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The gospel according to Al Gore

Al Gore's climate change campaign has more to do with old-time religion than you might imagine

By Larry Krotz

Many years ago I was on an Indian reserve in northern Manitoba when, one night, the local Pentecostal missionary took over the band hall to screen a movie entitled The Burning Hell. Lurid scenes showed motorcycle-riding tough guys smoking and drinking, whereupon they died and were next depicted screaming in front of walls of flame. The Reverend Estes Perkle, a southern good ol' boy whose organization produced the film, looked straight into the camera and pronounced, "That, my friends, is what hell is like."

In succeeding years, I've not thought nearly as much about hell as perhaps I should have. Until I watched Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. Beyond all the statistical and environmental information, most of which I was familiar with already, what struck me was this: Al Gore, who has been awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his diligent work on behalf of the environment, believes in hell. Not strictly an old-time religion hell of fire and brimstone like Rev. Perkle presented that evening at God's Lake Narrows, but a hot place nevertheless.

The core of Gore's message is that the Earth will become like hell if we don't very quickly do two things old-time religion used to ask of us as well: recognize the error of our ways and, in repenting, change how we live. It's as if the environmental movement is a new religion and Al Gore is its archbishop -- or perhaps better, its prophet.

I thought about all this one night in Denver as I lined up with 3,500 other people outside the downtown Wells-Fargo Auditorium. All of us were on our way to see Gore's show, a two-hour PowerPoint presentation that he narrates (without notes) while energetically pacing the stage. His movie is simply a film of one of these lectures he has now given dozens of times.

In the brief introduction, we were told that this would be "an evening of knowledge and enlightenment." But it quickly became apparent that hardly anybody there needed to be educated or enlightened. When Gore strode onto the stage, the crowd rose as one to cheer and then clapped and shouted on cue throughout the next two hours. This audience, mostly people under 50 and overwhelmingly white and middle class, were true believers, the already converted.

Sitting next to me was a man named Brian, who works for a large computer company. Brian told me almost reverently that he and his wife had seen "the movie" and now wanted to be in the presence of Gore in the flesh. The parents immediately in front of us with their 10-year-old son squished between them leapt to their feet cheering at the slightest excuse. This, I thought, was not a seminar or a lecture, but rather the new version of a Billy Graham crusade.

Unlike the wooden persona of the presidential candidate of eight years ago, Gore in person can be funny, engaging and self-deprecating. He got a laugh referring to himself as a "recovering politician" and sharing what it feels like to go from flying on Air Force Two as the vice-president of the United States to having to remove his shoes at airport security checks like the rest of us. But soon, like a seasoned preacher, he turned serious, whereupon his audience, an obedient congregation, got quiet and sat forward in their seats.

Gore does not shy away from religious reference or religious imagery. Several times he framed an explanation with the words "my faith tradition tells me . . ." or "the religion I was brought up in . . ." before going on to remind us how God in Genesis commanded Noah to keep the globe's species alive. He is completely at home in the language and terminology of Christian Scripture and theological discourse. Which is what makes him the right person to guide vast numbers of people into a new paradigm through which to engage the environmental struggle.

Many people have worked to put global climate change onto the public radar, but the fact that it is now front and centre is due -- more than anything -- to the high profile and dogged work of Al Gore. He likes to describe himself as someone who "used to be the next president of the United States." Others, taking into account the mission he has been on in the years since he lost the presidential vote to George W. Bush in 2000, refer to him as "the Goracle."

Though much of Al Gore’s childhood was spent in Washington where his father, Albert Sr., spent 31 years in the U.S. Congress, the Gore family is deeply rooted in a tobacco farm in east Tennessee. Gore is a southern Baptist. As well as studying law, he undertook graduate studies in religion at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.

In their 2000 book, The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore (Simon & Schuster), David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima write that Gore has “always used religious and moral vocabulary to frame his arguments on the environment.” They quote Walter Harrelson, Vanderbilt’s dean of divinity, stating how Gore “comes from that brand of religion that is informed by John Calvin. Gore sees life in sharp contrast, good and evil, black and white. Along with the weight of guilt, he carries a constant notion of sin.” Gore has the preacher’s knack of being able to impart this worldview to his audiences and bring them along with him.

Last year, when he came to speak at the University of Toronto, two things happened. First, all 2,000 tickets were snatched up in a matter of minutes, and second, the atmosphere when he took the stage was described, by someone lucky enough to get a seat, as “church-like.” This has interesting implications for our culture: while mainstream Christian denominations are experiencing declining memberships and waning interest, a great movement, largely middle class, young, urban, educated — the main group to have abandoned those mainstream denominations — is, without a flicker of irony, flocking to fill the seats wherever Gore lectures.

