Most tabulations of Albert Gore's publications contain 80 or so works by the vice president - a long list for someone in politics. A great majority of them are reports of special commissions. Others are small books or longish essays, such as his The Best-Kept Secrets in Government. That one is full of friendly but mostly indifferent advice, most of which hardly seems up to the status of "best-kept secrets" - such as the Internal Revenue Service must "complete proper" paper returns within 40 days, while it has 21 days to respond to electronic returns that are complete and proper.
Gore's publications also include tomes connected with "reinventing government," a task he assumed after becoming vice president and which has led to such books as Common Sense: Government Works Better and Costs Less, a claim that for a century or two was made by old-fashioned conservatives such as the late Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, but which when it comes from the pen of Gore evidently is to be regarded as a major discovery.
Still, the book at the heart of the vice president's work - and the only one of his volumes that Gore reportedly wrote on his own - is Earth in the Balance, a grandly titled tome whose subtitle is the even more grand, Ecology and the Human Spirit. This book first appeared in 1992, became a best-seller and since has gone through new editions, including a best-selling paperback.
What the book makes clear is that environmentalism and ecology are subjects the usually dispassionate vice president gets passionate about, a fact which Gore made clear in the first edition of Earth in the Balance where he declared in the introduction: "Writing this book is part of a personal journey that began more than 25 years ago, a journey in search of a true understanding of the global ecological crisis and how it can be resolved."
The personal journey he records is his discovery of the enormous ecological disaster the world now faces: a severe, even Armageddon-like crisis for which Gore offers up a solution that he claims is the only answer to this major dilemma, a solution not surprisingly that claims draconian government action and vastly increased taxation are the only antidotes. Anything short of biting a very hard bullet indeed won't do to save us from what he sees as our fate.
Gore brings up a lot of science in his book, all of which he claims supports his fears of an imminent ecological tragedy. He writes about global warming and the greenhouse effect as if they were "facts" accepted by most scientists, which in fact they aren't. He describes enormous carcinogenic ozone layers in the skies, massive deforestation of the planet, the acceleration of the extinction of various species of wildlife and a worldwide population explosion among human beings.
Gore's draconian remedies to save the planet include taxes on all carbon fuels (that means the gas used in automobiles), a retooling of all major industries and the eventual abandonment of the internal combustion engine - all measures that would so transform the world that the way Americans live now would be unrecognizable.
Gore says scientists support his demands for immediate and major change, but most of them don't. Every "scientific" argument Gore puts forth in his book and which he says should convince us of the direness of our ecological disaster has been disputed and challenged by scientists who know far more about the subject than does Gore. Their challenges, however, miss the point: Science isn't the major reason Gore wrote Earth in the Balance.
What is at the core of his book is stated clearly in that subtitle: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Fundamentally, what Gore's book is about is his views on how to get right with the Earth and with God. It's far more a sermon that stems from Gore's own Southern Baptist background than it is a coming to grips with the scientific information about our environment available to thoughtful men and women. To be sure, Gore lectures about saving the environment, but he sermonizes about saving souls, too, and he sermonizes with an ease, and often a grace, that is beguiling.
"We have misunderstood who we are, how we relate to our place within creation, and why our very existence assigns to us a duty of moral alertness to the consequences of what we do," he declares. Our planet is in the midst of an "ungodly crisis" that calls for an "all-out response." The "rescue of the Earth" must be the "central organizing principle" of our times, the vice president claims, calling upon our commitment to a virtuous cause.
"Our civilization is addicted to the consumption of the Earth," Gore writes with condemnation. We human beings no longer enjoy an intimate relationship with the soil and with nature, a divorce between ourselves and the rest of the world that emerged (according to Gore) as early as Plato and the ancient Greeks. Western civilization has been wrong from its inception. Our souls are separated from their physical environment. "Shopping is now recognized as a recreational activity," he sniffs, denouncing America's obsession with possessions.
All this of course is Gore being at one with Rousseau and the noble savage and with the hippies of the 1960s who chose to leave mainstream America to cultivate their souls and private gardens outside the temptations of material relationship. If one can't easily imagine wealthy Al comfortable on a hippie commune, it's nonetheless a relationship he finds comfortable, for Gore says he is drawn to the environmental cause primarily because he finds it the most genuinely spiritual commitment a right-thinking American or citizen of the world can make in the late 20th century.
Gore ranges widely in his spiritual quest for the right environmental attitude, noting how civilizations in the past have been destroyed when they failed to comprehend how they should deal with the problems that face them, while others, with the wisdom to bite the bullet, were saved by their realization of imminent ecological disaster.
Gore argues, for example, that a reason for the decline in Mayan civilization was climatic change that caused the Yucatan to grow too hot. Specialists in Mayan culture hesitate to make this claim, but Gore, as he does with the scientists who challenge his views, ignores their arguments.
The Old Testament story of Joseph and his saving of Egypt from the consequences of famine becomes, in Gore's hands, the story of potentially disastrous climatic change where Joseph (like Gore?) emerges as the hero because he successfully interprets Pharaoh's dream of lean years to mean that Egypt had to prepare for - yes - ecological disaster. That societies from time immemorial have had to prepare for famine as part of the natural cycle of events doesn't seem to occur to Gore.
When the vice president writes about his own personal experiences, he is sometimes on safe ground: "In my own religious experience and training - I am a Baptist - the duty to care for the Earth is rooted in the fundamental relationship between God, creation, and mankind. ...Dominion does not mean that the Earth belongs to humankind; on the contrary, whatever is done to the Earth must be done with an awareness that it belongs to God."
