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Al Gore, the Nobel Prize and the End of the Beginning
Alex Steffen, 12 Oct 07

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." - Winston Churchill, speaking of the turning point battle of El Alamein,1942

Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize symbolizes more than just a head-nod towards some eco-fad -- it shows that sustainability has finally moved from the outskirts of activism to the most central halls of authority. Concern for the planetary future is now as credible as it is possible to get. The beginning of the struggle to save ourselves from ecological catastrophe has come to an end and we can begin to see the outlines of the next stage of the struggle.

Those of us who've spent our careers advocating a saner approach to the future can be forgiven a few moments of smugness, for these are sweet days. There is no longer any reasonable debate about whether or not we need to move with all possible speed towards a different way of living on this planet. To argue the contrary is now to prove oneself morally bankrupt.

Of course, the morally bankrupt can still be found in some numbers in the corridors of commercial and political power, but we don't need to worry too much about them. They are the leaders of the past: their influence wanes by the moment, as leader after leader steps up to call for big changes.

Consider, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's call this week for a global system of carbon regulation and pricing to be in place by 2012:

Merkel insisted that only by establishing limits on carbon dioxide output per individual around the world -- suggesting about 2 tons per head -- could the fight to stop global warming be effective. ... Her suggestion would mean drastic cuts: Germany has a carbon dioxide output of some 11 tons per person per year, while the U.S. is at around 20 tons per person.

Similar proclamations -- which would even five years ago, been perceived as beyond the pale of realistic debate -- can be heard from corporate CEOs, retired generals and religious leaders. (These conversions are coming none too soon. There's been a spate of disturbing news of late, including NASA climate expert Jim Hansen's latest paper (PDF) estimating that we are moving towards an increase of six degrees Celsius rather than three, and that drastic observed effects (like the rapid melting of the polar ice cap) may be evidence that we are on the verge of hitting climate tipping points.)

Winning the debate doesn't mean we're winning the war, yet. But the fight has changed. Now that we have an increasingly broad consensus that we face a major planetary crisis, we can start in on the next step. Now we move from spreading the word to setting the agenda, from handing out pamphlets to drawing blueprints. The future we're inheriting is broken. People all over the world know it. Now it's time to design a future that works.

This campaign will be no easier.

For one thing, in order to create real solutions, we have to avoid certain traps, like carbon blindness. It's going to be difficult to help the world see more clearly that climate change is a symptom of our lack of sustainability, not its cause. We must find ways of showing that climate chaos, environmental degradation, economic inequity and political corruption are all part of the same problem. We simply cannot solve any of those problems without working to tackle them all.

Others will call for "moderation," which in this context actually means totally insufficient half-measures. Because we know that we're dealing with the hard reality of merciless trends here, we'll have to be strong and demand more than timid steps and vague pronouncements. We'll have to demand commitment to the bold timelines necessary and hold our leaders accountable to them. To take baby steps now is to fail, however good our intentions.

We'll also have some work to do explaining why the developed world needs to lead the way. We in the North have a moral responsibility to go first, of course, both because we bear the historical guilt for the situation in which we find ourselves and because others have the same right we do to expect reasonable prosperity and we will not earn their cooperation (which we need) without acknowledging that. But we also face the practical reality that it is our governments, universities and businesses that have the research capacity to forge the new solutions people everywhere will need. If we want the whole world using these new solutions by 2050, we'd better start inventing and implementing them here, now.

But there's an even more fundamental challenge facing us, I believe: we don't know what the future we want to build looks like.

We are coming to understand the kinds of radical challenge we face -- cutting our impact on the planet on the planet by perhaps a factor of 20 over the next 25 years or so, while delivering sustainable prosperity to many more people -- but the truth we rarely speak in public is that we really have no idea how to get there.

We don't know what our cities will look like, how our energy will be created and delivered, how we'll get from place to place, how our food will be grown, how we'll manufacture our consumer products and make our clothing, or even how we'll recreate and relax. Yet we will need revolutions in each of these fields -- and in the cultural interactions between them, the policies regulating them, and in the businesses which deliver them.

