The Man of Tomorrow?

[Updated with a bit of video!]

Earlier this week I went for a walk with Nick Halmagyi to chat about physics, and since he had not been down to the meadows and gardens over by the neighbouring Aspen Institute, we wandered down that way. It was just after lunchtime, and a very hot day, and as we got near the Institute, we diverted away from physics so that I could tell him briefly what the significance of the Aspen Institute is. I explained that it was an important “think tank”, host to thinkers in the humanities, sciences, and diplomats, presidents, ex-presidents, and other dignitaries, who come and think great thoughts about the problems of the world. Well, let me use their own words from their website:

The Aspen Institute, founded in 1950, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue.

As an example, I explained, it is probably the sort of place that Al Gore might have come to in order to think deeply about the environmental issues he champions. It is nice that the Aspen Institute is right next to the Aspen Center for Physics, and the two organizations, while now independent (but the Center actually grew out of the Institute, see here) sometimes work together on various matters including public outreach. The public lecture I gave here last year as part of the Heinz Pagels Memorial Lecture series (see e.g. here and here), for example, was actually over in the Paepke auditorium, one of their buildings.

We approached the main grounds of the Institute, near their residence buildings, and were greeted by a most frustrating -and ironic- sight. Their sprinkler system was fully on, spraying water unnecessarily into the air and onto the asphalted walks, with some making it onto their lawns, where even there it would mostly evaporate (in addition to aiding the hot sun in scorching the grass somewhat). For once, I did not have my camera and so cannot share this horrible sight with you. For a moment it was as though I was back in LA, but this was Aspen, where everyone talks about the environment. Then I remembered – everyone talks about the environment. At the same time, there are more and more SUVs every time I come here (rental companies even try to force SUVs on you when you try to rent a regular compact car – did you read my story of that last year?), more and more land seems to be cleared to build ever-larger houses, and so forth. On the other hand, bicycle use is very high here, there’s an excellent free bus system, an enforced reduction of individual car access to the Maroon Bells wilderness area, and I imagine several other worthy environmental efforts that I have not seen are being made. So it is a tale of two communities and mind sets. It’s complicated, as with any populate. But you’d have thought the Aspen Institute would be “fostering enlightened leadership” by not watering their lawns and (sidewalks) with vast amounts of water at the maximally worst time of day to do so in terms of effectiveness. (Frankly, given the environmental disaster most lawns are, one could go further and hope that in the spirit of leadership, they’d turn more of their expanse of lawns into other use, perhaps expanding the excellent wildflower garden they have in one corner, or letting more of the surrounding meadows repopulate the grounds. It could be rather beautiful.)

wild flower gardens at aspen institute

Anyway, we shook our heads at the irony of the sight and we wandered off toward the river, continuing our chat about matters in other dimensions (no, really). The next day I came back at that same time to check the sprinklers again (with camera), since such systems are often on timers, but had it rained very heavily the previous night and so -happily- it did not seem that the sprinklers had been used.

On Wednesday I returned once more. The sun was overhead and strong again (not as much as Monday) and the main system was not on. But once again I noticed signs of watering, and saw a smaller component of the lawn being watered by a hose-driven system. I now think that it might be that they were sprinkling (well, gushing) on Monday (and partly on Wednesday) in the mistaken belief that pouring water (and into the air, where it rapidly evaporates) on the lawn while the sun is baking it will somehow help, and they did it on an ad hoc basis, but I can’t be sure. Either way, it is a terrible waste of water resource by an organization that is committed to leadership in matters of importance, such as the environment.

Then I noticed that many people wearing name badges were heading from the Institute toward the direction of the auditorium and the Aspen Music tent. This fit with the next deliciously ironic thing: Al Gore was going to be talking! He’d been at the Aspen Institute (I’d no idea of his presence or the event until a radio announcement on Wednesday morning), and the sprinkler matter, this was remarkable. Convenient, one might say.

It turned out that it was not taking place in the Paepke auditorium, as I thought it might be. They were going to use the tent instead. The Benedict Music Tent is huge, and is where the Aspen Music Festival events are held. The Festival (and its primary physical manifestation in the form of the tent) constitute the third major neighbour of the Aspen Center for Physics, and I’ve been known to wander down to it during the day and sit and do a computation while listening to a rehearsal of an orchestra or other ensemble. So I wandered over to the tent to find it almost full (and rapidly getting full) with people coming to hear Al Gore.

