David Cook: The Gatsby hangover

David Cook: The Gatsby hangover

May 14th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" premiered on screens across America last week.

You remember Jay Gatsby, right? From high school English?

The guy threw more parties than Snoop, owned more diamonds than Africa, chased more green lights than Dale Jr., and told more lies than Congress. His whole life was more, and all of it for his true love, Daisy.

In the end, (spoiler alert), it all crumbles around him. Bad crumble. Like, Pompei bad.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, which is fitting. DiCaprio has become America's on-screen conscience -- part prophet, part historian -- as his films ask us to take stock of what it means to be an American.

The hubris of "Titanic."

The wickedness of slavery in "Django Unchained."

The marital sadness of "Revolutionary Road."

The redemption of "Catch Me If You Can."

The high school violence in "The Basketball Diaries."

And now Gatsby.

The central image in the story is this shining green light near Gatsby's oceanfront home. As thousands of high school seniors know, or are supposed to know, the green light symbolizes the American Dream. Happiness. And so on.

"Hope, youth, forward momentum, money," lists the online Cliff Notes.

(Like you never used them.)

The tragedy of Gatsby is that he sacrifices his whole identity for them. The means and ends become confused (don't they always), and Gatsby fails to read the signs.

"So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight," the novel reads.

I used to teach this book; some of my richest classroom days with students involved wrestling with Gatsby and why he does what he does. It is the great American novel, the one that best depicts the good and bad side of that long-ago encouragement: the pursuit of happiness.

So don't take this next part the wrong way. It's not a guilt trip, or the keystrokes of a panicked alarmist.

On Thursday, the day before "Gatsby" hit the big screens, some scientists in Hawaii made a grim discovery.

For the first time in human history, the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere came ever so close to the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million.

"The last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago," Damian Carrington writes in "The Guardian."

It's just one day's average, and with summer coming, the thirsty green foliage will sure suck up some of that carbon dioxide. So while we will dip back below 400 ppm in the short run, the overall global curve on carbon emissions -- called the Keeling Curve -- continues to climb higher and higher.

Looking at charts that demonstrate this is like standing in St. Elmo at the foot of the Incline and looking up. In other words, steep.

Before we started burning oil, emissions were around 275 ppm. Then came interstates, suburbs, Chinese factories and tomatoes in winter.

While carbon emissions have dropped in the last several years in America, they continue to skyrocket globally. Without significant and immediate change on a national and global level, a very large reckoning is coming our way.

"We can't rule out ... the collapse of human society as we've known it," the heroic, relentless Bill McKibben wrote in "Mother Jones."

What a strange sentence. The collapse of human society. How do we even think about that?

(McKibben. What a buzz kill. Nobody ever invites him to parties anymore.)

Speaking of parties, Gatsby one night threw a party so huge, people came from miles around. Picture the biggest bash you've ever seen, then quintuple it.

But in the end, it was a bust. Everybody was either passed out or fighting, crashing cars or hung over.

This is the answer to 400 ppm. Those Gatsbian parties teach us that sooner or later, the disco ball stops spinning, and we find out that really what we're after -- our true love, our true happiness -- can't be bought, drunk or swallowed.

Our work now is to figure that out. Now.

Gatsby never did.