[Part One here – reading this will help you think I’m less mean and more green (maybe).]
I’ve never really claimed to be a tolerant guy. I try, I really do, and I think I’m far more patient and humble than I used to be when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world. So, I ask that you extend me some grace as I peel back the more presentable layers and let you see some of the battle that still rages beneath my winsome smile and bubbly personality.
I’m not all that patriotic these days. Don’t get me wrong – I mean no insult to those who have toiled over the centuries to provide me the opportunity to live a life of relative freedom and prosperity. I’m grateful for those folks, truly. I’m also not opposed to the idea that drives our patriotism. It’s not my life’s mantra, and my core loyalties lie elsewhere, but I believe much of that American idea is rooted in the deep hunger for freedom and joy that rages in the soul of every man, woman, and child. I affirm that hunger and admire men and women who chase that dream with passion and resolve. I’m also not about to descend into a Sean Penn-ish rant on how embarrassed I am by the president and his henchmen. I am, perhaps to a fault, still largely indifferent to the political charade, be it national or global.
No, most of my lack of patriotic enthusiasm is rooted in my growing sense of what my life is and is not about. I’ve written about those things some here before. I simply can’t find the will to expend much energy on the advance of temporary kingdoms and perishing agendas. Call me a religious nut if you will; I’ll just take my chances with the hope of a Real Life that redeems our paltry attempts at goodness and devours the evil that incessantly marches against our hearts and souls.
That’s all true of me, even if the fruits of my life still tend to lag behind the conviction of my spirit in these matters. So I submit the following as less of an agenda and more of a confession: there is another, less admirable, reason for my reluctance to slap the "American Proud" bumper stickers on my non-functioning 1993 Toyota Camry with the busted side view mirror and passenger window. I find the prevailing, defining characteristics of our culture to be rather embarrassing, namely our addiction to affluence and obsession with celebrity. These things, at least as much as democracy, capitalism, and apple pie, mark the American Spirit as it is perceived (rightly) by folks beyond our borders. I’m certainly not innocent of these sins; I just want to violently shake them from every cell in my body.
So what triggered this little rant and what does it have to do with Al Gore and his new Rock-Star-Superhero status? (This is where I get mean and unpleasant, but hopefully it will just last a paragraph or two.)
Live Earth. Did you see this? I didn’t, but I’ve indirectly encountered some of the subsequent hype. Every year or two, someone decides it would be a good idea to put together a big rock show to promote their current agenda. Farm Aid. Live Aid. Live8. Now Live Earth. At least the names are creative.
Listen, I’m a big fan of both the earth and of music. Lots of the bands and artists that show up for these gigs are favorites of mine. I’m for them playing their music live, whatever the reason. It’s just a bizarre scene to have many of the world’s wealthiest and least-in-touch-with-normal-life all showing up to sing songs and put on shows in the name of changing the world, usually "for the sake of" people who live well below the mark of the normal-life that these rich, famous folks aren’t in touch with. Seriously. Is anyone buying this? It’s not that I haven’t noticed this phenomenon before, but Live Earth may have set a new standard in the "When is the punchline coming?" vibe at these shows.
Case in point: Yesterday, I dozed off watching something on TV. When I woke up a few minutes later, the show had changed and one of these celeb-worship shows that are broadcast directly from the headquarters of hell was on – Extra, Access Hollywood – something like that. They were whipping through the highlights of the weekend’s orgy of famous people with a cause, and I was groggily trying to locate the remote control to kill the box. Before I could succeed, I was informed that Cameron Diaz not only drives a hybrid car to reduce her emissions but she also announced from the Live Earth stage (I swear I’m not making this up) that she turns off the water in her shower while she shaves her legs. Do I really have to do this? Are there actually adults in this country who will (a) say these kinds of things in public, (b) listen to these kinds of things without choking on their $9 bottles of Ethos water*, (c) report these things to thousands of viewers, and (d) see this on the tee-vee without throwing a large, heavy object at their the screen? The answer, apparently, tragically, is yes.
I can’t even bring myself to point out the many ridiculous angles of this. Like whether Cameron demands to use hybrid limos wherever she goes or whether she demands to fly in hybrid private jets. Like whether she shaves her legs often enough without the shower running to offset the amount of water used in her large homes and large swimming pools. I can’t do it.
And this stuff is everywhere. Today I made the mistake of looking through a few celebrity playlists in iTunes. It seemed nearly every song choice was made because the song(s) spoke about the awful wrongs being perpetrated on us all by the new and coming corporate America or the oil companies or the blah, blah, blah. This from actors who are making multiple-millions for and from some of the world’s largest and most aggressive corporations with every film they make (not to mention that this ranting was being delivered via an iTunes celebrity playlist, the sole purpose of which is to generate more revenue for Apple, Inc.)
Hey, I’m as paranoid as the next guy, and I have no love for corporations, governments, or other large machines that ultimately exist to self-sustain with me and you as fuel. John Cusack is probably right about that stuff. He’s just a flaming hypocrite who is either incredibly stupid, tragically lacking in self awareness, or brazenly arrogant. Or all three. It’s insanity, but we’ve so tolerated and applauded it that it’s become a sort of collective cultural lunacy.
I’m not saying Bono or Al Gore shouldn’t put on big concerts to push what they believe. I’m not saying John Cusack shouldn’t speak out against corporate power or wars. I’m just asking them to either quit pushing agendas that their lives fundamentally and dramatically oppose or, at least, be as honest as most of us common folk in saying, "This seems really important to me, but I haven’t figured out how to modify my life to reflect that, and I’m not entirely sure I care enough to change how I live – just enough to run my mouth about it." Seriously, I’d stand and applaud anyone from Paris Hilton to Bill O’Reilly to Alec Baldwin if they’d be that honest.
