Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Inconvenient Truth

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Ah, summer in San Francisco. Breezy days, foggy nights, covering the children in paradoxical layers of sunscreen and fleece. But on an uncharacteristically balmy night recently, Tony and I headed out for the classic date: dinner and a movie. We choose our movies by showtime these days -- late enough that we can eat a proper dinner first, not so late that we're keeping the babysitter (and ourselves) up past bedtime. So on this unusually warm night, we wound up at an eight o'clock show of An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006).

Now, motherhood is full of inconvenient truths. The baby will poop as soon as you buckle him into the car seat. Your preschooler will throw up an hour before the babysitter is due to arrive. Your partner will work late the day you've hosted playgroup, driven carpool, baked cookies for the soccer team's final game, and returned home with tired kids to a backed-up toilet and an empty refrigerator. With so many relatively minor yet truly crazy-making inconvenient truths filling your life, why would you pay good money to see a ninety-minute presentation of the staggeringly inconvenient truth of global warming?

Because when you become a parent, you make an implicit commitment to the future. And while most of us know that global warming is a problem, we might not realize how urgent a problem it is before watching this dramatic presentation of photos, facts and figures. Think of it this way: when your child says she feels sick, you stop what you're doing and get a thermometer, some Tylenol, and a cool washcloth. Well, the earth's got a fever and it's time for us to do something about it.

I wasn't looking forward to this movie; seeing it seemed necessary, though, like immunizing my children. But the movie is surprisingly painless. It's an entertaining mix of Al Gore's stage presentation to audiences around the world and background material about his life, from lessons learned on his family farm in Tennessee to his reaction to his son's long childhood hospitalization, interspersed with shots of him backstage with audience members or traveling to remote locations to meet climatologists. It's frequently moving, occasionally funny, never boring.

Of course, it's hard to watch without aching for what could have been if not for those hanging chads. Still, Gore seems to have moved on and we should, too. After all, there's work to be done.

Global warming is real, and it's already affecting our lives. Last summer's Hurricane Katrina killed nearly two thousand people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. In the summer of 2003, heat waves in Europe claimed at least 35,000 lives. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last fourteen years. Cities that were sensibly founded at cooler elevations, above the mosquito line, are no longer above that line, allowing the spread of malaria into congested populations. Around the world, weather extremes are becoming the norm: rainy seasons are getting rainier, dry seasons are getting drier. I sat in the theater in my sundress and sandals, absorbing this information and thinking back to our unusually rain-drenched spring. Climate change typically happens in long cycles, but the film's alarming graphics and one brief physical comedy bit from the dryly funny, self-deprecating Gore demonstrate convincingly that those cycles are getting shorter. Even I, a sleep-deprived mom, take note when my youngest has gone so long without wearing his sweatshirt that he's outgrown it.

A frog, the film's goofy animated graphic reminds us, will jump out of a pot of boiling water, but if you put that frog in cool water and add heat, well, it'll just sit there and boil to death. That's what's happening to us right now--we're just sitting in the water, getting hotter and hotter. And it needs to stop. We need to clean up the mess we made. We tell our children this every day: you need to clean your room, wipe your butt, brush your teeth. Learning this is part of growing up, and we're not good parents if we don't practice what we teach.

You also learn as a parent that little changes can make a big difference. My family life improved dramatically when we taught Eli to sleep with one of us sitting nearby, rather than leaning over the crib patting his back. Small steps can help stop global warming, too, and the film's elegant presentation of these important acts moved me to tears for their simplicity. Unplug your cell phone charger when you're not using it. Replace light bulbs with compact fluorescents. Take public transit, bike, or walk more often. Knock your thermostat down two degrees in winter, and up two in summer. Vote for change. Teach your children to turn out the lights when leaving a room. Explain that carpooling to school isn't just fun, it's good for the environment. Ask them to help sort the recycling.

The convenient truth is that people make an impact on the planet; it's time now to make it a good one.