  Al Gore Aspen Music Tent   Al Gore Aspen Music Tent   Al Gore Aspen Music Tent

The tent’s side panels were open to allow those outside to listen as well. So of course, I stood and looked and listened. The format was excellent. It was not going to be Al Gore doing what he refers to as “the slideshow”. Instead, he was going to have a chat/interview (with a person from the local public radio station whose name I’ve forgotten), giving people an opportunity to hear him think on his feet, and talk about a wide range of issues.

Al Gore Aspen Music TentAs is usually the case when you hear Al Gore on the radio or television (and much more so when you hear Bill Clinton), there’s the shock and sense of loss that slaps you in the face upon remembering what it is like to have someone in the White House who can formulate proper sentences with content (and reasonably good grammar), vision, and hope. When you hear Gore, there’s that sense of loss of what could have been, and it’s an awful feeling, given what has happened in the last several years under the current leadership.

I’ll not go through the details of what Gore said. I’m more interested right now in remarking upon the medium of the message, and the penetration of the message into the public sphere. The fact that I’m happy to not go into the details of what he talked about is worth remarking upon itself. My point is that I’ve been very heartened by the pace of change that has happened in a short time with regards to people talking about the environment, and (some) people beginning to do something about it. Not become activists of the sack-cloth wearing sort, but merely thinking about the small things that individuals can do here and there that correspond to large changes when you add up the effort of millions. To begin thinking about changes to lifestyle and business practices that might make a real difference. Perhaps, as a next step, to give up certain obvious and short-term conveniences in exchange for achieving the longer-term goal of a better environment than we might have if we continue as we are. Even considering the last year, I think there’s been a big difference in the evidence of people’s awareness, and that makes me less pessimistic about the outlook for us beginning to make significant local and global changes in our behaviour in a timely manner. There are more reports on the radio about environmental issues, more discussion of local and national legislation concerned with these matters, and more mentions in everyday discourse. Of course, I don’t think that we’re anywhere near where we ought to be in terms of talk and especially action, but the change is good to see. And it is more rapid than I’d dared hope, so perhaps it will continue to surprise me, and this is a happy thought.

The USA is hugely behind much of Western Europe on these matters, it has to be said. The everyday discussion of one’s carbon footprint, for example, is not just rare here, it’s virtually unheard of. (Gore has been recently pushing for that to start here, and you can learn more about it and participate by going to the website of Live Earth, for example) The idea (as he pointed out in his interview) that both major political parties could be competing with each other over whose policies are environmentally aggressive enough (as is happening to some extent in the UK) is not even on the horizon here. The lameness of the commitment and language used by the huge slate of politicians throwing their hats into the ring to be the nest President is still cause for dismay. But I’m hoping we’ll get to a critical point. (A “tipping point” I should say, since this is the term people seem to understand more in the public sphere.) When the USA collectively makes up its mind (however annoyingly slowly) to do something, the results can be globally far-reaching, surprisingly rich and diverse, and often just marvellous, so I remain hopeful. This happens when the people have collectively got behind an issue, and then the politicians (who are just too timid to do anything too unusual and truly lead the way for fear of being politically destroyed) step up and then help steer the way.

Al Gore Aspen Music TentSo what is responsible for this pleasant change, this marked increase in awareness in the populace? At least in the USA (the environment’s worst offender – although it is being challenged for this dubious position by China), whether you like it or not we must point to Al Gore as being one of the principal messengers who has got the debate going on the street and in people’s households. It would be nice to think that it was all (or mostly) about people -under their own steam- stopping and weighing the arguments from scientists and other thinkers that were already out there for many years, but that’s largely a fantasy. A lot of it has to do with celebrity and star power. He’s no longer just ex-Vice-President Al Gore (the Man Who Would Be President), which already helped him get heard more than many other people would have been. He’s no longer just the guy who turned his slide show into a notable movie… he’s now Oscar-winning Al Gore, and I’m still surprised (and a little embarrassed on behalf of my fellow man) at how much more weight that seems to have given him. To his credit and to the credit of the Academy, he has been using this to get his message across even more, and more people have been listening. Finally, he has an extra hook: He is the Al Gore who everyone is wondering if he will run for President. That’s also what people find worth coming out for, or at least listening more to what he has to say, for curiosity’s sake. All of these things are helping get the message out. Generally speaking, people hear facts, arguments, and extrapolations from the mouth of a Star, and they are more likely to take it seriously than from some climate scientist or other informed activist that they’ve never heard of. This is the way of the world. We must accept it and move on, learning how to use this to our advantage in trying to inform our fellow citizens about important causes and difficult messages.

