Al Gore's Grim Prophecy

Al Gore has grown since the last time you saw him. His chest is bigger, his bank account is bigger, his vision is bigger. When he walked into the conference room in his LEED-certified offices in Nashville on a recent afternoon, he was dressed in a Beltway uniform of dark suit and conservative striped tie, and his hair was noticeably grayer than I remembered, but the inner Al seemed playful and loose and expansive. I mentioned that I’d just returned from a trip to Jordan, and he quipped, “Did you stop in and see the king? How is he?” Then he went into a quick history lesson about how the disruption of the trade routes through Jordan in the second century A.D. eventually led to Arab nations missing the scientific revolution and – fast-forward a few centuries – to the whole quagmire in the Middle East. It was a classic Gore riff, covering 2,000 years of history and technology and politics in 30 seconds.

Since abandoning politics after the 2000 election, Gore, who turns 65 on March 31st, has been on a tear: He won an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize, earned an estimated $300 million with shrewd investments and wrote serious, weighty books – the latest of which hits the shelves this month, and is titled simply The Future, as if it were written by God himself.

The Future is a big, long, absorbing, sometimes brilliant, sometimes tedious book, and one that will surely raise questions about whether Gore is an arrogant technocrat or a mad visionary who has glimpsed over the horizon at the troubles to come. Subtitled “The Six Drivers of Global Change,” the book is, on one level, a compilation of shit that will scare and amaze you – human jaws manufactured out of titanium dust by 3D printers, telepathy helmets that will allow soldiers to communicate on the battlefield, genetically altered goats that will produce spider silk.

Gore argues that we are in the midst of a revolution that is changing our economy, our politics and who we are as human beings. But he warns that if we don’t get smart about what’s happening in the world around us, civilization will soon be swamped by rising seas and castrated by greedy corporations. “There is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience,” Gore writes. “We have gone through revolutionary periods of change before, but none as powerful or as pregnant with the fraternal twins – peril and opportunity – as the ones that are beginning to unfold.”

Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, once said, “Prediction is always difficult, especially about the future.” Why did you decide to write a book about the future?

I’ve always been fascinated by the efforts people have made to look over the horizon. But the ferment, the dynamism and momentum in the sciences and in technology are now so far beyond what we were used to dealing with in the past, it seems to me that the promise of America – and the broader promise that America offers to the world – can only be redeemed if we find better ways to understand the forces shaping our future so that we do not simply surrender to the deterministic outcomes that these forces will otherwise impose upon us.

In the early 2000s, I was making a speech in Switzerland, and I was asked, “What are the drivers of global change?” Well, any of us could just do a quick scan and move on. But the question kept nagging at me, and on the flight home, I began an effort to answer it more thoroughly. It became something of an obsession, in the sense that I’d read things and fit them into various outlines I was putting together. The process turned out to have very practical value in the real world. My partners and I at an investment firm that I co-founded, Generation Investment Management, used these outlines as one of many inputs in our investment model, and that encouraged me to keep working on it. So I moved all the furniture out of the living room and I put up giant white boards all around the room and started directing a pretty large project that produced 15,000 pages of research.

In the book, you write, “The future will depend on the outcome of the struggle between the raw imperatives of Earth Inc. and the vast potential in the Global Mind.” Explain what that means.

The digital global networks that connect billions of us to one another – and to intelligent devices and machines and databases – give us an opportunity to renew and rekindle our ability to reason together, and imagine a better future, and then work together to create it. But at the same time the sheer momentum of the increasingly interconnected global economy challenges our ability to make choices to moderate its harsher impacts, to reform the distortions that are driving human civilization toward the edge of a cliff. Climate change, the depletion of topsoil and groundwater, what biologists call “the sixth great extinction” – Mother Nature is speaking up, and it’s going to get worse. These are conditions that will make self-government infinitely more difficult, particularly in countries that have a stressed resource base and fast-growing populations.

I presume this is what you mean when you write in the book, “Democracy has been hacked.”

Yes. It has been captured and distorted and no longer operates as it was intended by our founders. It more often serves the interests of those who have found a way to take control of its operating system. It’s not as if there was a pure golden age of democratic innocence and then all of a sudden it became functionally corrupt and distorted. From the earliest days, wealth and power always struggled against the efforts of those who want to institute reforms. In the past, periods of excess were soon followed by periods of reform and cleansing and a reassertion of the essential purposes of American democracy. The progressive era was one such period of reform, as was the New Deal. But as a consequence of our historic transition from being a republic of letters to a republic of television, there has been a solidifying of corporate and special-interest influence.