Up to now, we have been a movement whose purpose was to raise awareness of the dangers of a broken future; education and persuasion will continue to be part of our job, but now our central mission must evolve into creating a networked movement of people and institutions who are working together to imagine, describe, plan and build a sustainable society. We have shown people the need for change; now we need to become capable of mass-producing it. Our business now is vision.

It's common, among certain of our allies, to try to avoid seeming like radicals by reassuring people that a sustainable world won't be all that different from the world we live in now. It's time for us to stop saying that.

It's time for us to stop saying that because it's not true: the kind of world we will be building will have to include what are, from today's perspective, some truly massive changes. We won't be living the same way in a couple decades, either because we've undergone some relatively profound transformations, or because the consequences of failing to change our ways will be coming home to roost in a series of utterly predictable disasters.

But it's time to stop downplaying the changes needed for another reason: if we do our jobs right, life will get better. The systems we currently rely on don't just destroy the environment, they limit our happiness. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. We know it is possible to create lives which are not only profoundly more sustainable, but more prosperous, comfortable, stylish, healthy, safe and fun. If we do our jobs right, a bright green future will be downright sexy.

Our task now is to envision those lives, envision them with such practical clarity that we gain the power to build them.

Getting to a bright green future is going to involve quite a long journey. The storms of bad news won't stop coming in the meantime, and we can expect the seas to be choppy along the way. But this will also be a grand adventure and we can take heart in the message the Nobel committee has sent: look to your sails, the tide has turned.

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Comments

Al Gore, congratulations on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it is time to announce your wish to become America's president, take your seat in the White House, and be the leader we have all been waiting for to move beyond the corrupt system of Empire and towards Earth community. Kudos to the Nobel Committee for realizing that sustainability is peace.


Posted by: Erol on 12 Oct 07

FYI, the different estimates of warming for double [CO2] applies over vastly different timescales, not that we ought to just focus on the here-and-now. The generally accepted 3oC is for centuries, while the 6oC reported by Hansen et al is for millennia.

Climatic regulation on this time-scale is daunting, but an even longer period of concern has been set for Yucca Mountain's nuclear waste disposal operations - probably longer than humans have been in NAmerica.


Posted by: danielc on 12 Oct 07

FYI, the different estimates of warming for double [CO2] applies over vastly different timescales, not that we ought to just focus on the here-and-now. The generally accepted 3oC is for centuries, while the 6oC reported by Hansen et al is for millennia.

Climatic regulation on this time-scale is daunting, but an even longer period of concern has been set for Yucca Mountain's nuclear waste disposal operations - probably longer than humans have been in NAmerica.


Posted by: danielc on 12 Oct 07

It is my wish that Al Gore can move further down the road of attacking the roots of our global predicament: the political economy of the world. I belive, our politics and economics need major redesign to reflect the best of our ideals and the most practical of ideas. Only then can they truly channel our actions towards a relatively egalitarian and life-sustaining civilization.

And just happens that he is a citizen of country where such feat would have the most profound chain-effect throughout the world. If he can break the moral, cultural, psychological and institutional impasse in his home country, not be subdued in any way by it, and lead it out of it's current and recent blunders, that would indeed be a wonderful news for the rest of the world.

But until he details his vision to "stop global warming" with all it's political, economic and cultural implications, and move into applaudable actions, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Ofcourse, I appreciate his work so far in raising consciousness on the gravity of our problem to the world's people. I find his climate change presentation in "Inconvenient Truth" to be of high quality, despite the fact that it was at the same time a kind of political campaign, leading me to question the sincerity of his intention.

But who knows what lies in the deepest corners of a man's heart and thinking, and that is precisely why I will keep my fingers crossed and observe.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 12 Oct 07

It is my wish that Al Gore can move further down the road of attacking the roots of our global predicament: the political economy of the world. I belive, our politics and economics need major redesign to reflect the best of our ideals and the most practical of ideas. Only then can they truly channel our actions towards a relatively egalitarian and life-sustaining civilization.

