Al Gore’s new inconvenient truth: There’s more to environmentalism than recycling

By Emma Claire Sohn

Al Gore is officially an Oscar winner. Hollywood is turning in their traditionally accepted glamour and glitz for a much humbler green hue. The motion picture industry is ready to stop the global warming epidemic one biodiesel-fueled SUV at a time.

And sure, Al Gore and his colleagues deserved the little golden statue they received Sunday night. They effectively rallied the troops to a common cause, raising awareness of one of the most important issues plaguing our society today.

Support the Daily Illini in College Media Madness!

Help the Daily Illini take back the top spot in the College Media Madness fundraising competition! See the current ranking here.

learn more
donate now

I like Al Gore a lot. But in many ways, he is ignoring the root of our gas-gusling, CO2 emitting, landfill-filling dilemma.

Frankly, I was disappointed to shell out eight bucks last June to watch the man, who we voted into the oval office in 2000, regurgitate a slew of predictable facts via a PowerPoint presentation. Gore effectively scared us into taking public transportation home from the movie theater that afternoon, but gave his audience little advice on where to go from there.

At the film’s conclusion, viewers are encouraged to visit Gore’s website: Here they are presented with basic steps they can take to reduce harmful gas emissions, such as recycling more and avoiding products with a lot of packaging.

These tips are all well and good, but Gore and many of his environmentalist colleagues are trying to mend a broken arm with a band-aid. Our global environmental crisis is too big to be solved by these temporary means.

Humans have not single-handedly increased the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse depleting gases in our atmosphere. Rather, they have done so with the aid of the products that fuel our everyday lives.

What Al Gore and many other activists are missing in the quest against global warming is, in large, a simple problem of design. The global warming debacle today is based on the way we obtain and consume energy. However, its focus needs to be on the products we consume that cause and allow for this energy consumption.

For example, my best friend has two vices: recycling and Flintstones Ice Cream Push-Ups. I can’t decide if she eats them because she actually likes them, or for the mere gratification that comes with separating the plastic straw from the cardboard tube and recycling them accordingly.

But both the cardboard and plastic used to create the Push-Ups were meant for a single use. When assembled, their final resting place was not considered. In other words, they were not created to be recycled, and as a result, a lot of energy is required to reverse the manufacturing process and create a new product.

In their 2002 book, “Cradle to Cradle,” William McDonagh and Michael Braungart call our current recycling methods “downcycling.” And they’re right – when recycled, the cardboard from my friend’s Push-Up will degrade to the point where it is unusable and will be disposed of using conventional methods. Our recycled products will end up in a landfill next to the products that we chose to throw away in the first place. Additionally, recycling demands a great deal of energy. In fact, a few isolated materials such as glass use more energy when recycled than when a completely new product is synthesized.

Should we continue to recycle in the traditional manner delaying the inevitable death of a product in a landfill? Or should we conserve the energy required for recycling, likely powered by our dwindling fossil fuels? And where do our environmental responsibilities as consumers end?

I don’t know. But what I do know is there are ways of eliminating this problem.

Instead of using hindsight to recycle, we need to think ahead from the birth of a product and plan how its remnants will be used in the future.

In this manner, we will conserve a great deal of energy and prevent a large amount of waste.

McDonagh and Braungart’s “Cradle to Cradle” is physical evidence of this idea in practice. The actual book is made out of plastic material that can be easily reincarnated many times, at a minimal cost in terms of energy and no cost in waste material. By simplifying the production process, manufacturers will decrease the energy used and, as a result, the negative environmental impact that accompanies that energy use – like Al Gore’s focus, CO2 emissions.

Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” presents a transient solution to our global warming dilemma, but what is truly needed is a revolution in the way we design. Changing the way products are manufactured and revising the accepted “cradle to grave” life-cycle into a “cradle to cradle” process, where the next life of a product is considered in it’s initial creation, will help to solve our climate crisis.