From Chads to Riches

The flat-screen in Al Gore’s conference room, some other guy is taking the presidential oath of office, but Gore doesn’t pause to watch as he glides past, a regal Southern gentleman headed down the hallway toward his office. That dream is in the past, a dozen years and 538 hanging Florida chads ago. A Nobel Prize, vast wealth and the end of a marriage ago. Air Force One would have been nice, but Gore makes do with his “redneck yacht,” as he calls the solar- and ­biodiesel-­powered houseboat he keeps on Center Hill Lake in Middle Tennessee, where he entertains his buddies over cold cans of PBR.

A few weeks shy of his 65th birthday, the grandfather of three, Gore is free of the past and all about the future. More specifically, he’s all about The Future, his latest book, 374 pages (not counting 144 pages of endnotes) of unfiltered Gore in all his wonky glory. A dizzying and often harrowing attempt to sum up six key ­realities—he calls them drivers—that will shape the years ahead, the book touches every base: robots, deep-sea phosphorus, financial derivatives, even urine recycling and goats modified to secrete spider-silk proteins from their udders. Years in the making, The ­Future ranges from gene-splicing to topsoil depletion to climate change (of course) as it crashes through forests of statistics and anecdotes on a quest to save the planet. Few people would presume to tackle such a sweeping project, but modesty doesn’t get you to the top of the American heap (“almost” the top, Gore quietly demurs).

Gore’s fans will love it, and his critics will likely have a field day, simply because this book is so distinctly his. Who else’s mind leaps from the problem of Internet privacy to a discussion of the “secret writing” to which Herodotus credited the partial Greek victory at Thermopylae? And from there to smart thermostats and onward to the Swiss dairy farmers who attach monitors to the genitals of their cows so they can track hormone changes on their smart phones? And speaking of smart phones: “The number of mobile-only ­Internet users is expected to increase 56-fold over the next five years,” Gore reports in a typical burst of numerical static, while “information flow over smart phones is expected to increase 47-fold over the same period.” Time and talent have filled the aquiline noggin of the former Representative, Senator and two-term Vice President with more threads than he can unspool. In the classroom of life, he’ll always be the kid whose hand is up.

But at the same time, The Future offers a glimpse of the unpredictable and searching mind that has made the post-political Gore a go-to guy for the giants of Silicon Valley. Many high-ranking public officials make millions peddling their names and connections, but Gore has something extra, which the business world values at a steep premium. People hire him not just to lobby or give a speech; they enlist him as a partner or install him on their corporate boards. John Doerr pulled Gore into the legendary high-tech venture-­capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in the belief that he could help spot future winners in the green economy. The late Steve Jobs installed him on Apple’s board, encouraged Gore’s regular interventions around company head­quarters in Cupertino, Calif., and compensated him with stock options that Gore recently exercised for nearly $30 million.

That check landed close behind Gore’s estimated $100 million profit on the sale of Current TV to al-Jazeera, a deal in the waning hours of 2012 that sent Gore bashers into orbit. His critics were correct when they charged that Gore was more adept at cajoling cable operators to include Current TV in their lineups than he was at creating watchable programs during almost a decade as one of the channel’s co-owners. Clearly, the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news network paid top dollar for access to those cable systems, which it had failed to obtain on its own. But Gore is hardly the first person to get rich by wheedling a spot on basic cable. Just click your way through that wasteland and you’ll see: every niche audience seems to have been leveraged by someone peddling a ho-hum channel.

Gore is also a co-founder, along with former Goldman Sachs executive David Blood, of Generation Investment Management, a private partnership that pursues what Gore calls sustainable capitalism. His belief is that companies prosper over the long haul if they pay attention to values beyond the quarterly earnings report. Analyzing investments with this in mind, Generation hopes to vindicate that philosophy with strong returns on the more than $3.5 billion that it manages (according to the website Stockpickr). Results at the private firm aren’t publicly disclosed, but analysts say the jury is still out.

Through these and other enterprises, Gore has built his net worth from roughly $2 million in 2000, when he reluctantly entered the private sector, to some $300 million, according to the scorekeepers at Forbes. By their measure, he is now richer than the renowned super­capitalist Mitt Romney.