And just happens that he is a citizen of country where such feat would have the most profound chain-effect throughout the world. If he can break the moral, cultural, psychological and institutional impasse in his home country, not be subdued in any way by it, and lead it out of it's current and recent blunders, that would indeed be a wonderful news for the rest of the world.

But until he details his vision to "stop global warming" with all it's political, economic and cultural implications, and move into applaudable actions, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Ofcourse, I appreciate his work so far in raising consciousness on the gravity of our problem to the world's people. I find his climate change presentation in "Inconvenient Truth" to be of high quality, despite the fact that it was at the same time a kind of political campaign, leading me to question the sincerity of his intention.

But who knows what lies in the deepest corners of a man's heart and thinking, and that is precisely why I will keep my fingers crossed and observe.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 12 Oct 07

It is my wish that Al Gore can move further down the road of attacking the roots of our global predicament: the political economy of the world. I belive, our politics and economics need major redesign to reflect the best of our ideals and the most practical of ideas. Only then can they truly channel our actions towards a relatively egalitarian and life-sustaining civilization.

And just happens that he is a citizen of a country where such feat would have the most profound chain-effect throughout the world. If he can break the moral, cultural, psychological and institutional impasse in his home country, not be subdued in any way by it, and lead it out of it's current and recent blunders, that would indeed be a wonderful news for the rest of the world.

But until he details his vision to "stop global warming" with all it's political, economic and cultural implications, and move into applaudable actions, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Ofcourse, I appreciate his work so far in raising consciousness on the gravity of our problem to the world's people. I find his climate change presentation in "Inconvenient Truth" to be of high quality, despite the fact that it was at the same time a kind of political campaign, leading me to question the sincerity of his intention.

But who knows what lies in the deepest corners of a man's heart and thinking, and that is precisely why I will keep my fingers crossed and observe.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 12 Oct 07

Erol, I disagree with your belief that Gore should run for president. One of the main reasons Gore was able to accomplish so much in his advocacy was simply because he wasn't involved in a political campaign. He wasn't running for president. He was concerned about maximizing the positive impact that he could have in raising awareness about climate change, and in my opinion, he did a pretty good job.

So... maybe we should think twice before trying to push the man into a presidential campaign. How would his effectiveness change if, all of a sudden, he was a presedential figure, a 'commander in cheif', trying to take on such a wider range of issues and please a wider spectrum of people?


Posted by: Sam Scott on 12 Oct 07

i send my thanks to you, alex steffen, for a well written article.

also, i support sam scott's observations and offer this:
perhaps another benefit from al gore's progress might be that we who have been "green" for decades (on any and many levels) find no need to be smug at all - could one of the changes include leaving that sort of behavior in the past along with the combustable engine? no one likes to be greeted with "i told you so"...

conserving energy can also mean not spending it on negative thinking, rather using it to promote "new" thinking, thus moving closer to that clearer vision of what needs to be next.

by the way, the churchill quote at the beginning of the article is the very quote we included in my high school senior year book......back in 1965! what a world! (and we thought we were so cool!...hey, we are!) thank you for the opportunity to respond...s


Posted by: susan pachuta on 12 Oct 07

what are we supposed to do, in 5-10 years, to win over people who think becoming a techno-hippie will give them cancer?


Posted by: hapa on 12 Oct 07

oh and -- very good piece -- very clear.


Posted by: hapa on 12 Oct 07

The media response to this has been disappointing to say the least. Most that I have seen have been sad attempts to politicize the issue, which is a strange thing for an award like this particular Nobel, particularly given some of the past peace prize awards.


Posted by: Howard Berkey on 13 Oct 07

Over the last few months, I am getting this uneasy feeling that this is just going too smooth. Every political party in my country is suddenly Kyoto converts. Why am I becoming distrustful?

Why do I sense that once the polls have gotten everyone so worked up, and the CO2 emergency is upon us, that the solution we will beg our governments for is nuclear power?

Why do I worry that we will ask nature to be subject to increased concentrations of depleted uranium in our atmosphere?

