Al Gore on Drivers of Climate Change

Prepared by Michael Marien

argaiv1414

 April 2013
 
 
the-future-cover

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.  Al Gore (Nashville TN; former Vice President; Chairman, Climate Reality Project; www.algore.com).  NY: Random House, Feb 2013, 558p, $30.

 
 

A huge and well-researched book on “the six most important drivers of global change, how they are converging and interacting with one another, where they are taking us, and how we…can best affect the way these changes unfold.” (p.xiii) There is a clear consensus that “the future now emerging will be extremely different from anything we have ever known…there is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience.” (p.xv).  All six of these emergent revolutionary changes “are threatening to overtake us at a moment in history when there is a dangerous vacuum of global leadership” (p.xv).

The six changes, in brief:

* emergence of a deeply interconnected global economy that increasingly operates as a fully integrated holistic entity;
* emergence of a  planet-wide communications grid connecting billions of people to rapidly expanding volumes of data and to increasingly intelligent devices;
* emergence of a completely new balance of political, economic, and military power, shifting influence and initiative from West to East, from North to South, and from nation-states to private actors;
* emergence of rapid unsustainable growth in population, cities, resource consumption, depletion of topsoil, freshwater supply, pollution, and economic output, “measured and guided by an absurd and distorted set of universally accepted metrics [GDP] that blinds us to the destructive consequences” (p.xiv);
* emergence of a revolutionary new set of powerful biological, biochemical, genetic, and materials science technologies enabling us to reweave the fabric of life itself;
* emergence of a radically new relationship between the aggregate powers of human civilization and the Earth’s ecological systems, notably the atmosphere and climate balance on which humankind depends.

 

The Introduction goes on to discuss Gore’s joining the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future in 1976 as a freshman Congressman (he soon became chair of the group), the influence on Gore of Ilya Prigogene’s thinking about open systems that break down and then reorganize at a higher level of complexity, humanity becoming the chief force behind evolution, the “philosophical mistake” that the growth of knowledge and domination of nature leads to human progress, the routine use of wealth to distort and corrupt the process of democracy (and thus “the decline of US democracy”), the world’s need for intelligent values-based leadership from the US (“greater now than ever before”), problems of “short-termism” and “quarterly capitalism,” saving the future through “sustainable capitalism and healthy democratic decision making,” the digital network offering “the greatest source of hope,” and Gore’s optimism that “we will find ways to see and think clearly about the obvious trends that are even now gaining momentum”  (p.xxxi).

 

1) Earth Inc.: The Global Economy (40 pages) 

“National policies, regional strategies, and long-accepted economic theories are now irrelevant to the new realities of our new hyper-connected, tightly integrated, highly interactive, and technologically revolutionized economy.” (p.4)  The digitization of work and the dramatic metastasis of what used to be called automation are driving two massive changes: the outsourcing of jobs from industrial economies and the “robosourcing” of  jobs from human beings to mechanized processes, computer programs, robots of all sizes, and still rudimentary artificial intelligence.  The world as a whole has now emerged as a single economic entity.  At the same time, there is a growing inequality of income and wealth in most countries (e.g., in the US, the top 1% now receive almost 25% of all income, up from 12% a quarter century ago).

This chapter goes on to discuss the challenge of complexity, acceleration in global integration, robosourcing in mining and services, the new age of materials (carbon nanotubes, ultrastrong carbon fibers replacing steel, ceramic matrix nanocomposites), the emerging nanotechnology revolution, the rise of 3D printing (which could accelerate the process of automation), the changing nature of work (new jobs must be created in providing public goods), and the impact of the AI revolution such that it “will be far greater than that of any previous technological revolution” and “further accelerate the decoupling of gains in productivity from gains in the standard of living for the middle class” (p.40)

 

2) The Global Mind (48 pages) 

We are connecting to vast global data networks and to one another, leading to the explosive growth of new business models, social organizations, and patterns of behavior.  In the late 1930s, H.G. Wells proposed development of a “world brain,” described as a commonwealth of the world’s information accessible to all, a sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified, and compared.  In the way Wells used the “world brain” phrase, Gore writes, “what began as a metaphor is now a reality” (p.45).  “The global Internet and the billions of intelligent devices and machines connected to it—the Global Mind—represent what is arguably far and away the most powerful tool that human beings have ever used… (and) is beginning to reshape the way we think in ways both trivial and profound.” (p.46)

This second chapter goes on to discuss the Gutenberg effect of the printed word, the Digital Revolution as much faster and more powerful than the Print Revolution, the rise and growing sophistication of “Big Data,” the “significant rise in reading” due to the dominant printed word content on the Internet (“now tripled in just the last 30 years” –n.b.: no reference provided), revolutionary political movements now shaped by the Internet (but still a question as to whether they “will gain a second wind…and ultimately reach their goals”), the crisis in public education as schools begin to adapt to the new world of knowledge, health care in the new digital world, our “cyber-Faustian bargain” resulting from cybersecurity problems and the disappearance of privacy (“growing reliance on the cloud creates new potential choke points”), the Internet of Things, the advance of surveillance technologies (“to the point where much of the essential apparatus of a police state is already in place”), and “the inherent unifying imperative” of the Global Mind (p.89).

