'The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change', is an overview of the forces that are remaking the world: economic globalisation, the digital revolution, climate change, dwindling natural resources, shifts in the global balance of power and advances in the life sciences
The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change," the title of Al Gore's ambitious, drily written new book, sounds like a snoozy think-tank talk. And while it's about 30 times as long, that's exactly what this volume is. Because it bites off way more than it can plausibly digest, The Future lacks the cogency and focus of Gore's previous two books, An Inconvenient Truth, his succinct, user-friendly assessment of the dangers of climate change (published in 2006 in conjunction with the movie of the same name), and The Assault on Reason (2007), his perspicacious analysis of the country's ailing condition as a participatory democracy.
Parts of The Future dealing with domestic politics, foreign policy and economics retrace ground covered in more persuasive detail by Bill Clinton (Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power) and Joseph Stiglitz (Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy).
Other passages read like updates on Alvin Toffler's 1970 classic Future Shock, which looked at how our culture was being rocked by an avalanche of social and technological changes. And some feel like textbook excerpts, piling one historical aside on top of another, which provides some useful context but more often bogs the book down in survey-course-like digressions. (Remember our hunter-gatherer ancestors or denizens of the Stone and Bronze Ages? They're mentioned in these pages, as are historical events like the Paris Commune and the Industrial Revolution.)
The main theme in this volume has to do with Gore's conviction that "American democracy has been hacked," that Congress "is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances." Both parties, he says, have become so dependent on business lobbies for "the large sums of money they must have to purchase television advertisements in order to be re-elected that special interest legislation pushed by the industries most active in purchasing influence – financial services, carbon-based energy companies, pharmaceutical companies and others – can count on large bipartisan majorities."
The results, Gore goes on, can be seen in "the ever increasing inequalities of income and growing concentrations of wealth, and the paralysis of any efforts at reform." Such paralysis is particularly dangerous, he says, given the challenges facing the country today, like declining public education financing (at a time when schools need to adapt "to the tectonic shift in our relationship to the world of knowledge") and continuing high unemployment (a by-product not only of the 2008 crash, but also of globalisation, outsourcing and automation).
The public's ability to express its revulsion at this state of affairs, Gore argues, "is dampened by the structure of our dominant means of mass communication, television, which serves mainly to promote consumption of products and entertain the public, while offering no means for interactive dialogue and collaborative decision making."
He also complains that "virtually every news and political commentary programme on television is sponsored in part by oil, coal and gas companies – not just during campaign seasons, but all the time, year in and year out – with messages designed to sooth and reassure the audience that everything is fine, the global environment is not threatened, and the carbon companies are working diligently to further develop renewable energy sources."
Such remarks serve to remind the reader of a business deal Gore recently made that has ignited charges of hypocrisy and greed: selling Current TV (a channel he helped to found in 2005) for an estimated $500 million to Al-Jazeera, the influential Arab news giant, which is financed by the government of Qatar. Gore, who will reportedly make about $100 million from the deal, describes Al-Jazeera in this book as "feisty and relatively independent."
Gore is most convincing in The Future when he refrains from editorialising and sticks to analysing how changes in technology, our political climate and the environment are going to affect the world, often creating domino or cascade like effects. Much of this will be familiar to readers from news accounts and earlier books (including Gore's own), but they are useful in an all-in-one-place primer sort of way.
Gore writes that "our continued burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels" spews "90 million extra tonnes of heat-trapping global warming pollution every 24 hours" into the planet's atmosphere, which leads to climate change and changes in Earth's water cycles, which can lead to flooding in some areas and desertification in others – which can lead, in turn, to worsening water and food shortages, which can exacerbate civil conflict and refugee crises.
The explosive growth of the Internet and the proliferation of mobile phones in developing countries, Gore notes, has a snowball effect too: On one hand, closing the "information gap" in the world and offering the possibility of "robust democratic discourse"; on the other, magnifying privacy and cybersecurity threats. A new $2 billion facility being built in Utah by the National Security Agency will have the capacity "to monitor every telephone call, e-mail, text message, Google search, or other electronic communication (whether encrypted or not) sent to or from any American citizen," Gore says.
"All of these communications will be stored in perpetuity for data mining." Other advances in technology and the biological sciences, he reminds us, will create a slew of legal and moral debates. For instance, the growing popularity of 3-D printing (which can produce such disparate items as prosthetic medical devices or components of a building) raises new questions about intellectual property, and copyright and patent law, while the Life Sciences Revolution – which may give people the opportunity, say, to create "designer babies" by picking out traits "like hair and eye colour, height, strength and intelligence" – will produce all sorts of ethical dilemmas.
Gore says he's laid out a "recommended agenda for action" in this volume, and he mentions some familiar policy options for grappling with the climate change crisis (like cap and trade, and using tax policy to discourage carbon dioxide emissions). But his book doesn't really offer a lot of detailed, practical ideas for coming to terms with the myriad other problems he identifies in these pages as facing the US and the world in the 21st century.
Perhaps he is being vague because he hasn't entirely shut the door on running for office again. He says that The Future is not "a manifesto intended to lay the groundwork for some future political campaign," but he also repeats a joke he's used in the past that deflects but does not entirely smother the possibility of running again: "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."