Why do I worry that our environmental movement, which has been vigilent for so many years, is suddenly being co-opted by a view that if we stop CO2 we will have solved our problems?
If tomorrow we went CO2 neutral, or even came up with a magic pill that sucked CO2 levels back to those of 1700 AD, we would not have solved our problems.

I was doing some research and came across a government web site that reminded me that it was Al Gore Sr. who sponsored the Interstate Highway bill back in the 50's. That was supposed to be good for America back then. Why am I getting worried? What can I do about it?

Remember the four principles of the Natural Step:
--------------
In the sustainable society:

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society;

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means

* People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.
--------------
This includes CO2, but it also includes all the other pollutants we put in the air, on land and in our waters.


Posted by: Clause on 14 Oct 07

Over the last few months, I am getting this uneasy feeling that this is just going too smooth. Every political party in my country is suddenly Kyoto converts. Why am I becoming distrustful?

Why do I sense that once the polls have gotten everyone so worked up, and the CO2 emergency is upon us, that the solution we will beg our governments for is nuclear power?

Why do I worry that we will ask nature to be subject to increased concentrations of depleted uranium in our atmosphere?

Why do I worry that our environmental movement, which has been vigilent for so many years, is suddenly being co-opted by a view that if we stop CO2 we will have solved our problems?
If tomorrow we went CO2 neutral, or even came up with a magic pill that sucked CO2 levels back to those of 1700 AD, we would not have solved our problems.

I was doing some research and came across a government web site that reminded me that it was Al Gore Sr. who sponsored the Interstate Highway bill back in the 50's. That was supposed to be good for America back then. Why am I getting worried? What can I do about it?

Remember the four principles of the Natural Step:
--------------
In the sustainable society:

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society;

* Nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means

* People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.
--------------
This includes CO2, but it also includes all the other pollutants we put in the air, on land and in our waters.


Posted by: Clause on 14 Oct 07

As Homer Simpson would say: Woo Hoo!


Posted by: Michele Champagne on 14 Oct 07

Very Enlightening , yes ; We must remember that Mr.Gore is also currently still involved into the political machine and as such is a , how should i say > pawn,.
While he raises global awareness . good ,.
The U.s. and China have not set any binding agreements to lower emissions and is dragging it's feet on the issue without setting any goals , only suggestions,.. .
Lets remember the earth does cycle through highs and lows itself and methane from cow's is an unspoken issue that is purpose-fully forgotten ,..
Let's set some laws down and conserve water People!!
!!!!!!!!!!,. D,.


Posted by: Damein R. Koyich on 15 Oct 07

In the article on Gore winning the Nobel Peacce Prize, Alex said, "...it shows that sustainability has finally moved from the outskirts of activism to the most central halls of authority. Concern for the planetary future is now as credible as it is possible to get. The beginning of the struggle to save ourselves from ecological catastrophe has come to an end and we can begin to see the outlines of the next stage of the struggle."

Boy do I wish that was true.

But based on opinion polls most Americans still aren't even close to getting how important this issue is.

In a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, less than 1 percent identified global warming as their top issue for the 2008 presidential campaign, and a January poll by the Pew Research Center ranked it fourth-lowest out of 23 policy priorities that Americans want the president and Congress to address.

I am very happy that Al Gore won the Prize that he has worked so hard for. I have great respect an admiration for his work. But unfortunately we still have a long way to go and a lot more work to do to raise this issue to the level it deserves in the eyes of most Americans.

We also need to do a lot to point out that proposals for carbon taxes should be accompanied by reductions in payroll taxes so that the effect is a tax shift not higher taxes.



Posted by: Michael Laurie on 15 Oct 07

As Homer Simpson would say: Woo Hoo!


Posted by: Michele Champagne on 15 Oct 07

Good post but I disagree that it's time to stop downplaying the changes. Global Warming is our icon. People are going to hear about it no matter what. Increasing people's awareness about its effects and what we can do to try and stop it are our highest priorities. But, if we get too critical about lifestyles it will backfire because people will get defensive. The more people are aware of global warming the more likely that they will come to the same conclusions on their own.

