Jessica Weisberg is an American journalist currently based in South America. The following is her take on the peculiar cultural dominance of An Inconvenient Truth.
I liked Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Really, I did. But when I count off my reasons — the special effects, the wet-your-pants astonishment, the drama — I find myself applauding the film’s popular appeal more than its take-home message.
The film has achieved a global monopoly in the fight against global warming, becoming not just a film about climate change, but the film about climate change. Even in South America, where the fight against climate change has a completely different character. Hollywood has an imperialistic grasp over our global understanding of beauty, normalcy, romance — and now, with An Inconvenient Truth, of climate change.
The film emphasizes behavioral modifications that are an important stepping stone for environmentalism in the United States, but in South America … well, the idea of Al Gore lecturing to a group of people from rural Bolivia about reducing their carbon emissions seems pretty off to me. Adam Zemans, a North American environmentalist working in Bolivia, said, “Audiences in Bolivia are going to leave the film thinking it’s not their problem, that there’s nothing that they can do.”
Nonetheless, Zemans’s U.S.-based NGO, Environment Americas, continues to organize screenings of the film all over the city of Cochabamba, as do other NGOs throughout South America. So what’s going on here?
I have been working as a journalist in Bolivia and Paraguay for the last seven months and I’ve been rather stunned by the number of small-scale, NGO-run screenings of Al Gore’s lecture — and even more stunned by the politicized, underground feel these screenings tend to have. The organizers are often waiting on street corners passing out flyers to daydreaming pedestrians and chanting slogans under their breath, such as “make a difference, stop climate change.” But the strange thing about these underground, political screenings is that there is nothing underground or political about An Inconvenient Truth. Nothing.
Gore goes into depth defining climate change in scientific and visual terms, but remains as politically neutral as possible — no mention of neoliberal policies or corporate culpability. The film concludes with some very nice, very apolitical suggestions about how you can stop climate change: you can “carpool to work” or “buy a hybrid car” or even “recycle.” The truth of the matter is that the main way your average South American citizen can help stop climate change is through political pressure — by pushing their governments to tighten their country’s regulations, by trying to ensure that these regulations are enforced upon international corporations, and by pushing Western countries to take responsibility for global environmental damages.
My instinct is to blame Hollywood, but as a filmmaker myself, I know the importance of targeting a specific audience; the film did an excellent job of communicating with U.S. audiences. And besides, it’s Hollywood. They have to target a U.S. audience if they want to make any sort of profit. So who’s to blame here? Is it the NGOs for pushing U.S. norms of environmentalism on a South American audience?
I think the blame lies in the paradox created by contemporary environmentalism. An Inconvenient Truth has brought the fight against climate change to the mainstream. And environmentalism has to go mainstream for U.S. citizens to modify their behaviors. The problem presents itself when the mainstream is so powerful that it mutes all the voices coming from the sidelines. I think it’s just terrific that Wal-Mart offers organic produce, but not if it puts small, local farmers out of business. And it’s great that Gore has reached millions — but not if it quiets other voices.
I asked Zemans why he chose to screen An Inconvenient Truth over other environmental films. Zemans squinted his brow and looked at me skeptically: “There are other films about climate change?”
There are, indeed. Try Everything’s Cool, directed by Judy Helfand and Daniel B. Gold, Ecological Footprint, directed by Patsy Northcutt, The Fires of the Amazon, by Adrian Cowell, or Developing Stories, a series of six films produced by some of the developing world’s most talented filmmakers on what they see as the root causes of the world’s environment and development crisis.
There are tons of films out there about climate change. I’m not arguing that they’re better or worse than An Inconvenient Truth, but many of them are directed at niche markets overlooked by that blockbuster.
Gore’s movie has brought climate change into the limelight, as only Hollywood can do. The film has given “climate change” sex appeal — all of a sudden there are books, posters, articles sold on the presence of those two words alone. Truth is to climate change what Speed was for Keanu Reeves — a public debut. But while Speed pretty much covered Keanu’s complexity, the issue of climate change has many more layers than Hollywood cared to notice.