For more information: An Inconvenient Truth: Climate Crisis

Calculate your carbon dioxide output: Carbon Calculator

If everyone lived like me, we'd need 3.7 planets; to see how many planets your lifestyle requires, and how to lessen your global impact, take the
Footprint Quiz


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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Well said! I've mostly switched to compact flourescents already, but I'm sure I can do more. Here's an idea: Turn off your screen-savers! Set your computer to turn off its display after a few minutes of inactivity, and hibernate after an hour. It all adds up!
There's something wrong with the footprint form. It showed me at 7.5 planets when I have worked hard to create an energy effficient lifestyle. There's nothing that asks about how you heat your home, for example, and I heat with wood that I cut on the property. There's nothing that asks about home insulation and we have R-40 insulation in walls and roof plus energy efficient windows. Etc. Why doesn't the quiz give you a constructive feedback about areas that need to be and/or could be improved. As it is, it just leaves you feeling bad with no guidance to respond. Somebody needs to rethink the quiz if it's going to be useful.
So now I did the Carbon Calculator and that's where the home energy etc. shows up - but still no question about insulation or wood as a fuel. It still thinks I use much more than average. But then there seems to be some way to buy something but I'm not clear what that's all about. If I can't figure out what they're trying to do, I don't think it's going to be widely adopted!
Chris, While I would agree with you that some of these websites may have some problems (particularly out on the laudable self-sufficient end of the spectrum where you reside), I think they are serving considerable purpose for the general population. For me, even considering what questions were being asked gave me pause -- airport travel, for example, has a much higher cost than I realized. All that said, I think we're missing the forest for the trees. (over-the-top environmental metaphor alert!) The movie is a wakeup call, and it's great that Caroline is bringing it to people's attention. In particular, it's striking to learn just how much agreement there is in the scientific community about the connection between carbon dioxide and global temperature, when most reports in the media present the issue as unresolved with equal weight on both sides of the argument. This strikes me as a misguided attempt at journalistic integrity. If the two sides of an issue are so lopsided, then it's truly bad journalism to present them equally. Again, these footprint websites may have their faults, but we can send that feedback to the sites directly and help them improve. I would guess that the sites have their own feedback forums where this input would be welcome. I'm just glad that this movie, and the discussion around it (including this column), is raising awareness and getting people to study their choices and their impacts. Tony
Caroline, thanks for this column. Somehow I'd missed the tip about cellphone chargers, and that's an easy switch to make. What I loved about the movie was the way it makes baby steps seem important, and useful. I think too often we get frustrated about what we can't change, and then don't change the things we can. Obviously the quizzes are aimed at folks who are living in fairly conventional housing who need to think about simple changes like carpooling and switching out lights--the bigger changes, like building an energy-efficient house from scratch, are simply beyond most of us (and so the quiz isn't really addressing those people). But the bigger issue--can we halt global warming?--is what the movie, and your column, are getting at, and in helpful ways. Thanks!
As always, I loved your column. I saw the movie with my daughter, Maggie, and cried as I watched the facts unfold before my eyes. We were both shaken as we left the theater and argued on the ride home. She was mad at my generation for not doing more -- for letting this happen to our planet. I told her I couldn't blame her, as I fought back the sadness I was feeling.
Being a parent and an environmentalist do not coexist well in my life, but I'm more motivated to keep up with the little things after reading your column. I used to carry an aluminum can for miles until I found a recycling bin to throw it in; I didn't own a car until after college, and it was a Honda that got 50 miles to the gallon. Now, I look at the diapers, and the sheer amount of garbage my family generates every week, and it is overwhelming. I do turn the lights off constantly, a habit I adopted young, and one of the best habits we can give our kids. Public transit in our neighborhood is sporadic, but I am going to try to use it more, especially since my 14 month old loves buses. Thanks for the wake up call, Caroline!
I don't know if this movie will even play in my very conservative area. Sigh. I'll need to wait for the DVD version. But it sounds like it will be worth the wait. Thanks for taking on such an important topic!
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