Wake Up!

In The Future, Al Gore warns readers of cliffs far more precarious than fiscal ones

by Paul V. Griffith

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change
By Al Gore
Random House
592 pages
$30

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by former Vice President and Tennessee native Al Gore condemns the corrupting influence of moneyed elites and warns of the destructive power of “emergent phenomena.” Building on Gore’s bestsellers, An Inconvenient Truth and The Assault on Reason, The Future expands on issues of climate change and irrational government and describes a vision of forthcoming events that’s chilling yet––possibly––hopeful. Gore points to six interrelated “emergent changes” already transforming the planet with unprecedented speed. Unlike linear, gradual transformations, emergent changes erupt into consciousness once they reach critical mass. Such changes have enormous potential, he says, but without proper preparation they also have the power to destroy.

Gore devotes a chapter to each emergent change. The first, “Earth Inc.,” refers to the decline of the nation-state and the advent of a global economy in which long-held fiscal expectations no longer apply. Outsourcing and robosourcing are two manifestations of this new hyper-connected, technology-driven reality. The second chapter, “Global Mind,” describes the rapid expansion of computer power and the Internet. Like the invention of the printing press, this extreme connectivity can help educate, cure disease, and reinforce democracy, but it can also support authoritarianism and destroy privacy. In the remaining chapters, Gore addresses the shift of global power from West to East, unsustainable depletion of natural resources, scientific advances in medicine, and the disastrous potential of climate change.

Neither idealistic nor cynical, The Future argues that human nature is both hard-wired and malleable. We have choices, even if they aren’t apparent to us. Despite natural tendencies toward stasis, reductionism, tribal politics, and selfishness, Gore says, we “can and do change readily in response to the incentives we establish as a basis for civilization.” Because we’re so connected and so numerous, the upheavals of twenty-first-century life––computer viruses, superstorms, droughts, overcrowding, regional instability, etc.––are increasingly the result of human choice. A sustainable future depends on the networking ability of individuals and groups committed to the cause of counteracting the influence of corporate profit-makers.

In Gore’s view, democracy and capitalism have been hacked by special interests which corrupt both the democratic process and journalistic rigor. The result is gridlock, or “scoliosis” as Gore calls it: “When elected officials are under constant systemic stress to focus intently on short-term horizons, the future gets short shrift.” Accordingly, he says, lightning-rod words like “climate” aren’t even mentioned in the halls of Congress, let alone discussed in a reasonable and scientific manner.

Gore holds that capitalism, too, must be reformed. The expensive cleanup after Superstorm Sandy is but one example of how environmental shortsightedness comes at great cost to both government and the private sector. It doesn’t help, he says, that we’re experiencing these hyper-changes during a global vacuum of leadership, thanks to a growing lack of confidence in American decision-making. “The previous prominence of reason-based decision making in the U.S. democratic system was its greatest source of strength,” Gore says. “The ability of the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s people, to lead the world for as long as it has is due in no small measure to the creativity, boldness, and effectiveness of its decision making in the past.”

In addition to recommending the reform of government and industry and a broadening of dialog on the Internet, The Future lays out some specific reforms. The first is a carbon tax. By incentivizing the reduction of greenhouse gasses, either by taxing or by cap-and-trade emissions trading, we can begin to rein in the pollution that all reasonable scientists agree is a leading contributor to climate change. Second, the concept of Gross Domestic Product must be reevaluated. “Capitalism requires acceptance of inequality,” says Gore, “but ‘hyper’ levels of inequality—such as those now being produced—are destructive to both capitalism and democracy.”

Gore also calls for the stabilization of population growth, a goal which depends on making the education and empowerment of women a priority. Additional recommendations include the construction of low-carbon, low-energy buildings in urban areas; the redesign of health strategies to account for an aging population; the development of safeguards against dangerous alterations to the human gene pool; and the halting of antibiotic use as a growth stimulant for livestock.

Throughout The Future, Gore maintains a scholarly tone. He also readily admits his own past mistakes—an earlier advocacy of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to help phase out coal consumption, he now recognizes, was an error—and occasionally sides with unlikely allies (George H. W. Bush) and rejects the opinions of likely ones (Malcolm Gladwell).

For Gore, the key to a healthy future is sustainability––a word ecologists use to describe the diversity and efficiency of biological systems, including our own. The enemy is an increasingly short attention span, which makes long-range planning of the sort recommended by The Future seem almost incomprehensible. Gore is hopeful, but that hope is tempered by a concern for human nature that’s clearly the result of a career in politics. “Indeed, I am an optimist,” he says, “though my optimism is predicated on the hope that we will find ways to see and think clearly about the obvious trends that are even now gaining momentum, that we will reason together and attend to the dangerous distortions in our present ways of describing and measuring the powerful changes that are now under way, that we will actively choose to preserve human values and protect them, not least against the mechanistic and destructive consequences of our baser instincts....” For Al Gore, that’s a call to action.

Published Monday, 28 January 2013