Environment & History
2008 I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a high school
Earth Day convocation in a relatively affluent suburban community.
Approximately 200 high school seniors from Participation in Government
and AP U.S. Government classes took part. For the first hour and
a half, students were expected to watch the Academy Award-winning
documentary on global warming featuring Al Gore, An Inconvenient
Truth (2006). I had been asked to tailor my remarks to the movie,
but I never delivered them.
my prepared speech as I saw more and more students lose interest
in the documentary, talking with neighbors, or texting friends
(the darkened assembly began to look like a star-studded sky on
a clear night). When the overhead lights went on I asked students
to stand and move around a bit. After order was restored, I simply
said: "I know Al Gore is boring, but I don't think global
warming is. I would really like to hear what you have to say about
global warming and other threats to the environment. You can refer
to the movie, or not, depending on what you want to say."
the next hour, dozens of students stood at microphones scattered
through the assembly and addressed the issues. No one disputed
the fact of global climate change. Their major focus was on three
vital questions: "What could environmentally conscious individuals
do to reverse global climate change?"; "Will pro-environment
policies address the problem of widespread poverty around the
world?"; and "Does the United States have to choose
between the environment and the economy?"
the course of the discussion, I tried to respond to student questions.
I argued that there is a difference between individual behavior
and collective social action. While an individual "green"
lifestyle is commendable and everyone who drives should drive
a small hybrid car, only collective social action can change the
way our society, and other societies, operate. The earth needs
"green" people, but also a "green" movement.
Because global warming is a trans-national problem that cannot
be effectively addressed by individual countries, ending environmental
destruction will require international cooperation and new levels
of economic, social, and political integration. While this campaign
will not automatically solve the problem of income disparity and
intense poverty, it will create the international mechanisms needed
to address these problems as well.
question of whether the United States had to choose between the
environment and the economy was the original topic I had planned
to talk about, and it is not an easy question to answer. I think
the United States, Western Europe, and the industrializing world
(especially China and India) have to make serious economic choices,
but former Vice President Al Gore and many others think global
warming can be reversed without major structural changes, if we
have the necessary willpower.
I. Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth opens with thunder and lightning.
There are three shadowy figures, witches, on stage. The first
witch asks her companions: "When shall we three meet again,
in thunder, lightning, or in rain?" A second witch declares
they will meet "When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's
lost and won." The third witch adds, "That will be ere
the set of sun." Before they leave the stage, the three witches
announce in chorus: "Fair is foul, and foul is fail: Hover
through the fog and filthy air."
witches provide us with Shakespeare's insight into the troubled
world of Macbeth. The conditions they describe still hold true
today. How do we effectively respond to the destruction of human
environments and potential global catastrophe in a world where
fair is confused with foul, where we are manipulated to believe
that foul is somehow fair, and more and more, pollution hovers
through the fog and filthy air that we breathe and water that
we drink? Environmental scientists warn us that we cannot afford
to wait until the "hurlyburly's done." But many people,
including some of the world's most powerful figures, are not listening.
is not surprising that people are confused about what is happening
to the environment. According to Gore, 100 percent of articles
in scientific journals agree that climate change is real, but
half the news stories, and President George W. Bush, keep referring
to it as an unproven theory.
increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
rising average temperatures, and the melting of ice caps in the
Arctic Ocean, West Antarctic, and Greenland, illustrated by Gore
in the documentary, are all facts, not opinions or theories.
An Inconvenient Truth is an important movie and a needed wake-up
call on global warming, I have three significant problems with
it. First, as a thinking person interested in the topic, I do
not understand why former Vice President Gore had to present all
the data himself. Why didn't we hear from the scientists to whom
he keeps referring?
second problem has been noted by many of Al Gore's detractor:
He exaggerates for effect. For example, he argues that if the
Antarctic and Greenland ice caps melt, sea level could rise twenty
feet in this century. Animated maps and computer simulations show
that such a sea-level change would flood most of southern Florida,
much of Manhattan, Shanghai, Bangladesh, and other densely populated
regions, affecting hundreds of millions of people. However, the
consensus among climate scientists at the United Nations' Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change is that sea level is likely to rise less
than three feet in the 21st century--not an insignificant figure,
but much less than Gore's extreme projection. Perhaps that is
why Gore, rather than the scientists, tells the story of global
warming in this movie.
third problem is the most important one for me. Gore paints a
very dire picture of climate change. His PowerPoint graphs on
pollution and global warming show acceleration in recent years
at such a dramatic rate that the lines are leaping off of chart.
