands perhaps what he really means by "reinventing government."

But the changes Gore favors go beyond the policy or political realm, because, according to him, we are in the midst not only of an "environmental crisis" but also a political "crisis," an information "crisis," an inner spiritual "crisis," and "a deep philosophical crisis." "We need to act now," he urges. We must "drastically change our civilization and our way of thinking"; we must even make "a change in our essential character"-our essential character! The necessary transformation will be "profound" and "wrenching," he warns. Not only must we "reinvent" government but human nature too.

Given this gargantuan multi-headed crisis, and the revolutionary changes that will be necessary to save us, it should hardly come as a surprise that Gore praises ecological activists as "people of conscience" and "resistance fighters" who are "like the men and women who became part of resistance movements in World War II." Unless our civilization undergoes the "wrenching" changes he says are necessary, he foresees the outbreak "of a kind of global civil war between those who refuse to consider the consequences of civilization's relentless advance and those who refuse to be silent partners in the destruction."

None of this invective against modernity is especially original to Gore (though we should take him at his word that he wrote Earth in the Balance himself.) Such postmodern critiques of our civilization took the academy by storm decades ago, inspired by the philosopher Heidegger. That's old news. What's new is that a possible-even a probable-future president is aping these same arguments. When a tenured radical rails against the modern world, the principal harm is that his students will be cheated out of an education. But when our vice president, and would-be president, puts forth these same arguments, one's heart ought to skip a beat.

Consider Gore's grossly one-sided caricature of our civilization as dysfunctional and inauthentic. Following the standard postmodern line, he blames Descartes and Bacon for our troubles. Some skeptics might ask whether it is fair of Gore to blame our psychic pain, not to mention the greenhouse effect, on two men who lived hundreds of years ago. But let's assume for the sake of argument that Bacon and Descartes are as important to our situation today as he says. What follows from it? According to Gore, nothing but evil. He informs us that Bacon "enthusiastically advocate[d] vivisection for the pure joy of learning without reference to any moral purpose, such as saving human lives as justification for the act." This is meant as no mere commentary on Bacon's character. Insofar as Bacon is the father of our modern, technological civilization, it is meant as an indictment of us.

But if Bacon and Descartes were the fathers of anything it was of modern medicine. Both were interested in using knowledge for "the relief of man's estate" or "the use and benefit of man," as Bacon once put it. Their goals were the humanitarian ones of extending life, making it more comfortable, and lessening the ravages of disease and poverty. To say that Bacon was an immoral advocate of vivisection and to leave it at that is a gross calumny of Bacon, not to mention our civilization. Or allow me to make the point in another way. In his acknowledgments, Gore thanks the doctors who set his son's broken bones, treated his internal injuries, and performed microsurgery on his damaged nerves. It was Bacon and Descartes who, hundreds of years ago, took the first steps that would make such miracles of modern medicine possible. Gore's dour picture of modern technological civilization is then ridiculously distorted. Yes, there is a dark side to technology. But to indict our entire civilization as dysfunctional, as Gore does, is to forget the great boons to human health and comfort modern Western philosophy and science have also brought forth.

And then there is Gore's disturbing idea of "authenticity." As Lionel Trilling once noted, this "is a word of ominous import." Who is Gore to say, we might inquire, what are authentic purposes and what are not, who is an authentic person and who is not, what is an authentic world and what is not? Where does he get the knowledge to make such fundamental distinctions? Gore associates the inauthentic with "the noisy chatter of our discourse," with the pursuit of comfort through technology, and with a consumerist culture. An inauthentic person is a "false self," or someone who does not live in his own life, as Gore strangely puts it. Gore may well be a good democrat; but it takes little imagination to see where his analysis could lead (as it indeed has in the "dysfunctional" totalitarian states of our century). To the reeducation camps go the inauthentic ones, where they will be forced to become authentic.

The same imprecise use of language and sloppy thinking afflict Gore's praise of environmental activists as "resistance fighters." The resistance fighters of World War II killed people in their just war against the Nazis. Gore would no doubt condemn (if he has not done so already) the eco-terrorists who recently set fire to a ski resort in Colorado in their desire to protect "wild and unroaded areas" or the "Unabomber," who killed and maimed to halt technology's spread. But then Gore should not use such politically charged labels as "resistance fighters." And he should not predict a "global civil war" between "people of conscience" and those who oppose them. Such rhetoric will only lead to the injury and death of innocents.

Finally, one must not let pass without comment Gore's analogy of the totalitarian regimes of this century to our own civilization, or his despicable comparison of today's environmental problems to Kristallnacht or the Holocaust. At one point, Gore writes that "a metaphor can be a valuable aid to understanding." Perhaps. But what do we learn by comparing the fight against Nazism to the fight against consumerism? Obviously nothing. Gore's metaphors only lead to obscurantism, blinding us to the most weighty moral and political distinctions. During the 1992 campaign, the Wall Street Journal got hold of an internal Democratic National Committee memo that listed possible objections to Earth in the Balance. One of them was that Gore "has no sense of proportion: He equates the failure to recycle aluminum cans with the Holocaust-an equation that parodies the former and dishonors the latter." Indeed.

Gore's postmodern arguments ultimately point towards the overthrow of our liberal civilization, with its belief in individual rights, the dignity of man, the standard of reason, and material progress through science. Instead, Gore would have us devote ourselves to certain postmodern anti-ideals-the rights of the earth and "authenticity." How odd that the Democratic party's heir apparent should be so estranged from liberalism's tenets. In the 2000 presidential debates, the Republican nominee should be sure to ask the vice president whether he stands by Earth in the Balance. It's something the American people may want to know.

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