Issue Date: March 25, 2013
Al Gore’s Crystal Ball
A lot of people are tired of Al Gore. He’s a know-it-all. He can be preachy. Even if he never claimed to have invented the Internet, you can somehow imagine that he might have made that claim.
Which is unfortunate, because Gore is a thoughtful, well-informed commentator on the current state of the world. In his ambitious new book, “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change,” Gore demonstrates all of his prodigious talents and knowledge as well as the traits that exasperate even his admirers. That said, “The Future” has far more to recommend it than to detract from it.
“The Future” has been percolating in Gore’s mind for eight years, he writes in the introduction to the book, prompted by a simple question—What are the drivers of global change?—someone asked him after he had given a talk. The question became an obsession, and two years ago, he concluded “that it would not leave me alone until I dug in and tried to thoroughly answer” it.
“What emerged was this book,” Gore writes, “a book about the six most important drivers of global change, how they are converging and interacting with one another, where they are taking us, and how we as human beings—and as a global civilization—can best affect the way these changes unfold.”
This leads to the straightforward structure of “The Future,” which consists of an introduction, six long chapters devoted to the six megatrends Gore perceives as shaping humanity’s future, and a relatively brief conclusion that ties it all together. The future isn’t simple, needless to say, and the six drivers Gore discusses in the book have interesting historical origins, multiple manifestations, and complex interactions with each other, all of which makes for a lively intellectual romp.
The following are the six drivers of change Gore focuses on in this book:
◾ The emergence of a deeply interconnected global economy, which Gore labels “Earth Inc.”
◾ The emergence of a worldwide electronic communications grid that links billions of people to each other and enormous volumes of data, a phenomenon Gore labels “The Global Mind.”
◾ A significant shift in the balance of power in the world from the West to the East and a concurrent shift in power in the U.S. from the public to corporations and economic elites.
◾ Rapid, unsustainable growth in population, cities, resource consumption, pollution, and economic output.
◾ Powerful new technologies that are fundamentally changing humanity’s ability to manipulate matter and life itself.
◾ A radically new relationship between humans and Earth’s ecological systems, in particular humans’ impact on Earth’s climate.
Gore digs into each of these topics with gusto. He is an indefatigable researcher, and his latest work brims with facts, factoids, quotes, and expert opinion to support his thesis that these six drivers of change are, in fact, the most important forces shaping our future. In some cases, one is tempted to respond to Gore’s enthusiasm for a technology or concern over a trend with an exasperated, “Oh, give me a break!”
However, in the week that I was reading “The Future,” a number of the technologies and trends Gore highlights in the book turned up on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. For example, Gore goes on at some length in chapter one about the potential of three-dimensional printing and concludes with the factoid, “Some advocates of more widespread gun ownership are promoting the 3D printing of guns as a way to circumvent regulations on gun sales.” Really? I thought to myself. On the front page of the next day’s Washington Post was an article entitled “Parts made by 3D printers may stymie gun-control efforts.” Gore is very much on top of technology trends.
Gore ranges widely in “The Future,” delving into history, economics, sociology, and broad swaths of science and technology to advance his argument that “there is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience. … Nor have we ever experienced so many revolutionary changes unfolding simultaneously and converging with one another.”
Gore is adept at pulling diverse threads of information together to make a point and often surprises the reader with an apt and compelling quotation. In discussing the Internet, for example, he observes that many people use it “as an extension of our brains. This is not a metaphor; the studies indicate that is a literal reallocation of mental energy.” To illustrate the fact that technology has long influenced the way humans think, Gore turns to an ancient source. He writes: “In Plato’s dialogues, when the Egyptian god Theuth tells one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus, that the new communications technology of the age—writing—would allow people to remember much more than previously, the king disagreed, saying, ‘It will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.’ ”
Sometimes, however, the accumulation of data threatens to overwhelm the reader. The chapter on the unsustainability of exponential growth begins promisingly. Gore argues, convincingly I think, that the primary measure of economic growth—gross domestic product—“is based on absurd calculations that completely exclude any consideration of the distribution of income, the relentless depletion of essential resources, and the spewing of prodigious quantities of harmful waste into atmosphere, oceans, rivers, soil, and biosphere.” The chapter, though, ends up all over the map, touching on resource depletion, population, immigration, refugees, groundwater and topsoil, phosphorus, dust storms, oceans, and more. Yes, you are convinced by the end of the chapter that humans are out of control, but you also feel bludgeoned with an unnecessary avalanche of data.