These folks are the uber-consumers. Most of them own multiple homes that dwarf mine or yours and fly from continent to continent once a month while you and I might do that once a decade. They have heated pools and air conditioned tour buses. They make millions from their work on expensive sets and elaborate stages littered with energy gulping light shows, sound systems, and film gear. They travel with entourages and are a never ending source of creativity when it comes to redefining inefficiency. So what better way to raise awareness of global warming and environmental irresponsibility (who have we missed at this point that we need to raise awareness anyway?) than to bring all these earth-scorchers together for a massive trash producing, earth stomping rock concert where they can lecture us about buying more efficient light bulbs and using public transportation? Talk about the assault on reason. I only wish the big screens at these shows would have included a scoreboard of sorts showing how many average Joes and Janes in the crowd would have to change their lifestyle to offset the massive consumption and pollution of the celebrity on stage at the moment (who wouldn’t be caught dead using public transportation). That would have been environmentally responsible and honest. And that’s the goal, after all, right? Honesty. Responsibility. Right?
Which brings me back to our friend Al and his quest to keep the planet from melting. As I said before, I don’t know whether or not he’s right about climate change. I think it’s possible, but certainly not certain. I also think it’s worth talking about how we better care for the world we’ve been given even if the oceans aren’t in danger of boiling in the near future. I just don’t think it’s going to happen on any meaningful scale, and here’s why: We love how we live too much. We’re too far gone in this lifestyle of consumption and conquering to turn back now. You. Me. Al. All of us. Funny (in a we-may-all-go-to-hell-for-this kind of way), isn’t it, that those early mega-benefit-rock-star-fests were aimed at getting poor folks in Africa to live more like us, and the new campaign can’t succeed unless we all suddenly become willing to live more like those poor folks in Africa? Anyone think that’s likely?
It’s been well documented that Al’s Tennessee homestead consumes something like twenty times the energy of the average American home. The nuances of that have been fodder for folks on both sides for a few months now. Some say he’s irresponsible and completely hypocritical. Others say he lives a different life than the average American, his home has 20 rooms so it requires more power (that his consumption isn’t out of scale per square foot), and that he voluntarily pays more for power because he’s installed some alternative power production methods on his home.
Whatever. I’m not interested in skewering him over this fact, but there is one thing he can’t escape – he punctuates An Inconvenient Truth (and much of his subsequent campaign) with the question: Are you ready to change the way you live? I’m fair and gracious enough to recognize that Al lives a different kind of life. But here’s the deal, and there’s really no way around it – at some point we can’t ask people to do what we aren’t willing to do ourselves.
Does Al need twenty rooms? Maybe, but is he ready to change the way he lives? Does he need spacious quarters for security personnel? Maybe (Are there more people that want to see Al dead than, say, people who want to see me dead? Almost certainly, though I pissed a lot of people off in high
school), but is he ready to change the way he lives?
This is my point. Even most of the folks willing to speak the loudest about global warming aren’t willing to dramatically change the way they live. Whatever the reason for all of Al’s energy consumption, he has convinced himself that he needs that lifestyle more than he needs to reduce his energy consumption to match mine. And if that’s true for Al, it’s certainly true for most of the bandwagoning celebrities who are now hanging out in his "green" room.
To be fair, I don’t know that famous people are any more guilty of loving money than the rest of us – they just do it with more flair. With few exceptions, the American dream has its claws just as deeply in me and you. Some folks smarter than me did a little homework on the American sentiment toward money and material wealth and produced a PBS special (then a book) called Affluenza. A few hightlights:
- The average American shops six hours a week but spends only 40 minutes playing with his/her children;
- By age 20, the average TV viewer has seen one million commercials;
- Recently more Americans declared bankruptcy than graduated college;
- In 90 percent of divorce cases, arguments about money are a primary issue.
The show and book conclude by arguing against materialism not on a moral basis, but on a pragmatic basis. Empirical evidence proves conclusively that money and possessions do not make people happy. But they sure have our attention.
A.W. Tozer writes this about our condition:
Within the human heart things have taken over. Men have now by nature no peace within heir hearts, for God is crowned there no longer, but there in the moral dusk stubborn and aggressive usurpers fight among themselves for the first place on the throne. This is not a mere metaphor, but an accurate analysis of our real spiritual trouble. There is within the human heart a tough, fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess. It covets things with a deep and fierce passion. The pronouns my and mine look innocent enough in print, but their constant and universal use is significant. They express the real nature of the old man better than a thousand volumes of theology could do. They are verbal symptoms of our deep disease. The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die. Things have become necessary to us, a development never originally intended. God’s gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the monstrous substitution.
This is why Al Gore can’t save the world. It’s not because he didn’t get enough rock stars in his corner. It’s not because he’s not persuasive enough or thin enough or cool enough. It’s not even because he’s not right enough. It’s because we would rather die a thousand other deaths than experience the death of material security, comfort, and convenience. It’s because, like the rest of us, Al is up against "a tough, fibrous root…whose nature is to possess" and not to sacrifice. This root can be extracted, of course, but not by movies or movements or festivals. This root only dies as an otherworldly Kingdom advances through his soul and mine.
I don’t offer this as justification for my inaction or as an argument against living a life that is more environmentally friendly. I actually believe we can and should do more to live simple, clean, efficient lives. My point is that we’re fighting the wrong battle first, and the cult of celebrity is unlikely to lead us out of the desert unless they decide to lead the way in another campaign – one to pry ourselves from the seductive arms of material security. If I were you, I wouldn’t save my money for tickets to that rock show. The lineup is likely to suck.
*I am also in favor of clean water for people all over the world.
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need
The High Price of Materialism
Born to Buy: The Commericalized Child and the New Consumer Culture
The Irresistible Revolution
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger
[Part 3 of this series of posts]