During the event on Wednesday, I was happy to see that there’s much more there than the slide show and the celebrity. The guy is smart, reasonably funny, and articulate. He thinks on his feet in a way that is a pleasure to see. He spoke a great deal about matters beyond the familiar messages from “An Inconvenient Truth”, bringing up important themes such as reasoned discourse and dialogue that an informed public should be able to engage in. (See his recent book “The Assault on Reason”.)

[Update: While talking about his recent book, and the whole business of participating in democracy through informed discourse, he said a number of excellent things. I particularly liked this:

“…what made this nation great was our commitment to try to reason together and find evidence-based solutions to the best of our ability, and representative democracy and our constitution was just, you know, a kind of software for empowering this massively parallel processing of information in our civic life together…”

I caught this and quite a bit more (about two minutes) using the video feature on my little camera. Just for fun (and to see how it works) I uploaded it to YouTube, and so you can look at it here:


I have to say that I do find myself suddenly wishing that he would run for President, as evidently did much of the audience, as you could hear from the murmurs and calls and applause when the interviewer brought up the question. (He gave his standard answer, of course.)

Now I want to play Devil’s advocate. Yes, many of us are upset about the Presidency, and about the loss of what might have been if Gore had gone to the White House in 2000. But let’s stop for a moment. What if what happened was actually for the better? Let’s suppose that we are hurtling along the road to not just environmental discomfort, but environmental catastrophe. We do not know for sure how much of a catastrophe, but even reasonable projections can turn mere discomfort into loss of life on huge scales resulting from direct disruptions such as storms and floods overwhelming populations (imagine dozens of Katrinas), to economic effects of various sorts on entire regions. I need not go on about this…. you’ve read and heard a lot of the possibilities yourself. So let us suppose we are on a path to this, and to get off the path we need to rapidly acquire increased awareness of that we’re on the path, and what we need to do to divert us from the path. Might it be the case that we needed Al Gore to step up and devote his energies to championing this issue on the ground more than we needed him in the White House? Is it possible that the US political system was not ready for a truly environmental President in 2000, and so he might not have achieved very much in the environmental sphere, especially given how finely balanced the House and Senate would have been. How much would he have really been able to achieve? Some highly compromised things might have got through, but would they have been that much more than window dressing? We need really significant action, and I’m not sure that would have been possible. Maybe his actions over the last several years have helped pave the way for a political atmosphere where we can have significant leadership on environmental issues, where for example someone can stand up and propose taxes and incentives designed to promote environmental causes without utterly destroying their political credibility. Yes, I’m saying that perhaps it was ultimately (taking into account the medium and long to very-long term) not a bad thing that Gore did not make it to the White House. He served the world better -and will continue to do so, perhaps- as a highly visible and influential spokesperson for action on the environment.

I’ve been wanting to present the above idea for a long time now, but I’m always given reason to pause when reminded of all of the terrible things that have happened under the current Bush administration. Obvious things like the Iraq situation (how can one even begin to quantify where to put that into the equation of the previous paragraph), Katrina mishandling, the Supreme Court (as Jeff Harvey reminded me yesterday), and perhaps less obvious ones like (for example) the manipulation of expert testimony on scientific matters to do with the environment, etc. I won’t go into all of that since you know of them so well, and other blogs and sources you read do a perfectly good job of that, and I largely leave it to them. So I don’t really know where I stand on my Devil’s Advocate position above, but it is in my nature to try and make the best of a bad thing, so it is a thought that came up naturally. I offer it to you the reader as a thought to turn over in your own head, and to debate, examine, deconstruct, and do with what you will.


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