So Gore has more inside knowledge than the average futurist about both politics and business, the subjects inextricably linked at the heart of The Future. I met him for an interview at his LEED platinum-­certified office in Nashville, a spare layout with concrete floors and touches of paneling made of lumber reclaimed from the bottom of the Tennessee River. Explaining his book, Gore begins with this premise, which seems beyond dispute: “One of the striking characteristics of our time is we have multiple revolutionary, historic changes under way simultaneously.” The rapid development of transnational ­businesses able to move costs and profits easily from country to country, outsourcing and even robosourcing labor—­replacing workers with robots—adds up to an economic revolution, which Gore dubs “Earth Inc.” The still dawning digital age, with its promise and perils, is a revolution in communications and human interaction. Gore calls this “the Global Mind.” A revolution in biology, from genetic engineering to organ farming and even cloning, is nothing less, in Gore’s view, than “the reinvention of life and death.” Meanwhile, climate change demands an energy revolution.

This superstorm of change must be faced under the rising pressure of larger populations, greater competition for clean water and arable land, and shifting bal­ances of power around the world. It’s complex stuff, and Gore grows more animated and passionate the deeper he delves into the tangle. Perched on the edge of his handcrafted Tennessee rocker as if poised to spring to his feet, Gore declares that only the U.S. can lead the world through this upheaval—relying on “the machinery of politics and the mechanisms of the free market.” However, at the very moment when we need better, faster decision ­making, he continues, we find ourselves saddled instead with unresponsive government dominated by moneyed special interests. And a free market distorted by its obsession with short-term results.

Those who know Gore would say his head has always buzzed with tornadic visions of the future. But this particular project began with a question tossed his way at a conference in Switzerland eight years ago: What are the key drivers of global change? Gore tap-danced through a reply, but the question nagged on the flight home, and he began making notes on his laptop. In the weeks that followed, the question persisted, and a rough outline emerged. “It became something of an obsession,” he tells me, adding a bit mysteriously, “The list wanted to fill itself out—that may sound odd.”

When this man completes an outline, he really completes an outline. Gore decided two years ago to turn his project into a book and promptly removed the living-room furniture from his mansion in Nashville’s Belle Meade section, filling the empty space with erasable whiteboards. His longtime marriage to his wife Tipper had dissolved. (In the book’s acknowledgments, he thanks his new “partner” Elizabeth Keadle, a wealthy scientist in California.) His four children were grown and scattered to both coasts. With only his thoughts to fill his hours, his chapter outlines soon ran riot around the big room. Eventually, where Gore saw well-ordered “mind-maps” of the complex forces shaping the future, others (he had to admit) might see the demented scrawls of the schizophrenic genius in the film A Beautiful Mind.
He allows readers to judge for themselves. Gore’s complicated outlines are reproduced as graphics on the opening pages of each chapter. If you ever wondered how to portray, in printed form, the nexus tying together Adam and Eve, the profit motive and spider-­goats, see pages 202 and 203.

It’s easy to poke fun at these spaghetti-like outlines but more difficult to find answers to the questions they pose. Around the world, humans are finally getting a handle on fatal diseases and breaking the grip of brutal tyrannies—just as we seem to be broiling the planet and gobbling up the last of its resources. Can the future have a happy ending?

Maybe, he says—but we have to work fast. “I think the internal logic of both democracy and capitalism is architecturally the same,” he says. Both are tools for pulling a lot of information together quickly, “the ideas and impulses and aspirations of millions and even billions of individuals.” Both can move even faster now, thanks to technology, and both can gallop toward solutions to our problems, if only we can set them free of hobbling short-term interests. “The invisible hand in the marketplace and the wisdom of crowds in democratic decision making” are two versions of the same powerful instrument, Gore says, and they are the best hope we have to find answers to the problems of the future. “I am by nature an optimist,” he says.

A wispy cloud passed over the sun, and the heat-deflecting window shades adjusted themselves with a clatter. And why shouldn’t he be optimistic? He is a man who not only survived one of the truly excruciating losses in U.S. political history but then picked himself up, staggered forward and soon found himself winning an entirely new race. As our conversation came to an end, Gore seemed content in a way he never did in politics, truly himself. He mastered disaster; he’s his own happy ending.