Sustainability will become more fashionable over time but preaching to people about being more sustainable doesn't work. Increase awareness and let people make decisions on their own. Once you see the problem the solutions become more obvious and if people feel that they are making choices because they want to, rather than because some expert told them so, we'll get further faster.

Just the vehemence of the assault on people like Al Gore, and Hanson who publicize global warming shows how deeply this scares the right wing. Everything they believe and stand for is questioned by this reality. This touches a nerve in a lot of people.


Posted by: Charles Justice on 16 Oct 07

Please stop using the word "debate".

For at least the last decade, there has been no debate, but science on one side and denial on the other. What is called "debate" here is either psychopathologic, criminal, or illiteracy.

Just like there is no debate on the shape of our planet, heliocentrism, or evolution.


Posted by: Florifulgurator on 17 Oct 07

hello, im not in the u.s., so maybe im not seeing the overall picture here, maybe someone can explain to me how can a guy that made a campaign movie about his family obtain a peace nobel prize and an organization like greanpeace, who has made so much for our environment not get a thing?
sure al gore is concearned about the world well being, but, aint we all?
at least i dont fly a private plane when i want to get somewhere, perhaps travelling with other people would reduce some carbon emissions...
i think that you in WC are making a better job than mr al gore himself.
what will be the real future? he will be charging "nobel prize" fees for his speeches? blah


Posted by: nM on 18 Oct 07

Mr. Gore's movie was entertaining. It was even thought-provoking. But by many accounts it contained a number of inaccuracies. Nonetheless, as Mr. Steffen points out, Mr. Gore has positioned himself as the foremost proponent of sustainability and addressing the many issues related to global warming. But his personal record for adopting a sustainable lifestyle is not open; again, by many accounts he hasn't done much personally to reflect his commitment to a sustainable future. I'm all for energy conservation, alternate energy, carbon emission reductions, and all the rest that will keep our planet blue, green, and cool (metaphorically speaking). Oil, gas, coal - bad; biodiesel, charcoal, bioplastics - good. Mr. Gore has done a good job of moving the discussion forward, but perhaps the Nobel peace prize was awarded a little prematurely.


Posted by: Richard on 19 Oct 07

When you say "the morally bankrupt can still be found in some numbers in the corridors of commercial and political power," you're not kidding.

Bush/Cheney practice ecoterrorism
Bush/Cheney and Co.--the moral equivalents of Dyson vacuum cleaners--have been actively working to dissuade governments from joining the Kyoto protocols, and other environmental initiatives. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity routinely bash environmentalism and those who wish to remove Bush/Cheney from power. I refer to this 3-headed monster as "Rush Dubya Cheney."

Leaders with the morals of the dinosaurs are working feverishly to keep us in an age of self-serving corporate greed, wealth consolidation and terrorism--either via dictatorships like China and Russia, or Christian Corporate Terrorism by the Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, Bush/Cheney and other US government administrations.

I know people personally who have been fooled by these so-called leaders into believing global climate change and environmental destruction are a false plot to inhibit business growth!

Failure of American vision
Many Americans are simply not smart enough to see the connections, for example, between Wal-Mart continually forcing prices downward, leading corrupt Chinese business owners to resort to using, as Bill Maher said on his HBO program "Real Time," "poison, mud and sh--" in children’s toys, for one example. These toys then come back to America, poisoning our children and creating more disease, which American pharmaceutical companies then counter with invented chemicals or more powerful antibiotics, which then cycle back into the environment, creating "superbacteria" and more "poison, mud and sh--!"

We need leaders with vision, compassion and understanding, willing to turn around the dangers posed by the current global vacuum of true leadership.

Keep the faith, but keep working at changing the world, one word, one action at a time!

What you can do
Contact your government leaders and tell them NO! to ecoterrorism, ignorance of the issues, and business needs over community needs!


Posted by: Tim Mantyla on 23 Oct 07



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