Dysfunctional Civilization
By Sara McPeak
November 1998

"Dysfunctional Civilization" is the title of a chapter in Al Gore's book Earth In the Balance, offering his take on the environmental crisis our civilization is facing. According to Gore, this term, "dysfunctional civilization," is a metaphor comparing civilization at large to a dysfunctional family. His pseudo-psychological idea is that there is a global denial about the concerns of our environmental crisis and because civilization is in denial, it's by default dysfunctional. Gore begins this very questionable discussion by explaining the value of his metaphor:
"A metaphor can be a valuable aid to understanding, and several metaphors have helped me understand what is wrong with the way we relate to the earth. One that has proved especially illuminating comes out of a relatively new theory about ailing families; ... what has come to be called the dysfunctional family."
His metaphor deems that civilization today is dysfunctional because it's unable to admit any sense of loss connected with environmental deterioration of natural resources and unable to admit any sense of guilt in contributing to that deterioration: "Just as the members of a dysfunctional family emotionally anesthetize themselves against the pain they would otherwise feel," Gore explains, "our dysfunctional civilization has developed a numbness that prevents us from feeling the pain of our alienation from our world... we internalize the pain of our lost sense of connection to the natural world, we consume the earth and its resources as a way to distract ourselves from the pain, and we search insatiably for artificial substitutes to replace the experience of communion with the world that has been taken from us."

In saying this, Gore presents all of civilization in the view of utilitarian liberalism -- mankind as weak, unable to cope and ripe for guidance and supervision in yet another area, environmentalism. Let's allow James L. Huffman , professor of law at Lewis and Clark College of Law, to be the first to refute this ridiculous Algor(e)ithm, quoting from Huffman's essay "Comments on Earth In the Balance".
"The extremism of Earth in the Balance is no doubt magnified by Gore's persistent reliance on misplaced metaphors and absurd analogies. As Gore writes, '[t]he metaphor is irresistible" (p. 213), but as employed by Gore, the metaphor undercuts the persuasiveness of many of his central arguments.'" *
For myself, I want to be considered as part of a functional civilization. After all, I consider myself part of a functional family. I was raised in Iowa in the early forties and in those days, instead of referring to dysfunctional families we used less highfalutin terms such as poor, hungry, frightened and miserable. We even knew beggars who had no families and came to our back door to get a handout. But my parents made it perfectly clear to me that, in order for our family to function properly, they would accept no blame if I were to veer down the wrong path; whether it be a moral or a legal infraction, I would take the blame and pay the consequence.

And I did. My friends and I jumped the fence and swam in the local pool after hours only to be detected by the local cops, who chased us up Hospital Hill. In our race up the hill I held neck and neck with the track star Frankie -- probably because I was tall and my stride was much longer than his -- anyway the adrenaline flowed and we escaped. Our buddies did not give our names, but when I returned home the first thing out of my mouth was an admission of guilt. In a functional family each member clearly understands the meaning of responsibility.

On the other hand, in a dysfunctional family, according to what I have read, psychological maladies supposedly mask blame and guilt creating confusion and unhappiness. Instead of being strong competent members of society, dysfunctional family members are said to be weak and unable to cope. The result is their requirement of help from society and less stringent regulations on their behavior patterns as fault lies with the family situation rather than any one individual within that family.

It follows, then, that the opposite of Mr. Gore's dysfunctional civilization is a "functional civilization" where each member must clearly understand the meaning of responsibility. And if each member does not, then the system we have in place will remind him or her of that responsibility through a peer determination of wrongdoing and appropriate punishment. A dysfunctional civilization would exonerate wrongdoers and create chaos. A dysfunctional civilization carries exoneratism to an impossible extreme as in nazism, fascism, communism and totalatarianism. We strongly take issue with being named as a dysfunctional civilization -- in fact, this metaphor is our November Algor(e)ithm.

So what is Gore's motivation in describing civilization today as dysfunctional? The answer lies in the fact that his book promotes the forming of a global governmental organization. He calls this organization the Global Marshall Plan, its purpose being to "halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system." Gore is sure the Global Marshall Plan is necessary because our dysfunctional civilization cannot tackle the environmental problems without government intervention and supervision. We need only to look at the track record of big government intervention in welfare to see that Gore's idea is on a collision course with disaster.

To implement the Global Marshall Plan, Gore suggests that civilization needs a "central organizing principle" to be established globally to pull all people into a concerted effort to save the environment. In defending his idea of a "central organizing principle," Gore makes an astoundingly incorrect assertion about the part played by the free world in eradicating communism. He asserts there was, "a conscious shared decision by men and women in the nations of the 'free world' to make the defeat of the communist system the central organizing principle of not only their governments' policies but of society itself." He goes on to say, "virtually every policy and program was analyzed and either supported or rejected primarily according to whether it served our basic organizing principle." As I could never refute this cockeyed notion of Gore in terms quite so precise and elegant, again I defer to James Huffman:
"To suggest that communism collapsed because of a concerted, multidecade effort by everyone in the free world is to overestimate both communism and the free world. By definition, the free world would not be party to such uniformity of purpose. The principle contribution of the free world was for its citizens to go about the business of improving their lot, while communism rotted from within."
Of course, the larger issue here is the question of big government intervention as the solution to the environmental crisis. Did it never occur to Gore that a free-market solution, based on supply and demand and adaptive economic and cultural solutions would be a much more plausible solution?

Today's civilization is very definitely concerned about protecting our environment, understanding that it exists as a global problem and that all civilization must aid in a technological answer to such problems as global warming, ozone depletion and chemical waste. There is unending rhetoric, some understandably frightening, on a daily basis reaching the ears of our functional society and we need only listen and pursue the answer to this problem with vim and vigor, relying on common sense and good judgment (not big government) to find the answer. An example of the type of informative journalism upon which we should rely is Gordon Durnil's illuminating, completely factual and well-written book, The Making Of A Conservative Environmentalist, in which Durnil writes:
"I personally expect very little from government. I am a firm believer in limited government. But the limits should be set based upon what a knowing people will accept, on what the people want. Those limits should not be expanded or reduced simply because of the limited abilities and concerns of many of the people we now have leading our governments, as so often now seems to be the case. Groucho Marx once said that 'politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.' I don't know for sure when Groucho said that humorous line, or even if he intended it to be humorous. Today his words seem to be truer than ever before."

* Note: Huffman's comments on Gore's book are found with several other essays in the book, Environmental Gore: A Constructive Response To Earth In The Balance, published by Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. There is a strong concern noted by all these essayists that Gore's "apocalyptic environmentalism" is more worrisome than beneficial and his statements are more incorrect than correct.

This article copyright © 1998 by Sara McPeak, and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.