Since the Academy Award–Winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), former vice president Al Gore has been the planet’s eco-warrior in chief. Now the self-described “recovering politician” has written an ambitious new book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. He spoke with O’s books editor, Leigh Haber, about the power of optimism and why we need to start taking the long view.
Q: One of your “six drivers of global change” zeros in on the education of girls. Why is that so essential?
Al Gore: Population growth is straining the Earth’s resources to the breaking point, and educating girls is the single most important factor in stabilizing that. That, plus helping women gain political and economic power, and safeguarding their reproductive rights.
Q: Also threatening to the Earth are devastating events like Hurricane Sandy. Do you ever think, “I told you so”?
Al Gore: Well, no, certainly not in those words. I take no pleasure in the fact that the scientific predictions I’ve relayed to popular audiences turn out to be true. And much worse will come unless we act very quickly. Sea rise is going to accelerate dramatically, and storms that used to occur once in a hundred or a thousand years will become much more frequent. To prevent even worse consequences, we have to change the way we do things and stop putting 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every 24 hours.
Q: In your new book, you ask if we have a “crisis of confidence” in humanity’s future. Well, what do you think?
Al Gore: There are too many of us who wonder whether civilization is going to make it or not. When people flirt with despair about the future, they are less likely to take the actions necessary to safeguard it, focusing instead on the short-term. Let me use an example from the recent financial crisis. When some of the investment banks were selling those awful subprime mortgages they clearly knew were bad investments, there were e-mails circulating among traders using an acronym I had not heard of before. I was familiar with LOL—"laughing out loud"—and the more exotic LQTM—"laughing quietly to myself"—but not IBGYBG. It means “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” The implication is Why be concerned about the consequences of what we’re doing when we won’t be around by then anyway? Do we have an obligation to those who come after us? Of course we do, but if people begin to feel a sense of hopelessness about the present, it depreciates their commitment to the future.
Q: That sounds pretty grim, yet the book has an uplifting message.
Al Gore: I’m naturally an optimist, but my basis for hope is rooted in my understanding of human nature. From time to time, we all are vulnerable to settling into routines, making short-term choices, focusing on trivialities. Yet when the stakes are high and we know that all the chips are on the table, it is also in our nature to rise to the occasion.
Q: In a crisis, people tend to pull together.
Al Gore: Immediately after Hurricane Sandy, the nation was inspired. We saw New Jersey governor Chris Christie and President Obama put partisanship aside and act in a powerful and unified way. Or take a more personal example—my oldest grandson, whom I’m so proud of. He spent an afternoon in New York City climbing the stairs of dark high-rises, taking meals and water to people who were trapped there. He wouldn’t have done that if the occasion hadn’t been piled high with difficulty. I hear stories like that from all over, and I feel real hope.