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Al Gore's Grim Prophecy

In his new book, the former vice president has a message about the future: If we don't wise up fast, we won't have one

February 28, 2013
al gore grim prophecy
Al Gore
Illustration by Tim O'Brien

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.

What Obama Must Do Now For the Environment

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.

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