 

3) Power in the Balance (50 pages) 

Considers whether the ability of the US to provide world leadership is declining in relative terms (“even a relative decline…has significant consequences”), the lively dispute about whether the US is in decline (it is “premature to predict an absolute decline,” and the US may yet slow its relative decline), the current “democratic recession” in the world, questions about China’s social and political cohesion, the sharp decline of public trust in US government (“American democracy has been hacked”  p.104), the long reach of corporations (“the integrity and efficacy of American democracy has nearly collapsed” p.105), the “encroachment of big money into the democratic process” (p.117), the “success by corporate interests in reducing regulatory oversight” (p.118), the quasi-religious fervor of market fundamentalism, the tolerance of persistent inequality, the relative decline of effective power of nation-states generally (“integration of the global economy has shifted power profoundly toward markets,” making some national economies highly vulnerable to the sudden outflow of “hot money”), the political and economic crisis of Europe, growing impatience of identity-driven sub-national movements, the growth of religious fundamentalism, the future depending on “the outcome of the struggle now beginning between the raw imperatives of Earth Inc. and the vast potential inherent in the Global Mind” (p.138), and the need “to build a capacity for collective decision making on a global scale” that allows us to shape a future that will “protect human dignity and reflect the aspirations of nations and peoples” (p.139).

 

4) Outgrowth (62 pages) 

The rapid growth of human civilization is colliding with approaching limits to the supply of key natural resources, including topsoil, freshwater, and ecological systems.  “Yet ‘growth,’ in the peculiar and self-defeating way we define it, continues to be the principal and overriding objective of almost all national and global economic policies and the business plans of almost all corporations” (p.142).  In the 21st century, policies aimed at maximizing GDP have been driving the world toward more concentrated wealth and power, more inequality of incomes, higher unemployment, more public and private debt, greater market volatility, and more loss of biodiversity.  Rising levels of per capita consumption, magnified by increases in human population, will grow the global middle class by 3 billion people by 2030.  The cumulative impact, according to 22 leading biologists and ecologists (Nature, 7 June 2012) is the very real possibility of soon reaching a “planetary scale tipping point.”

Topics covered include commodities with the fastest price increases due to surging demand (iron ore, copper, coal, rubber, palm oil, corn, etc.), growth of oil consumption and controversial predictions of global peak oil, multiple threats to expanding food supplies (loss of soil fertility, desertification, heat stress on important crops, erratic precipitation patterns, etc.), the growth of cities, growth of per capita meat consumption, the global obesity epidemic, the growing “manufacture of wants” to stimulate increased consumption, the growing per capita production of garbage (total volume of waste is projected to increase by 70% in a dozen years), growing volumes of e-waste, the surge in agricultural and industrial chemicals, expansion of fracking for gas and oil, the wide variation of projections for peak global population, the empowerment of women, the growing relevant size of the retiree population almost everywhere, growing numbers of refugees, endangered groundwater and topsoil, increasing size and frequency of dust storms, the scramble for land in Africa, the destruction of coral reefs, and growing acidity of oceans.

 

5) Reinvention of Life and Death (76 pages) 

“Already, the outsourcing and robosourcing of the genetic, biochemical, and structural building blocks of life itself are leading to the emergence of new forms of microbes, plants, animals, and humans.  We are crossing ancient boundaries: the boundary that separates one species from another, the divide between people and animals, and the distinction between living things and man-made machinery…Use of science and technology to enhance human beings is taking us beyond the outer edges of the moral, ethical, and religious maps bequeathed to us by previous generations” (p204).

