Al Gore and Iron Eyes Cody. Go check out the original TV ads: Canoe and Horseback

Whenever I am about to do something wasteful, like throwing a plastic bottle in the trash or turning the air conditioner on when it’s 74 degrees, my wife says these words to me: “Think of Al Gore.”

The phrase, like the Christian “WWJD?” (“What would Jesus do?”), makes you look at your own actions through the eyes of someone who is working tirelessly to make the world better. The perspective forces you to make a choice. Now I ask this question to myself, too. Al Gore has become a living reminder to us all that we should constantly think about the big picture, about how our actions and decisions contribute to climate change one way or the other.

In fact, in my own mind I take my wife’s advice a little further, making it into a more vivid and visual connection. You see, despite his 2007 triumphs (Oscar and Nobel), Al Gore is still, to me, a tragic figure, not just because of his 2000 election loss, but because of the sheer magnitude of the challenge he faces in fighting environmental catastrophe. Whenever I “think of Al Gore”, it’s hard for me not to imagine him shedding a tear for my careless or lazy behavior. It invariably makes me think of the classic 1970’s TV public service announcement featuring a Native American canoeing and riding his horse through a modern and thoroughly polluted America, having trash thrown at him from a speeding car, and ending with him shedding a single gut-wrenching tear at the sheer monstrosity and callousness of the American people.

Watching those ads in the 1970s, and seeing Al Gore today, I think about how being environmentally responsible isn’t difficult so much as it merely not being a lazy brutal bastard. You don’t have to spend every day on a soapbox spreading the word and rallying your neighbors to political action — Al Gore, and hundreds of thousands of others like him, are doing that for us already. Back in the 1970’s, it was barely even uncool to throw garbage out of your car window, much less illegal. But because of the pressure against such behavior, both social and legislative, tolerance for such barbarism is plummeting.

Doing the right thing is quite often simply a matter of not doing the wrong thing. Or to put it more simply, it usually simply means “Don’t be a dick.”

(I also suspect that many people have a visceral negative reaction to Al Gore specifically because he makes them feel like dicks for their irresponsible behavior.)