The global climate change movement certainly has all the hallmarks traditionally ascribed to religion. There is the requirement of belief, a sense of impending apocalypse, fear, blame and need for repentance. You can even venture that the selling of carbon credits are a present-day form of indulgences. I offer this not to be glib or clever, but to try to understand something that makes this movement both different and, ultimately, gives it its compelling power. What is on offer as well, provided we do things right, is hope.

British writer George Monbiot has described the speedy rise of climate change consciousness as “a bubble of air zooming up through water.” This seems only partly accurate; decades ago, conscientious people who voiced concerns about our human impact on the planet were largely ignored. It was only when the concerns shifted from local pollutants to that mysterious force, the weather, that things vaulted into a different realm — no longer an argument but an article of faith.

From that point on, Monbiot is correct. It has taken no time at all for icons of our culture, such as rock stars and actors, to step forward and embrace the cause. Witness the Live Earth concerts held simultaneously last July in various locales around the globe. In the flush of that moment, Al Gore marched onto the stage of the New York show and, raising his right arm, asked everybody to join him in a pledge. In this gesture, he became the tent-revival evangelist. (The pagan or pantheistic gesture was left to pop star Madonna who told people that if they wanted to save the planet they should jump up and down).

What are we seeing here? Is it possible that a greater part of us than we might think is hardwired to look beyond the strictly rational to the supernatural, to hand ourselves over, to seek authority, especially in times of cosmic uncertainty? My friend who was at Gore’s Toronto appearance told me that she hurried off to see him not to learn or be persuaded of something new. Rather, it was to have profound needs met by being in the presence of the leader and in the company of fellow believers. Which is, by many definitions, a form of worship.

That this should be happening would not surprise someone like Dudley Young. In his 1991 book, Origins of the Sacred (HarperCollins), Young argues that after centuries of scientific materialism, western culture is poised to return to the mystical and the mythical. This will happen, he posits, because of a cyclical pattern of how ideas and philosophy move in the long term, each in its turn having its day. Young detects a weariness with the triumph of dispassionate science. “There are grounds for believing that the cultural prestige of scientific materialism, its ‘religious’ hegemony is lessening,” he writes. What will tip it over, he says, is the environment. The western mind is “shifting its allegiance . . . to the ecological,” and is doing this fuelled by our growing notion that “the planet is sick.”

For the first time in history, action of the most urgent sort is needed on a global scale, and to address the emergency we desperately need to fashion new tools. “The task before us,” Young postulates, is “both religious and political, the two necessarily intertwined. The secular (or liberal) notion of politics that has prevailed since the 18th century — that of trade-offs and adjustments between various interest groups — is simply not robust enough to address the crisis.”

Grappling with what faces our planet will require a great deal more than those taking the pledge and jumping up and down realize. All prognoses are grim: if fossil fuel emissions are not drastically cut, by the end of this century carbon dioxide levels will have risen to twice the levels of pre-industrial times. Global mean temperatures will be pushed up between 3.5 and eight degrees Celsius, which will make the Earth warmer than at any time in the last 125,000 years.

Al Gore says emissions need to be reduced by 60 to 80 percent between now and 2050; the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency predict that world energy use will increase by 60 percent by 2030. Though it will be tough, says Al Gore promising salvation, we can do it.

Gore and the climate change movement are about human responsibility. Every ancient religion and mythology, whether Aboriginal, Greek or the early Hebrew, had a moment when humans had to face up to the fact that they had angered the gods. This moment now is ours. And part of our acknowledgment is to do what humans have always done through their religion: band together, look at ourselves, seek redemption for our sins, try to find hope and in so doing, find the expression of our own need vis-a-vis the offended cosmos.

“Katrina,” Gore booms in his presentations, referring to the devastating 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, “was the beginning of a period of consequences.” He likens the significant numbers of huge jellyfish being discovered off the coast of Japan to God sending Pharaoh another plague. The warnings are becoming manifest — the licking flames of the California wildfires, too hell-like for words. We fail to heed these warnings at our peril. This is what shifts it all away from Al Gore the presenter to us the audience: it’s not so much about what Gore wants to tell us as what we want to hear. In Denver, Brian the computer guy stood to cheer when a wound-up Gore boomed: “We need to fix this crisis. This, ladies and gentlemen, is not a political issue but a moral, ethical, spiritual issue.” More wild applause, the audience now standing and shouting.

In the question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, someone raised the inevitable query about his becoming a candidate in the presidential race of 2008. He declined emphatically — at least for the moment — which made me remember American political commentator Robert Shrum telling one of the Sunday-morning television politics shows that Gore had no need to seek the presidency for he “has moved from being a politician to being a prophet.”

As the crowd, more euphoric than chastened despite having dined from a menu made up entirely of bad news, made its way out of the auditorium and into the night, I had to think also of Dudley Young’s proposal that the way through our globe’s environmental crisis is a task for both religion and politics, “the two intertwined.” Which goes a long way to explain why Al Gore, with a foot in each camp, the once-politician now prophet, has become the man of the moment.

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