Al Gore on DVD: The Truth Will Set You Free

Last week I showed the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth to an audience in the basement of my church, United Congregational, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was, I imagine, an event mirrored across the country, as the producers of the film have made it very widely available without charge to community groups for free showings. (A month ago, I also spoke at a showing in a local college auditorium, and there was a lively student panel afterwards. Groups were formed, and work was begun.)

Our event was the purest form of grassroots organizing. I was joined by Bob Wall, New England director of the group SmartPower, which is signing up residents for green energy. In exchange for a few extra dollars a month, anyone who gets a utility bill can have solar, wind, biomass or hydro power added to the grid. While they won"t actually get renewable energy into their homes, it will offset their generation. What"s more, companies like SmartPower add incentives for towns that get the most sign-ups. Bob and I and the other members of my town"s Clean Energy Task Force have already signed up more than 200, which earns us two solar panels for area schools.

Also on hand was Bob Halstead from a local group that is attempting to consolidate ownership of the dozens of community gardens in Bridgeport. Halstead brought collard greens and cauliflower that was the product of those self-same community gardens. (We ate some of it the next night; it was delicious.)

And yet another group represented by Alyssa Israel handed out flyers from Fairfield County Advocates for Open Space aiming to save a 422-acre forest that has been inexplicably preserved for hundreds of years in the heart of an industrial city. Remington Woods was once a gunmaker"s firing range, but now it is home to vernal pools, night herons, sparrow hawks, wood ducks, raptors, deer, fox, freshwater fish and coyotes. Since it has never been officially protected, its scheduled fate is to become an office park, accessed by an expressway.

Bill Garrett, a former energy consultant, government policy advisor, energy entrepreneur and government official, spoke about his website The group is trying to wake people up about the imminent arrival of oil shortage. "Replacing oil with clean renewable fuels greatly reduces pollution, global warming gas production, the potential for decades of oil wars and combats the social and economic disruptions arising from peak oil," the group says.

E/The Environmental Magazine was there, too, of course, and we handed out free copies to the 30 or so people in attendance. So it was global warming spiced with other issues, making tasty food for thought. The scene reminded me of an old saying about the group Velvet Underground. Only 30 people went to their shows, but they all started bands. Most of the people at our screening were activists in one way or another. After everyone had talked and grabbed the free coffee and homemade desserts, we finally watched An Inconvenient Truth.

23 Acre Lake Success, Remington Woods (Award Winning Photo by Shirley Backus)

I had seen it before, obviously, but I didn"t mind a repeat performance. I noticed a few things: The graphics are really great, there"s a bit more partisan politics than I remembered, and it"s a bit short on solutions. Taking action is not the point of the film, however: The idea was to convince Americans that global warming is real, and it accomplishes that end admirably. You couldn"t watch it and still say the scientific debate was continuing. I argue about global warming every week with a fellow church parishioner, and I promised him if he came to the show we could debate the issue live in front of an audience. But he didn"t come, and still maintains that what"s happening with the climate is within normal historical trends.

Now about those "solutions." The producers have designed free, downloadable curricula for schools that show the film, and they"re all about empowering students to take global warming reduction into their own hands. Here are the three options for teachers:

Tier One — The Green Mile to School. For this one-day lesson, students are challenged to examine their personal activities and estimate their own impact, while finding ways to reduce damage to our environment.
Tier Two — Think Globally, Act Locally. The stage for this week-long program is set by viewing a series of DVD chapters that detail the science of global warming and culminate with a focus on the Kyoto Treaty and on the U.S. cities that are taking matters into their own hands.
Tier Three — Small Steps Mean Smaller Footprints. This semester-long program is highly project-based. After discussing climate change and renewable energies, students will interact with large sets of scientific data and draw conclusions from those interactions. Focusing on their conclusions, students will take action to present their findings to local government representatives, community members, or the PTA.

Great, I say. Every school should be showing An Inconvenient Truth in science class. But what"s that you say? The science teachers refused free DVDs? Sad but true. Producer Laurie David wrote an op-ed piece about it in the Washington Post, and it"s worth quoting at length:

[T]he company that made the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.

"The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said. In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn’t want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the free DVDs. Gore, however, is not running for office, and the film’s theatrical run is long since over.

"As for classroom benefits, the movie has been enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide, and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden. Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp."

I say, show An Inconvenient Truth. Show chemical industry propaganda films and Better Living with Clean Coal, too. Put them on the same bill and let the students decide. We had a lively debate after our showing of the Gore film. People stood around in small knots and talked and argued. That"s how it"s supposed to be in America. The urgency of climate change demands we let this debate flourish.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E and editor of Feeling the Heat: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge).

CONTACTS: An Inconvenient Truth; Friends of Remington Woods; SmartPower;; National Science Teachers