Surveys personalized medicine and precision health care as the emerging model for medical care, pharmaceuticals to be targeted to genetic and molecular signatures of individual patients, self-tracking programs to manage chronic diseases (part of the “quantified self” movement), neural implants in the brain to serve as pacemakers, the prospect of eliminating deadly and fearsome diseases (cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc.). “the merger between Earth Inc. and Life Inc. (being) well under way” as corporations race to patent genes and tissues, introducing synthetic DNA into living organisms (synthetic biology may supplant 15-20% of the global chemical industry in the next few years), using synthetic organisms to accelerate vaccine development, the ethics of human cloning, massive use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, China’s intention to become the world’s superpower in applying genetic and life science, transhumanism and the “singularity,”  the emerging possibility of creating new body parts with 3D printing, enhancing human performance, the changing ethics of fertility, the potential for “significant extensions in the average human lifespan” and in the “healthspan” (the consensus among many aging specialists is an increase of “up to 25%”), genetically engineered plants and animals, increased reliance on monoculture that has accelerated resistance to herbicides and pesticides), and disruption of our microbiome of bacteria (the ecological system within our bodies).  Large-scale disruption of the Earth’s ecological system (chapter 6) “can also create an imbalance that threatens us.”

 

6) The Edge  (81 pages) 

“Human civilization is colliding with the natural world and causing grave harm to natural systems on which our continued thriving as a species depends…the single most important and threatening manifestation of this collision is the climate crisis” (p.281).  But we do have the capacity “to begin solving the climate crisis” if we awaken to the reality of our circumstances.  The complexity and magnitude of the needed response “can sound daunting, but there have been recent stunning improvements in the technologies enabling us to succeed” (p.282).  The price of electricity from solar and wind has dropped rapidly; “globally, renewables will be the second-largest source of power generation by 2015.”

 This final and longest of the six “drivers of global change” chapters covers the impacts of climate change on security and political stability (food production, water availability, flooding, increased crop diseases and pests, the spread of bacteria and viruses that cause human diseases etc.), significant changes in the ecology of the Arctic Ocean, the recent discovery in 2012 of “enormous deposits of methane underneath the Antarctic ice sheet” which may be as large as that trapped in Arctic tundra, the accelerating loss of ice, cities with the highest population at risk from rising seas (Calcutta, Mumbai, Dhaka, etc.) and with the most vulnerable exposed assets (Miami, Guangzhou, New York/Newark, etc.), the need for both mitigation and adaptation, areas of the Earth near the equator that are highly vulnerable to desertification (due to dry downdrafts of the “Hadley cells” of wind currents that circle the planet), the global warming threat to the stratospheric ozone layer discovered in 2012, the IPCC and warnings from the global scientific community, problems of denial (facilitated by “the denial machine”) and undervaluation of the climate crisis, the large fossil fuel companies with an estimated $7 trillion in assets at risk if the global scientific consensus is widely accepted (thus lowering the value of the reserves they control), the impact of fracking (e.g., leakage of “enormous quantities of methane,” contamination of aquifers), the net effect of shale gas on the environment (“may ultimately be inconsistent with its use as a bridge fuel”; it leads to a faster phase-out of coal, but diverts money from renewable energy), the harm from burning coal (some 1,200 new coal plants are now planned in 59 countries), “devastating losses” in forestland (although the net loss of forests has slowed in recent years; China has led the world in new tree planting), the “spasm of extinction” that has the potential for loss of 20-50% of all living species on Earth in this century, the four groups of policy options (tax policy, use of subsidies, mandates for utilities, and cap and trade (in several countries and US states, and soon in 14 other countries), China’s announcement in its latest Five Year Plan that it will invest almost $500 billion in clean energy, the need to develop super grids and smart grids, and false solutions to global warming (carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear power).  “What we most need is a shift in our way of thinking.” (p.358)

 

7) Conclusion 

Ignorance and misunderstanding are certainly enemies of genuine progress, just as knowledge, integrity, and character are crucial to our success.” (p.363)  Democracy and capitalism have both been hacked.  “Fortunately, the awakening of the Global Mind is disrupting established patterns—creating exciting new opportunities for emergent centers of influence not controlled by elites.” (p.365)   The outcome of the emerging struggle to shape humanity’s future “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.” (p.365).  It may well be that “an alternative form of global leadership will emerge in the Global Mind, but that is uncertain for now and is likely to take time.” (p.366)  Collaborative processes empowered by the Global Mind are promising, “but attention and focus are diluted on the Internet.  The variety of experiences available, the ubiquity of entertainment, and the difficulty in aggregating a critical mass of those committed to change all complicate the use of the Internet” (p.366).

