Gore faces ‘The Future’ with unease and optimism

Al Gore declares early in his dense new book The Future — which describes a world facing massive upheavals in biology, global markets, digital networks and the environment — that he’s probably done with politics.

“I am a recovering politician and the chances of a relapse have been diminishing for long enough to increase my confidence that I will not succumb to that temptation again,” the former vice president and, per the Supreme Court, losing presidential candidate declares.

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Just as well, because what’s on Gore’s mind these days wouldn’t boil down well into 30-second ads for TV, a medium he derides throughout his tome as a democracy-sapping corporate-propaganda vessel.

Instead the new book, subtitled Six Drivers of Global Change, is an ambitious, if sometimes meandering, report about a planet on the brink of unprecedented change, and not simply because of global warming, Gore’s signature obsession.

“There is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience. 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,” Gore writes.

He breaks the changes down into a half-dozen big, overlapping categories, and warns that they’re unfolding in a “dangerous vacuum of global leadership.”

Gore, sounding mostly hopeful notes, delves into the exponential growth of digital communications and computing power that’s creating a “Global Mind.” 

It’s a digital revolution, he argues, that’s ripe with potential for aiding reform and democratic movements, yet also vulnerable to crackdown in authoritarian states. And it’s fraught with perils like cybersecurity attacks against governments and businesses.

Elsewhere, the book finds Gore even more wary about the reordering of the global economy into “Earth, Inc.,” the new transnational order marked by “robo-sourcing,” massive warp-speed trading and capital flows, growing inequality and much more. 

Gore also goes on a spin through the revolutions in neuroscience, biotech and other life sciences that are reordering medicine and food production. 

They are creating new possibilities, like 3D printing of pharmaceuticals and other new weapons against disease — but also opening new avenues for using disease as a weapon.

Indeed, promising breakthroughs in genetics are raising tough ethical questions (designer babies, anyone?) as people and corporations “seize active control over evolution” without, Gore argues, enough guideposts. Other chapters unwrap big shifts in geopolitics, resource use and depletion, and dangerous climate change. 

The book is dense and dry at times, and the focus is so big that its coherence sometimes wanes. But The Future can be quite lively, too. 

At its best, the book finds the polymath Gore deftly weaving reporting and analysis from the frontiers of science, commerce and ecological upheaval.

It’s a tour that includes, for instance, goats engineered to produce useful spiders’ silk (“the spiders themselves cannot be farmed because of their antisocial, cannibalistic nature”) and a visit to the boundaries of neuroscience, such as Pentagon development of prototype “telepathy helmets.”

Warnings of dangerous resource depletion and climate change find Gore on familiar terrain, but also delving into related phenomena, including what one activist calls the “new colonialism” of outside governments and multinational companies buying massive swaths of African land.

Gore also explores interplay between the changes he describes.

“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 succeed or fail depending on 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,” he writes.

Gore professes optimism about the future, but he’s clearly troubled, too. 

Beyond the downsides of the changes he describes — like the vast income inequality accompanying Earth, Inc. — Gore argues that the planet is rudderless in the face of sweeping change. 

“Democracy and capitalism have both been hacked,” he writes. 

The Future is heavy on what has become a persistent theme for Gore: what he argues is a usurpation and paralysis of U.S. policymaking by corporate and wealthy interests.

“This crippling of democracy comes at a time of sweeping and tumultuous change in the world system, when the need for U.S. advocacy of democratic principles and human values has never been greater,” Gore writes.

Gore briefly delivers an array of policy prescriptions. 

Some of them are large, like creating ways to measure the success of the economy beyond GDP, which fails to properly consider effects on resources. Others are more targeted, such as halting the use of antibiotics as a livestock stimulant.

Gore has long attracted vitriol from the right, and The Future will surely be an occasion for more attacks — including some that he has invited himself.

Gore’s criticism of television and the power of wealthy elites arrives as he’s slated to clear an estimated $100 million from the sale of his Current TV network to Al Jazeera, a network funded by the government of the petroleum-rich state of Qatar. (Gore calls the network “feisty and relatively independent.”)

But it would be a shame if The Future were dismissed as another chapter in familiar political battles. 

Love him or hate him, the former vice president is obviously right when he says that sweeping changes are coming. Gore’s dissection of them isn’t always an easy read, but it’s well worth the effort.


ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change

By Al Gore

Random House, January 2013

592 pages, $30