• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

O Gore, deliver us from evil

Al Gore is the archetypal twenty-first-century moral entrepreneur. His campaign to save the planet from man-made climate change is packed with moral messages that indict sin and outline the path towards individual redemption. His project – which he characterises as a ‘generational mission’ no less, and which continues with the big Live Earth concerts this weekend – has taken on the tone of a crusade, which promises salvation to those who are prepared to rise to his ‘genuine moral and spiritual challenge’ (1).

Gore has adopted the style and manner of a man with a calling. His admirers treat him with the kind of reverence usually reserved for holy leaders. ‘Answer the call’, demands one of his supporters, noting that: ‘Al Gore is asking you to make a commitment to help solve the climate crisis.’ (2) Gore effortlessly interlaces his demands for a reduction in pollution with the language of eschatology. Disavowing any political ambition, he asserts that ‘this is not a political issue’ but a ‘moral issue, one that affects the survival of human civilisation’ (3). Gore writes of a ‘universal threat’, which is cosmic in scale.

In interviews, Gore frequently gives the impression that he believes he is something of a prophet, whose warnings were, until recently, ignored by a feckless public. Although not quite the Ten Commandments, his ‘Seven-Point Pledge’, issued last month, is shot through with a sense of divine imperative. This is more than just a pledge card. The organisers of Live Earth insist that ‘individuals who embrace this pledge sign up to a crusade for saving the world’. Underpinned by a powerful apocalyptic outlook, The Pledge exhorts all who sign up to adopt a righteous lifestyle. The Pledge followers undertake to reduce their personal CO2 emissions and to plant trees, amongst other things.

This is as close as you will get to a truly global collective worship. The pop and rock performers ‘who answered our call… span all genres and generations’, notes Live Earth founder and executive producer Kevin Wall. The organisers modestly describe Live Earth as a ‘monumental music event that will bring together more than two billion people to combat the climate crisis’. The moral integrity of this carbon-neutral international gig is guaranteed by what they call a ‘Green Event Standard’. Apparently ‘all electricity that powers the shows will be from renewable sources, either through utility-supplied renewable energy, biodiesel generators, or renewable energy credits’. And those handful of incorrigible pop stars who still fly will have their air travel ‘offset through carbon credits’.

It is hard to ignore the high moral tone of Gore’s missives. In his own words, he has a ‘compelling moral purpose’. He never misses an opportunity to spread his aura of sanctimony. And yet, curiously, his moral crusade depends for its legitimacy on the authority of science. There is very little that is transcendental about Gore. Revelation for him comes through science rather than supernaturally revealed truths. His crusade, he says, is aimed at preventing a catastrophe that is foretold by Scientific Truths. In his dogmatic worldview, today’s categories of good and evil, of virtuous behaviour and improper behaviour, are rooted in truths revealed by science.

However, it would be wrong to see Gore as a man who is fervently committed to science. Rather, he is in the business of politicising science, or more accurately, moralising it. In Gore’s world, science is not so much about testing out hypotheses and carrying out experiments; instead, under the Gore narrative, scientific evidence gives way to scientific (inconvenient) truths. Such science has more in common with the art of divination than of experimentation. That is why the science is always seen as having a fixed and unyielding, and thus unquestionable quality. Frequently, Gore and others will prefix the term science with the definite article ‘the’. So Sir David Read, vice-president of the Royal Society, recently said that ‘the science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change’ (4).

Unlike ‘science’, this new term – ‘The Science’ – is a deeply moralised and politicised category. Today, those who claim to wield the authority of The Science are really demanding unquestioning submission.

Gore has effectively become a celebrity world ruler. ‘Celebrity culture’ is often decried for the insidious influence that it has on public life. But those who criticise celebrity culture are very selective in whom they choose to attack. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and the British glamour model Jordan are easy targets for newspaper columnists. Such celebs are assailed for the opportunistic manner in which they embrace a worthy cause one day, only to drop it the next as they move on to another headline-grabbing media event.

There has also been a cynical commentary about aging rock stars re-inventing their fading careers by associating themselves with fashionable causes like Darfur or world poverty. This commentary overlooks a powerful trend at play here: today, the celebrity has become the cultural gatekeeper to public life. And this is a significant development that Gore clearly understands.

Gore has successfully harnessed the appeal of celebrity culture to boost his moral crusade. Through his clever use of the media, he has cultivated a role as a prophet superstar. He’s a regular at major media events and his phenomenally successful film – An Inconvenient Truth – shows that he is capable of attracting large audiences in his own right. In adopting the celebrity entertainment format, he has developed a multimillion-dollar global brand. Live Earth represents a defining moment in the evolution of celebrity culture. This ambitious initiative targeting an audience of billions is seeking to displace the traditional public sphere with a format that brings together a new form of collective worship and old-style entertainment. Is it any wonder that, in America, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, those representatives of the old elected public sphere, said they were ‘proud’ to be among the first to sign ‘The Live Earth Pledge’?

As the prime celebrity crusader of the twenty-first-century, Gore has become an object of envy amongst his celebrity rivals. Bob Geldof, whose Live Aid and Live 8 concerts in 1985 and 2005 earned him the authority to lecture democratically elected leaders in both Africa and the West, clearly resents being overshadowed by Gore. ‘We are all fucking conscious of global warming’, he said when asked if there was any need for Live Earth. Still, whatever Geldof thinks, Gore is at least for now the toast of the entertainment industry. As the Celebrity of the Celebrities, he is well placed to serve as the moral conscience of the media and therefore to exercise a striking amount of influence over Western cultural life.

(1) Al Gore, ‘Moving Beyond Kyoto’, New York Times, 1 July 2007

(2) Answer the Call, 29 June 2007

(3) Al Gore, ‘Moving Beyond Kyoto’, New York Times, 1 July 2007

(4) ‘Scepticism’ over climate claims, BBC News, 3 July 2007

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