Our information ecosystem is predominantly a one-way flow from the TV screen to people sitting back and absorbing it. It does not give them a way of participating in collaborative decision-making or to take part in the conversation of democracy. And instead of having very low entry barriers, all of a sudden there were enormous entry barriers for those who wished to speak in this new medium.

That inevitably distorted the world of politics. Television ads cost a lot of money, and the amount goes up every election cycle. When politicians are examining a question for a decision, they may keep a weather eye open for the danger of some public outrage breaking out, but they don’t worry about it too much. What they do worry about is, “What is the impact going to be on the telephone calls I make this afternoon to rich and powerful people asking them for money?”

Can you give me an example?

There are, unfortunately, tens of thousands of examples. The Guardian has a story this morning about how the emergence of more antibiotic-resistant bugs poses, in the study’s phrase, “an apocalyptic threat.” Nothing new about that – it’s been emerging for a while. So you’re a member of Congress, and you have a judgment to make: 80 percent of the antibiotics we use are put in animal feed, not for any therapeutic purpose, but because antibiotics help animals put on weight faster and the profits for the factory farms go up a little bit. OK, what’s on the other side? Well, it leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bugs that originated in humans and were vulnerable to antibiotics jump to pigs, where they get this constant daily dose of antibiotics, develop a resistance and jump back to people. It happens all the time.

So we have this precious arsenal of antibiotics, and we are throwing it away in order to satisfy the demand for slightly larger profit margins for the factory farmers. Is that a rational decision by an elected representative sworn to serve the public interest? No, of course not.

In the climate realm, there are lots of examples where they’ll stand up on the floor of the Senate or the House and read a speech essentially written by coal-industry lobbyists attacking the integrity of the scientific community and saying it’s all a big hoax.

You mentioned “the republic of television.” Eight years ago, you started a network, Current TV. What did you learn by that experiment about the influence and economics of the business?

I learned a lot. Number one, user-generated content is difficult to find in both the quality and quantity. So the bet that my partner Joel Hyatt and I made, that we could catalyze the emergence of high-quality, viewer-created content in sufficient volumes of sufficient quality to make for compelling programming, turned out to be a little bit ahead of the curve. The second big learning experience was that independent networks have enormous disadvantages in this media environment. We knew that, but the size of the disadvantages is really quite significant. For example, if you’re trying to reach those who are tuned to other channels, you have to pay a lot of money. Every other news and information network on television was part of a conglomerate. Parts of conglomerates can get free advertising across the dial. But we had to pay premium dollar for every ad that we put out there that wasn’t on our own network.

You’ve been heavily criticized for selling Current TV for $500 million to Al Jazeera, which is owned by the oil-rich nation of Qatar. After decades of talking about the climate crisis, this looks like you’ve put personal profit above all else.

I understand that criticism. Of course I disagree with it, because Al Jazeera has long since established itself as a journalistic organization worthy of respect. They have won awards all over the world and have developed a reputation for journalistic integrity. Their climate reporting, for example, has been extremely good. I think that their addition to the U.S. media landscape will be a big net plus.

Let’s talk about climate. When does the public wake up to the extent of the problem?

Maybe if New York City flooded two years in a row, or maybe if we lost a major chunk of New Orleans, maybe if 60 percent of the country was in a severe drought ‐ you can go down the list – and maybe if we had $110 billion in climate-related-disaster impact in a single year, maybe if the Arctic ice cap disappeared… . . . .

The problem has continued to get worse at an accelerated rate, even as we are still cogitating collectively about whether we put a priority on humanity’s future, and if so, whether we have the gumption and resolve to do something to safeguard it. My innate optimism comes from my conviction that we as human beings do have that capacity.

I see many signs of great progress. The percentages of people who recognize and accept the gravity of the problem get larger. Many businesses are making significant changes and adopting a commitment to sustainability, finding they can save money by reducing energy use and waste flows and the like. We know what the solutions are. We know that the tools we can use are getting more effective and more cost-effective year by year.

In 2010, for the first time in world history, investments in renewables exceeded investments in carbon-based energy. Now, that flipped again last year, because of the shale-gas revolution, but the inexorable rise of solar and wind and related technologies is going to make a very profound difference. Nations that don’t have pre-existing electrical grids find renewables more attractive in the same way that cellphones took of in developing countries. Australia, the second-largest coal exporter in the world, is holding a steady course toward taxing carbon and trading carbon permits, and now they’ve linked up with Europe. California started a carbon-trading program, and they’re linking up with British Columbia, Quebec, some other U.S. states. China has launched a pilot program in two provinces that’s intended to be a pilot for a nationwide carbon-trading system in 2015.

