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An Eco-critical analysis of the documentary- ‘ An Inconvenient Truth’

‘An Inconvenient Truth’, directed by Davis Guggenheim, is an environmental film that was released in 2006. It features Al Gore, the former Vice President of USA, in a collection of clips from his slide-shows where he explains the consequences of global warming and what we can do to combat it. In this essay, I will analyse this cultural artefact from the Ecocriticism point of view. Here, I will first briefly discuss the genre of Ecocriticism and Ecocinema and then go on to consider the narrative structure of this film, its context, music and its communication style, which all contributed to making it one of the leading and most influential environmental statements of our times. Literature changes form and evolves over time. Accordingly, scholars have developed various literary theories at different times to analyse and help the lay reader understand and appreciate a text better. Formalism, Structuralism, Historicism, Feminist and Marxist literary theories…..are just a few of these. Over the past few decades, concern about the environment has come to the forefront of public consciousness. With rising urbanisation and industrialisation, not only are we moving away from nature, but are also increasing the burden on the environment. This trend led to the emergence of a new literary theory which explores the relationship between literature and the environment. The term “Ecocriticism” may be attributed to a 1978 essay by William Rueckert. His intention was to apply the concepts of Ecology to the study of Literature. The real ground work for the Ecocriticism movement was, however, laid by Rachel Carson’s 1962 Environmental expose “Silent Spring”. Ecocritics examine those literary pieces and works of art, which raise questions about environmental utilisation and exploitation, offer solutions to such problems and / or attempt to inform and enlighten the public about it. Ecocriticism as a discipline has a moral and ethical responsibility to promote those works of art that expose and address the damage done to the environment by human activities and suggest ways in which humans can live harmoniously within set limits that do not endanger the natural surroundings. It is a multi-disciplinary study, and during its short history, Ecocriticism has broadened its scope from Romantic Poetry to Nature Writing, from Scientific Journals to Films and Television. Ecocinema, the sub branch of Ecocriticism that emerged in mid 1990s, is also called Green Film Criticism or Eco-Film Criticism. It explores how the visual rhetoric and cinematic techniques of some films can highlight environmental issues or bring about awareness in their audience Films are a means of reaching a large audience and making them aware of environmental issues. In popular cinema, there are films that present nature as a simplified, idealised and sentimentalised backdrop to a happy family life. Several of Disney’s animated films fall in this category. Other films use environmental issues as a part of the plot or theme, eg., “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Erin Brockovich” where nature and its defenders are shown in a positive light. Yet other fictional films like, “2012” and “The Day after Tomorrow” use actual environmental problems to create an apocalypse like situation. All these kinds of films do showcase nature and ecological issues and guide the viewer towards empathy and understanding. However, environmental films are a powerful medium to disseminate information and knowledge about serious ecological issues, suggest ways to remedy the same and help shape public opinion. And it is here that ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ hits the mark spectacularly. Climate change is a serious environmental problem that has not come up in the public consciousness till recently, mainly because climate change and global warming are such ecological phenomenon that occur very slowly, almost imperceptive in human terms, and most people are not aware of the disastrous consequences of ignoring the warning signs. Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ takes on this challenge head-on and succeeds magnificently. Former Vice President of the USA and a keen environmentalist, Al Gore sets himself the task of bringing awareness of global warming to the world, one slide-show at a time, thousands of times. “I set myself a Goal. Communicate this real clearly. The only way I know how to do this, is city by city, person by person, family by family.”( Guggenheim 2006). This 2006 film is a compilation of these slide-shows, alongwith clips of Al Gore addressing live audiences interspersed with eye-catching visuals and scientific data. Gore begins with a brief explanation of how global warming occurs, discusses climate change theories and the co-relation between increase in carbon emissions and rise in global temperatures. He goes on to co-relate the effect of this rise in temperature on theweather worldwide and the major consequences we have faced as a result of global warming. He ends with an exhortation to the audience to stop global warming and offers suggestions on the steps an individual can take to do so. Throughout the 1 hour 36 minutes film, Gore comes across as deeply passionate and dedicated to the issue of global warming. His narrative style is blunt, honest and earnest. Hestarts his talk with self-deprecating humour by introducing himself as “I used to be the next President of America.” (Guggenheim 2006). For comic effect to explain the ill-effects of green house gases, he uses a clip from the “Futurama” episode “Crimes of the Hot”. The entire narrative is interspersed with personal anecdotes from his college days where his interest in global warming was inspired by his teacher, Roger Revelle, to his son’s serious accident, to his sister’s death from lung cancer even as his family farmed tobacco. These, alongwith his expressions of his disappointment at his shocking defeat in the 2000 Presidential election, work towards establishing him as a reliable and trustworthy narrator. Thus, when he talks about global warming and climate change, the audience is willing to listen and take him seriously. Without scientific proof and accurate data, no amount of impassioned speaking can be convincing. An environmental film has to face the dilemma of how to convey dry, hard scientific data to an audience who may not be receptive or knowledgeable. As it is, climate change is a gradual process talking place over thousands of years and the effects of melting ice caps in Antarctica may be felt in an entirely different region of the world. To counter these problems, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ intersperses Gore’s talks with a variety of eye-catching visuals, animations, satellite pictures, charts and graphs. Time-lapse pictures of the vanishing snow on Mount Kilimanjaro, breaking up of the Larsen Ice Shelf and heart-breaking visuals of the aftermath of Hurricane “Katrina” bring the enormity of the crisis close to the audience. He also emphasizes that global warming“is really not a political issue so much as a moral one. If we allow that to happen, it is deeply unethical.”