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The difference between hypocrisy and unilateral disarmament

A charge of hypocrisy always carries with it the Biblical echo of Matthew 23 and thus seems like a weighty and serious condemnation coming directly from God. That is why it is a favorite among those who have lost an argument on its merits and who must now resort to ad hominem attacks.

Such was the case with attacks on Al Gore's personal energy use earlier this year which, in some instances, found their way into major media including USA Today. Gore has responded to some of the attacks, and I'll let you judge his effectiveness.

But it is undeniable that we would not even be discussing Al Gore's energy use today had he not crisscrossed the globe in jet aircraft to make his global warming slideshow presentation more than 2000 times. Nearly everyone now alive is enmeshed in systems that rely heavily on fossil fuels. Even simple household tasks such as cooking and mowing the lawn use fossil fuels. Even if you have a push lawn mower, fossil fuels were used to make it and ship it. Gore's point, of course, is that we have to change the system so that it doesn't run on fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Naturally, it would be very hard for him to advocate for such a change while living in a lean-to in the forest. And so, Gore uses the tools available to hydrocarbon man: air travel, slideshows, microphones, television and radio appearances, the Internet, and now, his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

I've never met Al Gore, but I do know many people who are trying to inform the public about the twin dangers of global warming and peak oil. Most of them think carefully about the energy they use in trying to get the message out. And, most do a balancing test that amounts to this: Does the good I'm trying to do exceed the damage I must do, say, through travel? It's not an easy judgement to make. There is no simple equation into which to plug a set of appropriate numbers. I know at least one prominent person in the peak oil movement who says he can no longer justify attending overseas conferences because of the energy used and the greenhouse gases emitted.

And yet, to forego travel and modern methods of communication altogether would be to engage in unilateral disarmament. And, isn't that what the global warming and peak oil deniers really want?

The truth is that all of us are hypocrites. None of us measures up to our own ideals unless we have set our standards so low that they don't deserve the name ideals. And, yet our ideals point the way even as we stumble toward them.

Meanwhile, the propagandists, pundits, and so-called scholars aligned with the fossil fuel industry jet about freely with their cellphones and BlackBerries in hand as they burn untold quantities of fossil fuel while spreading their disinformation. Since they've lost the scientific argument about global warming, they now turn to the savagery of personal attacks. (The peak oil debate doesn't yet have the traction of the global warming issue. But we can look forward to a similar dynamic when peak oil reaches the same level of public awareness.)

These deniers often tell us how they can respect a principled person with whom they disagree; but the one thing they can't abide is a hypocrite. Naturally, because the deniers don't believe we have a problem with global warming or fossil fuel supplies, they are free to go on gorging themselves on fossil fuels without any feelings of shame. (By that logic, it seems, they could kill people they don't like without shame as long as they believe it to be consistent with their principles.)

How convenient, then, to deny the inconvenient truths that get in the way of one's personal desires and narrow self-interest! Apparently for the deniers, all it takes to live a blameless life is to cultivate a certain state of mind that makes virtues out of all one's vices.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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