If Gore's analysis is right, and I think to a large measure it
is, then the solutions he proposes are much too moderate and do
not address the magnitude of the problems facing humanity.
documentary is over an hour and a half long, but only the last
five minutes are reserved for proposals about what can be done
to reverse global warming. In these five minutes, instead of demanding
radical and systemic change, Gore proposes much narrower reforms
that center on personal lifestyle. He wants viewers to reduce
their personal carbon emissions by carpooling, checking tire pressure,
buying low-watt lightbulbs, adjusting thermostats two degrees
up in summer and two down in winter; using less hot water; and
planting carbon-absorbing trees. These are all good ideas, and
will certainly help us feel righteous about our personal actions,
but I doubt they will come close to reducing carbon emissions
enough to stop global warming. They certainly do not address the
past two hundred years of environmental degradation and its accumulated
impact. The Kyoto protocol, the major international environmental
accord reached during the Clinton-Gore administration of the 1990s,
would only reduce carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels
at best. A weak and limited treaty, it is set to expire in 2012.
The United States never signed it because President Bush felt
it would hinder the national economy and objected to the fact
that China and India, two of the world's largest polluters, are
exempt from its rules.
we are serious about reversing global warming, we need to ask
upsetting questions, questions that Al Gore refused to address:
Is free market capitalism the solution to environmental problems,
or the problem itself? Can the short-term corporate profit motive
solve environmental problems, or will it inevitably contribute
to the long-term destruction of the environment?
Does globalization leave us any safe harbor or are we subject
to what is being done in other parts of the world?
Is environmental decay an inevitable process? Do human civilizations
What does it mean to think globally and act locally?
to Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author
of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
(2005) and The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), "the
driving idea behind globalization is free-market capitalism--the
more you let market forces rule and the more you open your economy
to free trade and competition, the more efficient and flourishing
your economy will be. Globalization means the spread of free-market
capitalism to virtually every country in the world. Globalization
also has its own set of economic rules -- rules that revolve around
opening, deregulating and privatizing your economy" (Friedman,
underlying proposal is that if the countries of the world deregulate
markets and allow profit-seeking capitalists to search for and
maximize profits, standards of living will rise and economic and
political problems will be resolved.
you agree or disagree with Friedman's argument that unregulated
capitalism will necessarily promote development, we know from
both the past and present that it always comes with costs. There
are always huge numbers of people--sometimes entire societies--displaced
by economic change whose lives are irreparably damaged. You may
not be the person to pay for change, but someone always does.
Stockbrokers, bankers, and technicians may have made fortunes
as the service and information industries came to dominate the
U.S. economy. But what happened to all the auto and steel workers
and coal miners who lost their jobs, and all the young people
who never got jobs, because the United States deindustrialized?
capitalism in the United States and around the world may continue
to generate record profits, but what happens to the environment
as factories are moved from country to country so they can use
the air, land, and water as a dumping ground for toxic materials
and avoid the costs of clean-up? When companies try to reduce
the cost of production, the environment is one of their first
targets. Even business leaders who would like to think of themselves
as environmentally conscious know they face bankruptcy if they
do not follow the same exploitive practices as their competitors.
This system is difficult to change because of the enormous wealth
and power of capitalist corporations and because of the prevalent
ideology, which is that coordinated government planning and international
cooperation to protect the environment will only make the problems
worse. Some critics have argued that for the environment, capitalism
is the equivalent of cancer--it eats away at the body that is
sustaining it until the organism and the cancer die together.
the capitalist economic system that predominates in the world
today is unable to resolve the global climate crisis because of
its commitment to short-term corporate profitability. Because
no one owns the atmosphere and the oceans, industry is able to
use them as free dumpsites for waste. To remain competitive, even
centrally planned state-dominated economies, such as the one in
China, treat the atmosphere this way.
earth will survive human folly and recover, but it is not clear
that human society will. It is past time, maybe even too late,
but we need to seriously address the question whether capitalism
can resolve the global climate crisis.
trade is never free, especially when it promotes pollution and
environmental destruction. It is time to call it what it really
is--foul trade--and to organize, collectively, and refuse to purchase
foul trade goods. An international boycott of goods made in China--and
of Walmart, the leading distributor of China's products in the
United States--would be a good start. In a capitalist marketplace,
our position as consumers will give us some leverage. We need
to think globally, act locally--and act globally as well.
Alan Singer is a professor of secondary education and the director
of social studies education at Hofstra University's School of
Education and Allied Human Services. He is a former New York City
high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science
Docket, a joint publication of the New York State and New Jersey
Councils for the Social Studies.