China is the big question – how it’s going to change, when it will change.

China is the largest producer of coal, and the largest importer. It’s unbelievable. It can’t continue, and they know it. Li Keqiang, the new prime minister, has been involved with environmental policy, and I think he’s pretty good – he may be a pleasant surprise. If they follow through on carbon trading, then we could see a new center of gravity for a way of using markets to drive the cost of carbon-based energy rationally higher and increase the adoption of renewables.

So I have felt, for a long time, that this is a big wheel turning slowly, but it’s turning toward a point where a clear majority will be able to express its will in saying, “We will save the future, we know what needs to be done, and we’re going to get on with it.”

There’s a big march in Washington in February about the Keystone Pipeline. Are you supportive of more civil action?

Yeah, yeah, and I have been for a long time. The tar sands represent an important decision point for the president and for the State Department, for the administration as a whole. I think Bill McKibben [climate activist and regular RS contributor] has done a terrific job on that issue. He’s a real leader.

Your book is about the future, but let’s talk about the past for a moment. How do you think now about the 2000 election?

Well, I’ve moved on long since, and I don’t know what else to say about it, so much has been written about it.

Do you think about it as something in the distant past?

I think about it occurring maybe a little over a dozen years ago [laughs].

Putting aside your own feelings, do you think the decision by the Supreme Court stained our judiciary system?

Well, when I said earlier that I’ve moved on, there are a lot of reasons for moving on. I look toward the future – that sounds like a cliché, but it happens to be true. But there’s a second reason I haven’t made the kind of statements that your question is designed to elicit.

I just felt that the rule of law and the importance of respecting the rule of law gave me an obligation to conduct myself in ways that would honor the U.S. Constitution. It may sound highfalutin, but that’s what I felt then, and it’s what I feel now. You know, there’s no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution laughs. Had there been, then maybe….

What was the lesson that was most clearly taught to you by the defeat in 2000?

It’s not the first or the worst adversity that I’ve faced in my life, so I’ll lump them all together and say that it teaches you the importance of perspective, and the importance of setting clear priorities, not letting the urgent displace the important, and thinking holistically about what you want to accomplish in your life, how you can serve, what good you can do, how you want to live your life.

When I was reading your book, I felt an unspoken sense of America in decline, and a certain wistfulness about it.

Well, you know, I went out of my way to specifically disclaim that view, saying that it is premature for anyone to reach that conclusion. I do believe that. I believe that America’s in trouble, but we’ve been in trouble before, and we’ve come out of it. In this case, the degradation of our democratic decision-making process is reaching a low point just at the time when we desperately need it to function well, both for ourselves and the world as a whole – there is still no alternative to U.S. leadership that I can see. There may be one that emerges, but I don’t see it. So if you pick up a deep concern in the book, that’s really the basis of it. I think the United States is still an avatar for humanity.

And the mother of all leadership challenges is climate. You wrote, “We can either make the solution to the climate crisis the central organizing principle of global civilization, or the hostile conditions we are creating will destroy us.” Can you conceive of a civilization destroying itself?

Well, I don’t think it’s going to happen. [Author and scientist] Jared Diamond tells us it has happened in the past – the Mayans, Easter Island, for instance, which were destroyed by environmental factors that they did not think through. The difference today is that this struggle now takes place on a global basis, whereas those civilizations succumbed to local or regional threats. We have to find a way to catalyze the emergence of a decision-making protocol that allows the world as a whole to take into account the fact that we’re destroying the climate balance, that we’re threatening human welfare, we’re depleting our topsoil and fresh water, and we’re toying with the genetic future of humanity. We have to find a way to chart a safer course.

It is difficult for us to conceive of geologic time and evolutionary time scales, but in spite of that, we humans have become a geological force, and we have become the principal agent of evolution. We have acquired powers beyond our imagining, and we have not yet catalyzed the emergence of wisdom or the ability to communicate effectively with one another in a way that can enable us to exercise that power with wise restraint. A scientist friend of mine said many years ago, “Ultimately, what is being tested is the proposition of whether or not the combination of an opposable thumb and a neocortex is a viable combination on this planet.”