Al Gore’s book, The Future, is fascinating and perplexing. The world is being pummeled by enormous waves of change, and most are destructive and unsustainable. What should we do? To envision wise plans, it’s important to know the past, and understand how the present mess evolved. The book presents a substantial discussion of six megatrends that are influencing the future:
EARTH INC is the global economy, dominated by a mob of ruthless multinational corporations. It’s pushing radical changes in the way we live, work, and think. Many leaders in the world have become its hand puppets, shamelessly selling influence in exchange for treasure and power. Earth Inc. is the monster that’s killing the ecosystem.
GLOBAL MIND is the worldwide web that enables communication between people everywhere. Two billion now have access to it. It provides access to a cornucopia of fresh information — knowledge from sources outside the walls of culture and propaganda. The Global Mind is our single hope for inspiring rapid, intelligent, revolutionary change.
BALANCE OF POWER is changing. Following World War II, the world was happy, as America provided virtuous leadership that helped maintain stability in the world. Today, the U.S. is no longer respected. Power is shifting away from Western nations to new powerhouses, and from national governments to corporate interests.
OUTGROWTH is the explosion of unsustainable growth in almost everything — population, pollution, consumption, soil mining, water mining, extinctions, and on and on. Earth Inc. is fanatically obsessed with perpetual growth, and aggressively flattens anything that stands in its path. Bummer growth must be replaced with the benevolent growth of Sustainable Capitalism.
LIFE SCIENCE is providing us with technology to manipulate biological processes in new ways. We’ll cure more diseases and live much longer. Our ability to deliberately alter the genes of any living organism allows us to play a significant role in controlling the planet’s evolutionary journey. Of course, evolution must be manipulated cautiously, to avoid embarrassing calamities.
THE EDGE is the catastrophically dysfunctional relationship between humankind and the ecosystem. On the down side, trashing the atmosphere and climate has created a monster we cannot control. On the plus side, it’s inspiring many enlightened efforts to guide civilization back into balance with the ecosystem.
Al Gore is a charming lad with a good sense of humor. The son of a senator, Gore has spent much of his life amidst the barbarian tribes of Washington. He eventually became the vice president and a wealthy tycoon. While at Harvard, one of his professors was a pioneer in climate change research, a big juju subject, and a primary influence on Gore’s career path. Gore is a senior advisor to Google, and a board member at Apple. He is exceptionally well informed about the digital world, climate change, ecological challenges, global politics, and the shenanigans of the rich and powerful.
In the book, Gore sometimes jabbers like a politician giddy with optimism. Yes, things are a big mess, and the status quo is in need of speedy, intelligent, radical reform. We can fix it! Politicians rarely win elections when their objective is damage control (Jimmy Carter’s mistake). The way to win is to wear a big smile and promise hope, solutions, and better days ahead. I sometimes wonder if damage control might accomplish more.
Much of the book is impressive, but its optimism for the future is not well supported by compelling arguments and evidence. Readers learn that it’s not too late to nip climate change in the bud. We simply need to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 to 90 percent. But how could we do this without blindsiding the system that enables the existence of seven-point-something billion people? Easy! Create a carbon tax. Shift subsidies from fossil energy to renewables. Require utilities to use more alternative energy. Create a cap and trade system. If every nation eagerly did this next week, our worries would be over.
Population continues to grow exponentially. Gore recommends that we “stabilize” population. It would be risky to actually reduce population, because this might trigger a “fertility trap,” a terrible downward spiral of population free-fall. When there are too many seniors, and not enough taxpayers, pension systems collapse.
But stabilizing an enormous population raises serious questions about how much longer we can continue to feed so many people. Agriculture is currently engaged in “strip-mining topsoil” on a staggering scale. Each kilogram of Iowa corn costs 1.5 kilograms of topsoil, a precious nonrenewable resource.
Gore asserts that this can be corrected by a transition to crop rotation, and to organic low-till technology. But low-till cropping is designed for conventional agriculture, and works well with heavy applications of herbicide. Organic low-till is still in the experimental phase, and is extremely difficult to do successfully, because weeds are not wimps.
While water usage is increasing, water resources are declining, because underground aquifers are being depleted in many highly productive farming regions. Gore recommends drip irrigation, wastewater recycling, and cisterns for rainwater storage. Considering the current scale of water mining, and the cost of high tech irrigation, it’s hard to see these options as effective solutions. When the water is used up, farm productivity drops sharply, or completely.
Meanwhile, another monster is rising on the horizon — global phosphorus reserves are moving toward a crisis. Because phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, this will have huge effects on conventional agriculture. Oh, we also need to get the nations united behind reversing deforestation, fish mining, and mass extinction.
Gore says that it would be insane to burn the fossil energy we’ve already discovered, because this would worsen the effects of climate change. But we’re unlikely to stop. Experts aren’t sure when Peak Oil will arrive, but it will, and it will be followed by an era of increasing turbulence, as industrial civilization is painfully weaned. Most of the easy oil has already gone up in smoke, and what remains is far more difficult to extract. Expensive oil means expensive food, and many poor people can barely afford food today. Spikes in food prices led to food riots in 2008 and 2011.
Gore adores civilization’s two magnificent achievements, democracy and capitalism, but he laments that both have been “hacked” by the evil slime balls of Earth Inc. If we don’t fix this, we’re doomed. It’s time to fetch our pitchforks and chase the slime balls away. The solution to our problems is to restore dynamic democracy, and then create a utopia of Sustainable Capitalism, which will allow Sustainable Growth to continue forever! The best is yet to come!
The book provides an impressive discussion how we got into this mess. It’s unique in that it comes from a card-carrying member of the global elite, not a hungry dirty radical. Readers are given a rare opportunity to enjoy the view from the top of the pyramid. I hope that the second edition clarifies some questionable assumptions in this otherwise fascinating book.
Gore, Albert, The Future — Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, New York, 2013.