How’s this for a deeply unpromising script idea: making a movie about a failed politician trailing around the world presenting wonkish slide shows on his laptop to mostly small audiences about, of all things, climate change?
It hardly helped that the ex-politician in question, former US vice president Al Gore was reviled across the political spectrum. Democrat supporters blamed him for gifting the White House to George W. Bush with his incompetent run and premature concession in Florida in November 2000, while Republicans hated him mostly for not being a Republican.
It might have been only a slight overstatement to call Gore a pariah in the mid-2000s. For him to then choose to relaunch into public life by campaigning on one of the few topics even more unpopular than himself seemed to underpin his tag as a serial loser.
The film that emerged from Gore’s travelling slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, didn’t exactly blow Hollwood away either – at least not at first. Director, David Guggenheim recalled that prior to its debut at the Sundance Festival in June 2006, they brought the film reel to a major studio for a preview, which Gore attended.
“I remember listening to one of them snore, then waking up awkwardly when the lights came up”, said Guggenheim. “I saw the executives going into another room and huddling, then coming back and the head of the studio saying to us, ‘We do not believe that this will ever have a theatrical distribution. We do not believe that anyone will pay to have a babysitter come so that they can go see this movie. Stop dreaming, this movie will never have a theatrical release.”
And yet. The film became a critical success, landing two Oscars along the way and grossing over $24 million in the US, small beer by Hollywood standards, yet one of the most commercially successful documentaries of all time. More importantly, it reignited the moribund environmental movement in the US after years of Bush era denialism.
Globally, it helped redefine ‘environmentalism’ as being a far broader church than that occupied by traditional environmentalists. Along the way, it helped to squarely frame climate change as the overarching ecological – and existential – crisis of the 21st century.
Watching An Inconvenient Truth was a deeply personal, emotionally wrenching experience for many people back in 2006. I know because I was one of them. Climate change had long been lurking in the shadows of public consciousness, poorly understood, frequently misrepresented and, as an issue, desperately short of passionate, persuasive advocates.
“Men occasionally stumble over the truth”, Winston Churchill drily noted, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened”. My first time to stumble over the deeply inconvenient reality of climate change in a world of ever-escalating human impacts had happened in the first two or three years of the 2000s, as I began to read my way into the subject, initially as an intellectual curiosity. The more I researched, the greater grew my sense of personal unease.
Yet all around, life went on as before. Not a single person in my work, family or social circle at that time shared this growing sense of dread. It’s neither pleasant nor healthy to remain in a constant state of high anxiety, especially when all around you seem perfectly relaxed. So, despite being fairly well informed, I too began to chill, to compartmentalise my anxiety and box off my concerns.
Though unaware at the time, I was probably experiencing what psychologists call the bystander effect: surely if things were really as serious as all that, other people would be alarmed too? But they weren’t. The invisibility of the issue in the media was both baffling and oddly reassuring. If there really was a massive story here, the media would be all over it by now?
The bystander effect hobbles us in three ways: first, there is a lack of sense that it’s anyone’s job in particular to intervene, so we’re off the hook as individuals for failing to act. Second, we all engage in social referencing, subtly aligning our actions with those around us; if they aren’t bothered, why should I be? Finally, few of us are comfortable sticking our necks out, especially if the issue seems complex or contested, so we mostly stay schtum.
By mid-2006 my incessant low-level ecological panic was showing signs of finally receding. Watching An Inconvenient Truth in the cinema changed all that. It was an environmental epiphany – that electrifying moment when everything I’d been reading and trying to process emotionally for several years came crashing into focus. It was like waking from a dream into a world that looked familiar, yet felt changed, utterly and beyond recognition. I knew in that moment that the days of being an eco-bystander were over.
For me, the stand-out moment from the film was when Gore produced a chart on a giant screen tracking the uncanny lock-step relationship between CO2 levels and global temperatures stretching back through the millennia. By 2005, the year of filming, global atmospheric CO2 levels were approaching 380 ppm (parts per million), the highest level in at least 800,000 years.
In a sleek piece of visual theatre, Gore then climbed aboard a cherry-picker and began to ascend, all the while tracking the graph showing CO2 levels 50 years into a business-as-usual future as they spiralled out of sight. Allowing such a future to come to pass was, he argued, “deeply unethical”. He could have added: suicidal.