Fair enough. Christianity traditionally has taught responsible stewardship. But then Gore quickly goes New Age with his religious faith. What we need is "a renewed investigation of the wisdom distilled by all faiths. This pan-religious perspective may prove especially important where our global civilization's responsibility for the Earth is concerned," he writes, and then begins to select passages from the holy writings of other cultures that he believes prove his point.
American Indian prayers are included among his suggestions for environmental inspiration. So are Islamic and Buddhist teachings. Gore makes a great deal of the Hindu reverence for water. Pope John Paul II comes in for praise because of his growing "ecological awareness."
Then Gore pulls out all the stops and shows where he's been heading all along: True reverence for the Earth only will come if we understand that true wisdom comes from earliest times, when men and women lived as one with the Earth and all other creatures. There was no aggression. There was no visiting of violence against living things or against the Earth itself.
No violence? No warfare? How can this be? "A growing number of anthropologists and archeomythologists argue that the prevailing ideology of belief in prehistoric Europe and much of the world was based on the worship of a simple earth goddess, who was assumed to be the fount of all life and who radiated harmony among all living things."
This is nonsense. Only a very few women writing at the fringes of radical feminism argue that there is evidence that prehistoric societies were ubiquitously involved in goddess worship. The "proof" usually provided is that when a society can be characterized as gentle it must have been ruled by women and its deities must have been goddesses (contrarily, radical feminist scholarship concludes that aggressive societies are male-dominated and worship male deities).
Nonetheless Gore endorses the whole radical-feminist argument. He laments that the last village in Europe where the goddess was worshiped was wiped out in the 15th century. After that, the aggressive, acquisitive, cruel masculine civilizations dominated the world, and most particularly the West.
To overcome our addiction to the masculinized destruction of the Earth, what does Gore suggest we must do? "The advanced economies must undergo a profound transformation" - which means a global Marshall Plan to guide worldwide economic and social reconstruction, which of course would cost untold trillions.
By the time he makes this demand of us, it's clear that for Gore only "wrenching transformation" can be spiritually satisfying. He's demanding that we purge our souls as well as our pocketbooks.
Two more points about Gore's passionate environmentalism. When the vice president brought up American Indians and cited them as examples of those from whom we could learn a healthy attitude toward nature, he included Chief Seattle, a 19th century American Indian. Gore quotes Seattle on his closeness to the Earth: "How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?'" and so on, until Seattle concluded: "One thing we know: Our God is also your God. The Earth is precious to Him and to harm the Earth is to heap contempt on its Creator."
Sweet, pious statements. Gore writes that Chief Seattle was supposed to have uttered them in 1855 when President Franklin Pierce was so crass as to offer to buy land belonging to Seattle's tribe. But the real author of Seattle's words was Ted Perry, a screenwriter who penned them for a 1971 ABC-TV show and who has said he never intended them to be attributed literally to the chief.
How passionate - and unreasonable - Gore can be about environmentalism again was revealed in February 1992 when the Airborne Arctic Stratospheric Expedition issued preliminary findings that suggested the development of an ozone hole above the Northern Hemisphere.
Stories about cancer-causing ultraviolet rays and other disasters flooded the press, their chief source being Gore who went to the Senate floor on Feb. 6 declaring that the Northern ozone hole was leading to increased cases of cataracts and blindness among humans and "to blind rabbits in our backyards."
The problem for Gore was that particular ozone hole did go away, or to be more accurate, never existed at all. In March scientists found that there was no ozone hole over the Northern Hemisphere.
Gore likewise predicted an increase in immune-deficiency diseases such as lupus, herpes and AIDS. The world and the United States were facing an "acute emergency," a "long-term emergency" that was not going away.
That Gore hasn't abandoned his passionate commitment to environmentalism is revealed in his 1994 introduction to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, where he claims that Carson, whose book led to a prohibition on the use of the pesticide DDT, was a major influence on his life. He describes Carson as a major scientific thinker. "Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of political leaders, the presidents, and the prime ministers," he writes. Then he adds that Carson has had more influence on him than all of others put together.
This is interesting because Carson's Silent Spring is a stark presentation of an imminent ecological disaster, not unlike Gore's Earth in the Balance. But Gore's most questionable and self-serving assertion in his introduction to the 1994 edition of Silent Spring is a glib comparison between Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the antislavery manifesto, Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book whose passionate views on slavery helped precipitate the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln famously said to Stowe upon meeting her, "So you're the little lady who started this whole thing." More than a century later, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff made a similar statement to Carson just before she testified before a congressional committee, claims Gore: "You're the lady who started all this" concern about environmental disaster.
But Gore's Carson/Stowe parallel is nothing if not morally and intellectually embarrassing. The social and moral wrong of slavery, which made hundreds of thousands of human beings the property and chattel of others, couldn't be compared to the use of DDT without trivializing what slavery was. Above all, what Gore's comparison of Stowe and his own hero Carson amounts to is an attempt to make his own involvement in the environment equal to Stowe's role in bringing an end to slavery.
In the winter 1995-96 issue of Pathways, a moderate Christian publication, Gore offered a definition for the word extremist, one of his most oft-used pejoratives for congressional Republicans. "Their [Republican] leadership consistently puts ideology above common sense, which is the definition of an extremist," he says. Extremism is putting ideology above common sense? After reading Earth in the Balance, there's no doubt that Gore knows whereof he speaks.
Jennifer G. Hickey contributed to this article.
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