(Guggenheim 2006). Although widely acclaimed, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ has been criticized on a few counts. Firstly, that it contains minor scientific inaccuracies and secondly, that Gore is pushing the global warming agenda to further his political ambitions. Notwithstanding the ambiguity in data from different sources the facts of climate change crisis are unanimously acknowledged. Al Gore says “Scientists have an independent obligation to respect and present the truth as they see it.” (Guggenheim 2006). He goes on to say that he has seen “Scientists persecuted, ridiculed, deprived of jobs and income simply because the facts they discovered led them to an inconvenient truth.” (Guggenheim 2006). The fact that he opted not to join the Presidential race again but continued advocating environmental issues disproves the second contention. The third criticism is that Gore is too corporate-friendly in the film. By saying that GM and Fords cars fail to meet China’s exacting emission standards and comparing them unfavourably to the hybrid cars of Toyota and Honda, is Gore trying to push these companies to adopt new technologies to make their engines eco-friendly? If so, what is the harm? It is evident that ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ ticks all the boxes deemed essential by Ecocritics for an environmental film to be considered praiseworthy. It is not really easy for the general public to differentiate between “natural” climate change and that caused by anthropogenic factors like increase in green house emissions. The film helps to educate its viewers about the causes and disastrous effects of global warming. Its presenter, Al Gore, is credible and trustworthy and his sincerity and zeal towards his mission is never in doubt. So the audience readily believes him when he says “We are witnessing a collision between our civilization and the Earth.” (Guggenheim 2006).He does dwell briefly on his political disappointments and berates American politicians’ poor track record in controlling global warming. At the same time, he exhorts the audience to force their governments to adopt eco-friendly policies and, if need be, join politics to bring about the change. The film emphasizes that combating global warming is not just a political issue, but a moral and ethical responsibility of all. The film ends leaving the audience energised and motivated to take small steps at an individual level to reduce their own carbon footprint. Apart from being a huge box office success, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ won a slew of awards including two Oscars. Al Gore won the Peace Nobel in 2007 alongwith the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The issues of climate change and global warming were suddenly pushed into the lime light. Drawing on movie goers rising awareness of environmental issues, several eco-documentary films as well as fictional “Apocalpse – is – Coming” movies were released. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was, controversially, included in school syllabi in several countries. So, the film had a massive impact worldwide. That is all very well. The question arises “How relevant is ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ today, more than a decade since its release?” In order to answer that, we must consider the state of the global warming crisis today. The World Meteorological Organisation of the UN 2018 report has presented details of the continuing increases in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, sea level rising at afaster rate as ice sheets melt, record hot oceans and the world’s glaciers retreating. In 2019, Tropical Storm “Idai”wrecked havoc in South East Africa, there have been warm winter temperatures in Europe, unusual cold in North America and searing heat waves in Australia. In 2018, Super Typhoon “Mangkhut” affected 2.4 million people and killed over 134, mainly in The Philippines. Over 1600 deaths were reported in Europe, Japan, and US because of intense heat waves and wild fires. Kerala in India suffered the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding of the century. It is evident that global warming is increasing at an alarming rate and causing catastrophes. At the same time there is continued growing awareness and concern about the issue. Various initiatives have been taken at a global level, news of which is heartening. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) has been succeeded by the Paris Agreement (2016), which aims to keep the rise in global temperatures to well below 2degree Celsius. Gore asks in the film, “Do we have to choose between the economy and the environment?” (Guggenheim 2006).Not necessarily. France plans to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, The Netherlands by 2030 and Norway by 2025. After 2022, France will not use coal to produce electricity. Electric trains in The Netherlands are powered entirely by wind energy. Electric cars like Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf are gaining popularity. Researchers from U.K. and Spain have identified an eco-friendly solid refrigerant to replace the toxic and inflammable hydro-fluro carbons that contribute to global warming when leaked into the atmosphere. The UN’s Earth Day on 22 April and World Environment Day on 5 June arecelebrated every year for awareness of environmental rights. Representatives from 33 countries met in Delhi in March 2019 to discuss policy changes governments must make inface of increasing disasters caused by climate change. On Earth Day, April 22 2019, India has pledged Rs. 480 crores to set up a Secretariat for Proposed Global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. All these are encouraging developments.   “I have been asleep and I need to wake up now”, go the powerful lyrics of Melissa Etheridge’s Academy Award winning song which plays as the end credits of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ roll. The global warming crisis is one of Man’s own making, and as Al Gore says, “The solutions are in our hands. We just have to have the determination to make them happen.”(Guggenheim2006). ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ will remain relevant until that happens. BIBLIOGRAPHY An Inconvenient Truth. (2006). [film] Directed by D. Guggenheim. Hollywood: Participant Productions.

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