In his new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, former Vice President and Tennessee native Al Gore condemns the corrupting influence of moneyed elites and warns of the destructive power of "emergent phenomena." Building on Gore's best-sellers An Inconvenient Truth and The Assault on Reason, The Future expands on issues of climate change and irrational government and describes a vision of forthcoming events that's chilling yet (possibly) hopeful. Gore points to six interrelated "emergent changes" already transforming the planet with unprecedented speed. Unlike linear, gradual transformations, emergent changes erupt into consciousness once they reach critical mass. Such changes have enormous potential, he says, but without proper preparation they also have the power to destroy.
Gore devotes a chapter to each emergent change. The first, "Earth Inc.," refers to the decline of the nation-state and the advent of a global economy in which long-held fiscal expectations no longer apply. Outsourcing and robosourcing are two manifestations of this new hyperconnected, technology-driven reality. The second chapter, "Global Mind," describes the rapid expansion of computer power and the Internet. Like the invention of the printing press, this extreme connectivity can help educate, cure disease and reinforce democracy, but it can also support authoritarianism and destroy privacy. In the remaining chapters, Gore addresses the shift of global power from West to East, unsustainable depletion of natural resources, scientific advances in medicine, and the disastrous potential of climate change.
Neither idealistic nor cynical, The Future argues that human nature is both hard-wired and malleable. We have choices, Gore insists, even if they aren't apparent to us. Despite natural tendencies toward stasis, reductionism, tribal politics and selfishness, he writes, we "can and do change readily in response to the incentives we establish as a basis for civilization." Because we're so connected and so numerous, the upheavals of 21st century life — computer viruses, superstorms, droughts, overcrowding, regional instability, etc. — are increasingly the result of human choice. A sustainable future depends on the networking ability of individuals and groups committed to the cause of counteracting the influence of corporate profit-makers.
In Gore's view, democracy and capitalism have been hacked by special interests that corrupt both the democratic process and journalistic rigor. The result is gridlock, or "scoliosis" as Gore calls it: "When elected officials are under constant systemic stress to focus intently on short-term horizons, the future gets short shrift." Accordingly, he says, lightning-rod words like "climate" aren't even mentioned in the halls of Congress, let alone discussed in a reasonable and scientific manner.
Fixing a broken system requires communication. Without vibrant and open discussion, Gore argues, the human race is heading for several cliffs every bit as precarious as the fiscal one most recently in the news. Such a conversation will not happen on television, which also owes its existence to corporate sponsors: the ExxonMobil brand is as visible on PBS as it is on Fox News. Instead, it will almost certainly happen via the Internet, though current bandwidth and limited availability are admittedly a hindrance.
Gore holds that capitalism too must be reformed. The expensive cleanup after Superstorm Sandy is but one example of how environmental shortsightedness comes at great cost to both government and the private sector. It doesn't help, he says, that we're experiencing these hyperchanges during a global vacuum of leadership, thanks to a growing lack of confidence in American decision-making.
"The previous prominence of reason-based decision making in the U.S. democratic system was its greatest source of strength," Gore writes. "The ability of the United States, with only 5 percent of the world's people, to lead the world for as long as it has is due in no small measure to the creativity, boldness, and effectiveness of its decision making in the past."
In addition to recommending the reform of government and industry and a broadening of dialogue on the Internet, The Future lays out some specific reforms. The first is a carbon tax. By creating incentives for the reduction of greenhouse gases, either by taxing or by cap-and-trade emissions trading, we can begin to rein in the pollution that all reasonable scientists agree is a leading contributor to climate change. Second, the concept of Gross Domestic Product must be re-evaluated. "Capitalism requires acceptance of inequality," Gore writes, "but 'hyper' levels of inequality — such as those now being produced — are destructive to both capitalism and democracy."
Gore also calls for the stabilization of population growth, a goal that depends on making the education and empowerment of women a priority. Additional recommendations include the construction of low-carbon, low-energy buildings in urban areas; the redesign of health strategies to account for an aging population: and the development of safeguards against dangerous alterations to the human gene pool.
Throughout The Future, Gore maintains a scholarly tone. He readily admits his own past mistakes, and occasionally sides with unlikely allies (George H.W. Bush) while rejecting the opinions of likely ones (Malcolm Gladwell).
For Gore, the key to a healthy future is sustainability. The enemy is an increasingly short attention span, which makes long-range planning of the sort recommended by The Future seem almost incomprehensible. Gore remains hopeful, but that hope is tempered by a concern for human nature that's clearly the result of a career in politics.
"Indeed, I am an optimist," Gore writes, "though my optimism is predicated on the hope that we will find ways to see and think clearly about the obvious trends that are even now gaining momentum, that we will reason together and attend to the dangerous distortions in our present ways of describing and measuring the powerful changes that are now under way, that we will actively choose to preserve human values and protect them, not least against the mechanistic and destructive consequences of our baser instincts. ... "
For Al Gore, that's a call to action.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee. Click here for more information about Gore's appearance 2 p.m. Saturday at Belmont's McAfee Concert Hall with Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power author Jon Meacham.