25 Jun 2011

A Prophet Without Consistency

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Walter Russell Mead takes the occasion of Albert Gore’s latest climate jeremiad (in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, quoth Gore: In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.) to discuss why somebody who lives like Albert Gore cannot function satisfactorily in the role of prophet of Ecological Self-Denial.

[S]ome forms of inconsistency or even hypocrisy can be combined with public leadership, others cannot be. A television preacher can eat too many french fries, watch too much cheesy TV and neglect his kids in the quest for global fame. But he cannot indulge in drug fueled trysts with male prostitutes while preaching conservative Christian doctrine. The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving cannot be convicted of driving while under the influence. The head of the IRS cannot be a tax cheat. The most visible leader of the world’s green movement cannot live a life of conspicuous consumption, spewing far more carbon into the atmosphere than almost all of those he castigates for their wasteful ways. Mr. Top Green can’t also be a carbon pig.

You can be a leading environmentalist and fail to pay all of your taxes. You can be a leading environmentalist and be unkind to your aged mother. You can be a leading environmentalist and squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle, park in the handicapped spots at the mall or scribble angry marginal notes in library books.

But you cannot be a leading environmentalist who hopes to lead the general public into a long and difficult struggle for sacrifice and fundamental change if your own conduct is so flagrantly inconsistent with the green gospel you profess. If the heart of your message is that the peril of climate change is so imminent and so overwhelming that the entire political and social system of the world must change, now, you cannot fly on private jets. You cannot own multiple mansions. You cannot even become enormously rich investing in companies that will profit if the policies you advocate are put into place.

It is not enough to buy carbon offsets (aka “indulgences”) with your vast wealth, not enough to power your luxurious mansions with exotic low impact energy sources the average person could not afford, not enough to argue that you only needed the jet so that you could promote your earth-saving film.

You are asking billions of people, the overwhelming majority of whom lack many of the basic life amenities you take for granted, people who can’t afford Whole Foods environmentalism, to slash their meager living standards. You may well be right, and those changes may be necessary — the more shame on you that with your superior insight and knowledge you refuse to live a modest life. There’s a gospel hymn some people in Tennessee still sing that makes the point: “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.”

St. Francis of Assisi understood the point well. Taken by the Pope on a tour to see the treasures of the Vatican, St. Francis was notably unimpressed. “Peter can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none,’” smiled the Pontiff, referring to the story in the Book of Acts that recounts what St. Peter said to a crippled beggar asking him for alms.

“Neither can he say, ‘rise up and walk.’” replied St. Francis — quoting what St. Peter said as he miraculously cured the beggar of his affliction.

You can sit on ivory chairs with kings in their halls of gold, participating in the world of politics as usual, or you can live with the prophets and visionaries in the wilderness, voices of a greater truth and higher meaning that challenge the smug certainties and false assumptions of the comfortable, business as usual elites. You cannot do both.

Al Gore cannot say “silver and gold have I none and no excess carbon do I spew,” and neither can he say to the paralyzed global green movement “rise up and walk.” He speaks, he writes, he speaks again, and the movement lies on the ground, crippled and inert.

A fawning establishment press spares the former vice president the vitriol and schadenfreude it pours over the preachers and priests whose personal conduct compromised the core tenets of their mission; Gore is not mocked as others have been. This gentle treatment hurts both Gore and the greens; he does not know just how disabling, how crippling the gap between conduct and message truly is. The greens do not know that his presence as the visible head of the movement helps ensure its political failure.

Consider how Gore looks to the skeptics. The peril is imminent, he says. It is desperate. The hands of the clock point to twelve. The seas rise, the coral dies, the fires burn and the great droughts have already begun. The hounds of Hell have slipped the huntsman’s leash and even now they rush upon us, mouths agape and fangs afoam.

But grave as that danger is, Al Gore can consume more carbon than whole villages in the developing world. He can consume more electricity than most African schools, incur more carbon debt with one trip in a private plane than most of the earth’s toiling billions will pile up in a lifetime — and he doesn’t worry. A father of four, he can lecture the world on the perils of overpopulation. Surely, skeptics reason, if the peril were as great as he says and he cares about it as much as he claims, Gore’s sense of civic duty would call him to set an example of conspicuous non-consumption. This general sleeps in a mansion, and lectures the soldiers because they want tents.

What this tells the skeptics is that Vice President Gore doesn’t really believe the gospel he proclaims. That profits from his environmental advocacy enable his affluent lifestyle only deepens their skepticism of the messenger and therefore of the message. And when they see that the rest of the environmental movement accepts this flagrant contradiction, they conclude, naturally enough, that the other green leaders aren’t as worried as they claim to be. Al Gore’s lifestyle is a test case for the credibility of his gospel — and it fails. The tolerance of Al Gore’s lifestyle by the environmental leadership is a further test — and that test, too, the greens fail.

The average citizen is all too likely to conclude that if Mr. Gore can keep his lifestyle, the average American family can keep its SUV and incandescent bulbs. If Gore can take a charter flight, I don’t have to take the bus. If Gore can have many mansions, I can use the old fashioned kind of shower heads that actually clean and toilets that actually flush. Al Gore looks to the average American the way American greens look to poor people in the third world: hypocritically demanding that others accept permanently lower standards of living than those the activists propose for themselves.

There are gospels that can be preached by the comfortable and the well fed. But radical environmentalism is not one of them. If you want to be Savonarola, you must don the hair shirt. If you want a public bonfire of the vanities, you must sleep on an iron cot and throw your own cherished treasures into the flame. …

I am not one of those who thinks him a hypocrite; I think rather that he shares an illusion common amongst the narcissistic glitterati of our time: that politically fashionable virtue cancels private vice. The drug addled Hollywood celeb whose personal life is a long record of broken promises and failed relationships and whose serial bouts with drug and alcohol abuse and revolving door rehab adventures are notorious can redeem all by “standing up” for some exotic, stylish cause. These moral poseurs and dilettantes of virtue are modern versions of those guilt-plagued medieval nobles who built churches and monasteries to ‘atone’ for their careers of bloodshed, oppression and scandal.

Mr. Gore is sincere, as the fur-fighting actresses are sincere, as so many ’causey’ plutocrats and moguls are sincere. It is perhaps also true that the fundraisers who absolve them of their guilt in exchange for the donations and the publicity are at least as sincere as the indulgence sellers in Martin Luther’s Germany.

Mead does not stop, unfortunately, to observe that the perils of alleged Climate Change are just as far removed from diurnal reality as the theological perils of Christian hellfire.

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