Some general suggestions about what do we do now:

* Restore our ability to communicate clearly and candidly with one another in a broadly accessible forum about the difficult choices we have to make;
* Restore the usefulness of capitalism by insisting on a full, complete and accurate measurement of value; so-called externalities must be fully integrated into market calculations;
* Principles of sustainability should be fully integrated into capitalism, designed to insure that we make intelligent choices;
* Reevaluate our current reliance on GDP as the compass by which we guide our economic policy choices; the design of GDP is “deeply flawed”;
* Fully recognize the value of public goods, and create more public goods in health care, education, and environmental protection;
* Sustainability should guide the redesign of agriculture, forestry, and fishing;
* Stabilize human population growth by prioritizing the education of girls, empowerment of women, and ubiquitous access to knowledge of fertility management;
* Integrate sustainability into the design and construction of low-carbon, low-energy buildings;
* Aging populations should be seen as an opportunity for redesign of health strategies and income support programs that take into account higher dependency ratios;
* Advance of technological development will bring many blessings, but human values must be preserved as we evaluate deployment, use, and safeguards of powerful new technologies such as nanomaterials and surveillance drones;
* Limit the role of money in politics and reform outdated and obfuscatory legislative rules in the U.S. Senate;
“Finally, the world community desperately needs leadership that is based on the deepest human values.  Though this book is addressed to readers in the world at large, it is intended to carry a special and urgent message to the citizens of the United States of America, which remains the only nation capable of providing the kind of global leadership needed” (p.374).

 

COMMENT

A massive (558p) and somewhat unwieldy synthesis, much of it fresh and important. In many ways, this is an encyclopedia posing as a book.  The scope of the six drivers framework  is very broad and the content is highly informative, although there are some instances of exaggeration, inconsistency, repetition, and misplaced topics (e.g. discussion of empowerment of women appears in the otherwise excellent chapter on Outgrowth).  Each chapter is prefaced by a two-page chart that looks like a complex version of the NCAA’s basketball brackets for “March Madness,” but appears to be of little or no use. Nevertheless, Gore’s overview of both technology and environment is worthy of consideration—a 21st century update of Alvin Toffler’s 505p Future Shock (Random House, 1970) without Toffler’s cutesy chapter heads and as many intensifying adjectives (although Gore does indulge in some, such as “new,” “revolutionary,” “massive,” and “dramatic” that, arguably, may be overdone).

no useno use.Each chapter is prefaced by a two-page chart that looks like a complex version of the NCAA’s basketball brackets for “March Madness,” but appears to be of little or no use.  Nevertheless, this overview of both technology and environment (citing both Ray Kurzweil and Herman Daly) is worthy of consideration—a sort of 21st century update of Alvin Toffler’s 505p Future Shock (Random House, 1970) without Toffler’s cutesy chapter sub-heads and as many intensifying adjectives (although Gore does indulge in some, such as “new,” “revolutionary,” “massive,” and “dramatic” that, arguably, may be a bit over the top).

The most serious flaw is over-enthusiasm for the state of the Global Mind/World Brain.  Unlike others who casually use the term equating it to the Internet, Gore did consult the original 1938 book and correctly cites the H.G. Wells definition of  “world brain” as a “sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind: a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared.”  But then Gore goes on to gush that “what began as a metaphor is now a reality” (p.45).  This is hardly the case, as anyone can easily appreciate by scanning the profound fragmentation conveyed by GlobalForesightBooks.org.  Toward the end of his book, Gore even confesses that “attention and focus are diluted by the Internet.”  (SeeThe Shallows Nicholas Carr; GFB Book of the Month, July 2010, for further indictment.)   The hard work of sorting, summarizing, clarifying, and comparing has scarcely begun, and no examples or references to such work are provided. Moreover, the needed global leadership must be encouraged from able people and institutions of all nations.  In an age of dispersing global power—a key trend acknowledged by both Gore and the National Intelligence Council—the US is not “the only nation capable” of providing this leadership (Gore, p.374).  Indeed, if “what we most need is a shift in our way of thinking” (Gore, p.358), the US is arguably a laggard among developed nations—in many respects what might usefully be seen as Negative American Exceptionalism.

It is useful to compare The Future with the NIC’s Global Trends 2030 (GFB Book of the Month, Feb 2013), which is more compact and, to its credit, focuses more on uncertain “game-changers,” “black swans,” and “scenarios.”  But Gore devotes far more attention to “outgrowth” of population overwhelming and destroying limited resources, and to climate change pushing us to “the edge.” Unlike Gore, GT-2030 is oblivious to the need for sustainability and to GDP as a misleading indicator of progress.  Both works strongly agree that the future will be much different in the decades ahead.  Global leadership is indeed needed from cosmopolitan people of all nations, but the US is hardly “the only nation capable of providing the kind of global leadership needed,” as Gore asserts.   And no matter where it is located and who is involved, far more “World Brain” work is needed in digesting, clarifying, and comparing works such as The Future and GT-2030, along with many others.  Our future may depend on it.

 

 
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