“The Future” has much in it to interest a wide range of readers. However, conservatives of a certain stripe won’t like it at all. If you don’t think humans are having a significant impact on Earth’s climate, you’re not going to buy into Gore’s long chapter on the subject that maintains that humans are treating Earth’s atmosphere as if it were “an open sewer” and that the behavior of professional climate-change deniers borders on the criminal. And if you believe that Democrats are as responsible as Republicans for the paralysis and dysfunction of government today, you are not going to be open to Gore’s insistence that “the extreme conservative ideology” that dominates the Republican Party exists to thwart reform and maintain the status quo for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.
One of the sections I found most intriguing was Gore’s examination of the history of corporate influence in U.S. politics. He harks back to the 1886 Supreme Court decision that, in a backhanded sort of way, granted corporations “personhood.” He briefly discusses the Progressive movement of the early-20th century and then focuses on a deeply paranoid 1971 memo from Lewis Powell (soon to be a member of the Supreme Court) to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that argued that capitalism was under assault and presented “a comprehensive plan for a sustained and massively funded long-term effort to change the nature of the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and the judiciary in order to tilt the balance in favor of corporate interests.” Powell wrote decisions while on the Court that created the concept of “corporate speech,” Gore notes, observing, “While it is true that corporations are made up of individuals, the absurdity of the legal theory that corporations are ‘persons’—as defined in the Constitution—is evident from a comparison between the essential nature and motives of corporations compared to those of flesh-and-blood human beings.”
Gore is a competent writer, and most of “The Future” is a pleasure to read. The book would have benefited from judicious trimming in places where Gore’s enthusiasm for his subject overwhelms the reader. And here and there throughout “The Future” are sentences that leave you saying, “Huh?” For example: “Indeed, the new field known as computational science has now been recognized as a third basic form of knowledge creation—alongside inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning—and combines elements of the first two by simulating an artificial reality that functions as a much more concrete form of hypothesis and allows detailed experimentation to examine the new materials’ properties and analyze how they can interact with other molecules and materials.”
Critics will argue that Gore is espousing “socialism” in many of his prescriptions for a brighter future, but that’s hardly the case. He is calling for the “reform” of capitalism, not its abandonment. “The priority for those who agree that it is crucial to restore the usefulness of capitalism as a tool for reclaiming control of our destiny should be to insist upon full, complete, and accurate measurements of value,” he writes. “So-called externalities that are currently ignored in standard business accounting must be fully integrated into market calculations.” In fact, externalities such as our current neglect of the cost of the pollution associated with burning fossil fuels distort capitalism and lead to inappropriate and inefficient use of resources.
Gore maintains throughout “The Future” that he is at heart an optimist and that many of the dire trends he catalogs so thoroughly can be mitigated and managed successfully. In many ways, however, the future Gore limns is bleak and the political paralysis he decries unlikely to change anytime soon. Nevertheless, he writes in the book’s conclusion, “The outcome of the struggle to shape humanity’s future that is now beginning will be determined by a contest between the Global Mind and Earth Inc. In a million theaters of battle, the reform of rules and incentives in markets, political systems, institutions, and societies will proceed or fail depending upon how quickly individuals and groups committed to a sustainable future gain sufficient strength, skill, and resolve by connecting with one another to express and achieve their hopes and dreams for a better world.”
I hope Gore is right. I’m not sure he convinced me, however.
Rudy Baum is C&EN editor-at-large.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society