Today, more than one fifth of the way into that half-century time frame, the global CO2 figure has smashed through the 400ppm level, and continues to climb at the rate of some 3ppm every year, taking us rapidly into a completely new climatic era, the anthropocene.
“Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves: what were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had a chance? We have to hear that question from them. Now”. These were the sombre remarks with which Gore concluded the film. I had a two and four year-old at home at that time, and the statement hung accusingly in the air.
They are now 11 and 13, and beginning to ask the questions I dreaded a decade ago. “How are we going to die?” my eldest child enquired, with an earnestness I found unnerving, during a recent conversation. I reassured her that while the situation is serious, there is still hope and the most important thing is to not stop trying, no matter what.
Given that, ten years later, global emissions have barely even begun to plateau, should we judge An Inconvenient Truth a failure? Certainly, if failure can be measured by the number of times Gore has been publicly accused of fronting a gigantic hoax, then yes, it’s a failure. However, I’d suggest the almost unprecedented level of hysterical vitriol Gore’s fact-laden documentary attracts indicates how close to the bone he had in fact struck. Even the comments on the Irish version of the Netflix site where the film resides are full of visceral loathing that goes far beyond any rational appraisal of the good and bad points of the film.
This is hardly accidental. The fossil fuel industry and its paid shills via countless think tanks, websites and right wing media outlets have run a frenzied counter-factual campaign featuring such sophisticated put-downs as ‘Al Gore is fat’ in a desperate attempt to sufficiently tarnish his reputation as to render An Inconvenient Truth toxic-by-association.
Though now looking ever more desperate, the campaign rumbles on to this day. A favoured ploy is to focus obsessively on a number of minor errors in the film, employing the dubious stratagem that if you can ‘prove’ that it’s not 100% accurate, then it must be 100% false.
The reputable ‘Skeptical Science’ website points out some errors in the film. Gore’s choice of mount Kilimanjaro to illustrate glacier retreat was unfortunate, but his wider point was accurate. Another forensic analysis found two notable errors and 8 smaller flaws in the film.
Compare and contrast with telegenic Danish climate denier academic, Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’. It was similarly reviewed, and found to contain a whopping 337 errors and flaws, or 33 times more than Gore’s film and accompanying book. We all make mistakes, but when your book racks up an average of two factual distortions per page, it can begin to seem a little more than just carelessness.
There have undoubtedly been better documentaries made on climate change than An Inconvenient Truth, but none, it’s fair to say, have been as influential or as enduring.
The above article appears in the June 2016 edition of Village magazine
The psychology of the “bystander” effect is particularly apt given our all too human propensity in avoiding inconvenient truths. Reality is in front of us but we tend to live in ideological bubbles. Future predictions by climatologists are leaning more and more to what, a decade ago, was considered a “worst case scenario”.
Thanks for the insightful article. I will make this article available for my students in my “Sacred Earth” course.
Hugh, thanks for your feedback, and glad you found the article useful. The ideological bubbles you describe are all around us – the global financial system, to take just one example, has all the hallmarks of having been designed by people who have lost their collective minds. But the biggest Ponzi racket of all is the reckless spending down of the earth’s (largely non-renewable) resources and labelling the disastrous outcome ‘growth’
I found the film an epiphany for me too, and showed it to my friends. Like you, I continuously get this bystander effect when trying to engage friends and colleagues with climate change. Very few get seriously worried about it, unlike you and me. Its either the greatest crisis we have ever faced as a human species or the whole thing is a fairy tale and we should get on with our lives – everything will be “grand” as we say here.
Thanks for your continuous work on this but I find these all too easy references to psychology always a problem. While like the bystander effect they can be usefully descriptive they appear to imply innate origins to their occurrence by basically having psychology generally ignoring their origins entirely (or worse making reference to the circular reasoning inherent in evolutionary psychology) but what about the social origins? For example the heavy emphasis and institutionalisation of a politics and civil society that has shifted people’s expectations away from being citizens and towards being consumers or the lack of political will to institutionalise practices of critical thinking (systemic historical sociology over philosophy/psychology mind you) at the core of our education system from primary upwards.
Seems to me that a lot of the bystander effect is part of a rationalization by people who are used to not reacting politically largely because they have been disempowered (or never empowered in the first place) from doing so and lack to practical critical skills to know where to start. It is only in the social origins of human practices, perspectives and beliefs that real political change will have to occur.
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