Thirty years ago, Earth Day transformed environmental radicalism into a mainstream phenomenon. The movement succeeded because it convinced the American people that economic growth and environmental protection can go hand in hand and that we don't have to sacrifice the modern world to protect mother earth. But ironically, the movement's most important rhetorical tract, Earth in the Balance (which is being rereleased on Earth Day), preaches a far different message, and whether Al Gore can reconcile the one with the other will largely determine his election prospects this November.
While Gore claims he stands by the book, he sure isn't campaigning like it. The book called for "a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization," but that's not a slogan that the campaign seems prepared to put on bumper stickers or in TV ad campaigns anytime soon. Nor is the message particularly compatible with Gore's claim to be the best caretaker for the economy over the next four years.
According to Earth in the Balance, modern American society -- the status quo -- is built on a foundation of mental illness. In a remarkable chapter titled "Dysfunctional Civilization," Gore argues that the modern world is built on the exaltation of reason above all things, which has fostered an unhealthy belief that man is a "disembodied intellect," separate and distinct from the world of nature. The psychological pain and loneliness caused by that warped cultural belief, according to Gore, lead us to consume the world whole in a desperate attempt to "distract us from the pain of what we have lost: a direct experience of our connection to the vividness, vibrancy and aliveness of the rest of the natural world." Accordingly, Gore calls our consumption habits an "addiction." Civilization is termed clinically "dysfunctional." His opponents are in psychological "denial." The politically ambivalent electorate has grown psychologically numb in order to "anesthetize their conscience." Businessmen and politicians are called "enablers." In sum, society is sick, and only a therapist in chief can cure it. Stuart Smalley, meet the Unabomber.
Only by rooting out the mental illnesses inflicted by the Enlightenment and by making environmental protection "the central organizing principle of civilization" can mankind be saved. Now, think about that for a moment. The "central organizing principle" of American government is, for the time being, the protection of the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That will have to change, according to Gore, given the need for "embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action -- to use, in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system."
And in case you missed the full implications of that battle cry, Gore immediately goes on to argue that "minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulation, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change -- these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice will not be necessary."
How has he gotten away with this? First, he seldom discusses this stuff anymore, and Earth in the Balance is considered "old news." His campaign has thus far been about maintaining economic growth (!), instituting universal preschool, and expanding health care coverage -- about everything, that is, except his "bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization."
Second, Republicans have proven incapable of highlighting this political nitroglycerin. George W. Bush attacks the book in general terms but, when pressed, confesses that he hasn't read it (hardly the recipe for a convincing critique). GOP leaders harp about the book's call to eliminate the internal combustion engine, but the public rightly suspects that the charge is taken out of context: Gore supports replacing the engine with a less-polluting alternative -- but, at the end of the day, who doesn't? Perhaps more important, you can't beat something with nothing, and Gore's capitalized on the fact that, for all its carping, the GOP has absolutely nothing coherent to contribute to the environmental debate.
With Earth Day upon us, it's high time we found out where exactly the environmental movement, and its leader, Al Gore, intends to take us. With the rerelease of Earth in the Balance, we have an opportunity to find out.