The Magazine

Faux Candor

Al Gore rewrites himself

May 29, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 35 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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Since Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit appeared in 1992, Al Gore's environmental manifesto has been the source of considerable praise -- and considerable ridicule. Time hailed it as "a labor of statesmanship" and Bill Moyers praised it as "a powerful summons for the politics of life and hope." But the Bush-Quayle campaign used the book to dub Gore "Ozone Man," and even pundits on the left were appalled at Gore's tendency to issue the most dire of predictions based upon dubious evidence. In an internal memo, a Democratic operative warned that the book would enable Republicans to charge "Al is a radical environmentalist who wants to change the very fabric of America." He was right. The GOP has had a field day warning voters that Gore wants to ban the family car with his "strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period."

It is with a gesture of faux candor that Gore ends the foreword to the new edition of Earth in the Balance with the page citation to this passage on the internal combustion engine, so "those who want to attack my view" can find the statement without "the trouble of reading the entire book." As he runs for president, the book places Gore in an uncomfortable position. He can't recant what he wrote without critics calling him a flip-flopping panderer. Besides, the man doesn't like to admit that he has altered his stand on anything (as he demonstrated in his refusal to admit his changed position on abortion during the Democratic primary: The vice president seems to think politics means never having to admit that you changed your mind). And even if he tried to distance himself from what he wrote back in 1992, his critics would still wrap his old positions around his tight neck. So he might as well embrace Earth in the Balance. Gore was shrewd when he told Time recently that "There's not a statement in that book that I don't endorse. Not one."

He makes the same assertion in his new foreword. He writes that he is "proud" that he once called for an end to the combustion engine. He argues the environmental challenge "is more urgent than ever." He cites evidence that shows that global warming is if anything more confirmed as a global threat. And then with the same honesty that he used when he told reporters he doesn't have to answer whether he would pardon Bill Clinton because Clinton himself has said he would not accept a pardon (not true, by the way; it was one of Clinton's lawyers who made that claim), Gore makes this curious statement: "The big lie in this debate is that a good environment is bad economics. That's one of the reasons I wrote Earth in the Balance. One of its central themes is that we do not face harsh choices between economic growth and saving the environment."

It makes the reader wonder whether Gore hopes no one does actually take the trouble to read the book. The new foreword is Gore's way of earning praise in 2000 for his fidelity to environmental principles by claiming to stand by everything he wrote, while running headlong from the actual proposals he made in 1992 for new taxes, regulations, and global initiatives. The 1992 edition of Earth in the Balance was a call to sacrifice; the 2000 foreword is a claim of comfy changes.

In the book itself he wrote, "Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change -- these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." Then he compares environmental incrementalists to Neville Chamberlain, adding, "The struggle to save the global environment is in one way much more difficult than the struggle to vanquish Hitler, for this time the war is with ourselves. We are the enemy."

While the 1992 Gore loved nature, his feelings for his fellow man were more nuanced. "The Pacific yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, taxol, which offers some promise of curing forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who otherwise would quickly die. It seems an easy choice -- sacrifice a tree for a human life -- until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated." (There may not be "harsh choices" between the environment and the economy, but choosing between trees and people can be a hard call.)