Prof. Joel Kovel
Bard College’s Joel Kovel says Al Gore’s environmental movie An Inconvenient Truth doesn’t go far enough. The real truth, Kovel claims in his own new film, is far more inconvenient
By David Levine
Frank footage: Filmmakers Khosravi (left) and Kovel work on a scene from A Really Inconvenient Truth
As he stood in his garden watching his corn wither on the stalk, Joel Kovel had an epiphany. It was the summer of 1988. The Hudson Valley was suffering from a terrible heat wave and drought. At the time, Kovel, a distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College, was more interested in social change than global warming. But those two issues were about to come together in ways that would change his life.
Kovel is a socialist and Marxist who teaches and writes about the downside of capitalism (among other heady topics). At the time, heading off environmental disaster was not on his to-do list. But he had seen reports that industrial gases might be causing the earth to retain heat. As those climate changes seemingly began to destroy his very own crops, he started to put together a theory.
“I became alarmed,” he says. “I have many years of studying the dangers of the capitalist system. I knew that capitalism has an inexorable need to expand. If these gases are released by industrial activities, and these activities are under constant pressure to expand, unless this is brought under control we are in terrible trouble. I decided to devote my remaining time on earth to doing something about it.”
He began working with the Green Party in 1990, even running as a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2000. He lost to Ralph Nader, which lets him joke that he and Al Gore share the distinction of both losing the presidency that year. That’s about the only thing they share.
Kovel, who looks younger than his soon-to-be-72 years, is a trim man with an untrimmed mustache, oversized glasses, and unruly, professorial hair. He calls himself “a natural-born radical,” but it took him time to embrace activism. A native of Brooklyn, he got his medical degree in 1961 and practiced psychiatry for more than 20 years. “I was just a regular doctor, politically interested but not passionate,” he says. Then he started reading Karl Marx in the early 1970s, and wrote his first book, on racism. He had found his calling. “I dropped out of medicine, which greatly disappointed my mother,” he laughs.
“But I felt the world needed something else, and I needed to be true to my nature.”
He joined the Bard faculty in the late 1980s. As his interest in environmental issues grew, so did his activism. He began writing for the radical journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, becoming its editor in 2003. After publishing his book, The Enemy of Nature, in 2002, he began working with local videographer and friend Cambiz A. Khosravi, looking for ways to put his arguments on film.
Then, in 2006, out came An Inconvenient Truth. Almost overnight, everyone was going green. Gore was a hero, but not to Kovel.
“I take a complex position on Gore,” he says. “I am really grateful he did that film. The science is very difficult and technical, and I thought he was basically spot-on and did it in an effective way. And I could see the response was very salutary. I remember being at another film at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, and I saw people coming out of his film very
agitated, really alarmed — in a good way. Multiply that by a million-fold, and you have a really good thing. I praise him for that.
“On the other hand,” Kovel continues, “I knew his record. He was, as we used to say in the ’60s, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
A Band-Aid on a cancer
The success of An Inconvenient Truth inspired Kovel and Khosravi to frame Kovel’s position as a critique of Gore’s movie. Their film, A Really Inconvenient Truth, was finished this past winter. And while Kovel says he took great pains to refrain from straight Gore-bashing, it is still harsh in its message. Simply put, Kovel argues that while Gore does a good job of explaining what will happen to the environment as CO2 levels continue to rise, he (Gore) doesn’t “connect the dots” as to why CO2 levels are rising.
The cause, Kovel insists, is the relentless increase in capitalistic economic activity. And when measured in terms of the Gross National Product, that activity rose faster during the Clinton-Gore years than ever before in history.
“I don’t think Gore is a bad man, but he works for the system that causes the problem,” Kovel says. “His film showed he hadn’t thought through his role in the capitalist system.”
What’s worse, to Kovel, is that the former vice president’s proposed solutions actually feed the problem. Gore suggests that the market economy will create new products, like hybrid cars, that can turn the ecological tide. Nonsense, Kovel says: Those products are made only to produce profits for the companies that make them, increasing the very economic activity that causes global warming. Capitalism must keep growing and expanding, but the planet clearly cannot support this growth; thus, “we are in a hopeless situation,” Kovel claims.
Gore also makes a plaintive call for individual conservation efforts. “He has people thinking they can make a difference,” Kovel says. “But you don’t put a Band-Aid on a cancer.” Although Kovel does live a fairly “green” lifestyle — “I drive a Prius, keep my house at 60 degrees or below, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, and recycle conscientiously at the Saugerties landfill” — he does so “without any illusion that this in itself will make more than an infinitesimal difference.”
A Hudson Valley project
Kovel and Khosravi worked on the film over the past year. “It was a two-person job, as stripped down as you can imagine,” Kovel says, “very much a Hudson Valley project.” The funds — “in the mid-three figures,” he claims — came out of their own pockets.
The film is a series of interwoven shots: Kovel lecturing Bard students on class theory, interviews at Khosravi’s Lake Hill home and Kovel’s garden in Willow, shots from
Gore’s film, and snippets of TV commercials and vintage footage which help to convey his anticapitalist argument. Though repetitive in spots, the film is a fairly lively and thought-provoking look at the issue.
Kovel’s solution to the problem of global warming is nothing short of revolutionary. He wants to overthrow capitalism and replace it with something he calls ecosocialism. “The socialist part means breaking the power of the global market economy and replacing it with smaller, cooperative-level economies,” he explains. “Things should be made for what we need, not to produce profits.” The eco part means “that production is centered around healing injuries inflicted on the earth though the creation of healthy and flourishing ecosystems — for example, organic farms.”
Are these just the musings of an ivory-tower philosopher, or a real possibility? “Turning around the capitalist system is an immense challenge,” Kovel admits. “The odds are not favorable; however, the possibility still remains, and as long as this is the case, I believe that humanity should focus all of its energies on such a goal.”
Still, he and others are trying. “These ideas are not just people barking at the moon,” he says. “People are looking for ways to solve this crisis.” Last October, he says, a group called the Ecosocialist International Network was founded in Paris, proof that “this idea is sprouting spontaneously around the world.” As, he insists, it must.
“Einstein once said, after the dawn of the nuclear age, â€˜Everything has changed except our way of thinking, because of which we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.’ It is the case for nuclear weapons and also for climate change. We are now paying a huge price for this. I am predicting very hard times. We are in for a very rough ride.”