The Future, Al Gore (WH Allen £25)
Eight years ago someone asked Al Gore ‘What are the drivers of global change?’ He listed what he calls ‘the usual suspects’ but subsequently decided that the question deserved closer attention than he had given it. The Future is his considered response and at 558 pages including 154 pages of endnotes, nobody can say he hasn’t put in the time.
He identifies six areas that converge and interact with each other and need fresh thinking ‘in order to reclaim control of our destiny and shape the future’. These are the emergence of an interconnected global economy; planet-wide electronic communications; a new balance of political, economic and military power; rapid unsustainable growth; the revolution of life sciences; and global warming.
Each of the six gets a chapter and in the early chapters there is a relative balance of challenges and opportunities. The challenges posed by the rapidly increasing integration of the global economy (or Earth Inc.), for example, include the outsourcing and robosourcing of jobs and a constantly increasing wealth gap. Gore would respond by rethinking the central role of consumption in our economies, promoting a form of sustainable capitalism and redefining what we think of as employment.
The challenge side eventually morphs into a series of actual or potential threats: a west to east power shift, the spread of weapons, extinction of species, waste and pollution, climate refugees, topsoil erosion, and problems associated with GM crops and the digitisation of life. Undeterred by the sheer weight of it all, Gore is buoyed by a problematic optimism which relies on humanity turning away from its ‘baser instincts’.
An issue for Gore is that it is not optimism but hypocrisy that is increasingly defining him and occluding his message. There has been a hardening of the vague sense of unease that once accompanied his flying around the world decrying global warming while adding to it or appearing increasingly overweight on television while declaiming about unequal resource consumption (‘so passionate about saving this Earth, he is trying not to exhale’ as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show put it).
At the start of the year, Gore sold his Current TV station to Al Jazeera, itself owned by oil rich Qatar, and at least one commentator claimed that the successful completion of that sale meant he is now richer than Mitt Romney. Under the circumstances, an objective reading of Gore is becoming increasingly difficult: an excellent section on the damage wrought by corporate America, for instance, is somewhat overshadowed by the feeling that Gore Inc. can’t be far away.
On the other hand, a number of the ideas outlined here resurfaced in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address including the possibility of increasing American manufacturing employment through developments in 3D printing and references to the wealth gap, raising taxes on the rich, and global warming. If, as seems likely, Nobel Prize winning Gore has the ear of the President that must be a good thing especially when you consider who is arraigned on the other side – global warming deniers (‘liars for hire’ as Gore calls them), tax loophole preservers and so on.
Britain has its own mini-Gore in the form of Paddy Ashdown who appeared at last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival to express some of the same concerns, especially the shift in power from West to East. Ashdown wants to see a new system of treaty based global governance but when asked what he would do if the political class would not cooperate he answered ‘no idea’. Gore entertains no such solution and no such uncertainty. A section on whether America’s decline is absolute or relative (the staple diet of any number of Britain’s post World War Two historians) concludes that it is relative but slow. American universities, its venture investment culture and it military are still, according to Gore, the best in the world. He recognizes a demographic deficit and an overwhelming corporate influence on American politics but has no doubt about who should lead the way into the future. The United States of America ‘remains the only nation capable of providing the kind of global leadership needed’.
In fact, for all his catholicity and range of reference, the underlying feeling of The Future is that Gore is not really talking to most of us. It is a book by an American crafted primarily for his fellow Americans. The text touches down at regular intervals to assert the ‘enduring genius’ of the US Constitution, for instance, or celebrate a ‘Pax Americana’ that some would consider thoroughly discredited in recent times.
The feeling that Gore’s core audience is American is not the only issue. Others include the fact that for a man worried about robosourcing he is a robotic writer and, occasionally, a robotic thinker. The first five chapters mine the past rather simplistically in search of principles that still inform the present, but may be under threat in the future. It is only in the climate change chapter that Gore seems fully comfortable with his material and easy in its expression. In addition, his tendency to be prescriptive rarely acknowledges that human beings and nations act in unpredictable or unexpected ways. A brief section on Oscar Pistorius and performance-enhancement in sports is illuminating in that respect, though only with hindsight. So too the recent history of America’s northern neighbour Canada: once the home of Greenpeace, now home to polluting oil sands and withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol.
A disclosure at the end of the acknowledgements that the author has a direct or indirect investment in ‘Apple, Auxogyn, Citizens Bank, Coursera, Facebook, Google, JP Morgan Chase, Kaiima, and Twitter’ appears to have little context until combined with Gore’s oft-repeated ‘recovering politician’ joke at the beginning of the book. Even at sixty four and despite all protestations to the contrary, a political comeback is not unthinkable. After all, if America really is the ship of the future, it will need a captain.