Al Gore is pretty comfortable at a pulpit.
That observation probably comes as little surprise to either Gore’s supporters or detractors.
The former Vice President and immensely powerful cultural figure spoke for about an hour Saturday morning at the Savannah Book Festival. Gore’s talk at Trinity United Methodist Church was broadcast live via C-SPAN’s Book TV, but I’m not sure viewers would have gotten the full effect of the activist and author’s well-honed public presence. The 64-year old Gore — a solid, fairly nimble guy — spent most of the hour standing on one side or the other of the pulpit — gesticulating, pointing, waving, using his posture and hands to emphasize his words. After a gracious and short introduction by Savannah’s Howard Morrison, Gore talked his way through the main points in his new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. Along the way, he told stories from his early days in politics, told a few jokes (one of the biggest laughs came when he said he considered using the name Blood & Gore for an investment company that he founded with David Blood), and ultimately expressed passionate confidence in America’s future.
If you had been watching C-SPAN without the sound, you would likely have been wondering how the network ended up broadcasting a long sermon by a southern Baptist preacher.
I was repeatedly struck by the choices Gore has made. He’s an immensely wealthy man — with an estimated net worth of $300 million — and could obviously be doing plenty of other things with his time than writing books, crusading against climate change, and addressing an audience of 500 or so in Savannah, Georgia.
I took a lot of notes. In this post I’ll briefly touch on each of the six drivers of global change that Gore discussed.
I didn’t know quite what to expect from the talk, but I came away very impressed with Gore’s ability to synthesize various trends and to articulate a broader vision in clear, precise language.
Driver #1: Earth Inc.
Here Gore is talking about our still-new “interconnected global economy”. He noted correctly that jobs are not returning in this recovery as quickly as they used to after recessions — and he also correctly noted that we saw the same pattern after the 2001 recession. The data suggest not only outsourcing, but also fundamental changes in productivity because of technology. Gore calls this “robosourcing”. It’s a real phenomenon, and not one we should lightly ignore. With so many more tasks capable of being done via automation, where will the jobs be?
Driver #2: The Emergence of the Global Mind
There’s no particularly great insight in saying that the interconnectedness of knowledge is transforming our lives, but Gore brought a number of useful nuances and distinctions to the table. He noted that we’re not just seeing “instantaneous connections” of thoughts and feelings between people, but also between people and the technology itself.
While noting that most of the activity with cookies is benign, Gore also used the phrase “stalker economy”.
Driver #3: Power in the Balance
Gore believes that the U.S. is the only nation capable of providing world leadership — and he’s probably right in that. China lacks the moral authority to do so despite its huge size. Gore noted that China will have the world’s largest economy soon, but he didn’t state something really obvious and important: with about 4 times the population of the U.S., China should have the world’s largest economy.
Gore then pivoted a bit: “Our democracy has been hacked.” He made no mention of the history of the Supreme Court decision in 2000 that made George W. Bush president, but focused on “big money” in politics. The crowd was quite passionate in their appreciation of this part of his talk, but I thought it was one of the weakest sections, relying heavily on boiler-plate political rhetoric.
“We’ve got good people up there that are now trapped in a bad system,” Gore said. He talked about reversing Citizens United and focused heavily on the role of TV advertising and the anonymity afforded massive political advertising campaigns.
But the 2012 election cycle showed that while organizations can spend endless amounts on TV ads, voters aren’t so easily swayed. Gore’s emphasis on TV largely ignored his earlier points about interconnectedness; it all felt, well, so 20th century.
At the end of this section, Gore did note the power of individual bloggers and other promising developments for democracy, but he did not give these adequate weight.
Driver #4: Outgrowth
The world is adding about a billion new people every 13 to 14 years. This has created increasing strain on natural resources. This was a strong and provocative part of the talk.
“Growth has become the holy grail,” Gore said as he launched into an interesting discussion of what we mean by “growth”. He noted the failings of many measures of growth. GDP, for example, leaves out a number of crucial “externalities” — including negative ones like the costs of pollution and of income disparity, as well as positive ones like the long-term economic impacts of investments in education, medicine, and the arts.
He noted that the six heirs of the Walton family have a combined net worth greater than the combined wealth of the poorest 100 million Americans.
Driver #5: The Reinvention of Life and Death
Here Gore is talking about the “revolution” in biology, genetics, and various forms of molecular manipulation. He specifically mentioned 3-D printing.
“We’re now in charge of evolution,” he said. He noted that new technologies would bring “blessings” but said that we had not yet acquired the necessary wisdom to handle all of this new knowledge.
Driver #6: The Edge
Gore finished by focusing on the “climate crisis”. Many of Gore’s detractors simply refuse to accept that the climate is changing and that human activity plays a role. There are legitimate scientists with a wide range of views on this subject, but the consensus has been growing. I don’t know how so many online commentators turned themselves into climate experts, but in a matter of years or a few decades we’ll likely be at a point when climate change cannot be denied.
Gore said that we treat our atmosphere like “an open sewer” and pointed to media failings: we can read ample coverage of a stranded cruise ship and plenty of details about Dorner’s rampage, but we don’t get enough news about the issues that matter the most. Gore noted that no questions at any of the presidential debates were asked about climate change.
As Gore built to his powerful conclusion, he talked about “the world we are handing off to our children and grandchildren,” he invoked Aristotle’s belief that the end of a thing defines its nature, and he passionately said that “we as human beings have the capacity to rise to great challenges.”
I especially appreciated Gore’s invocation of this passage from Lincoln’s December 1862 message to Congress: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
And here’s a collection of photos of the many moods of Al Gore, public speaker (click for even larger versions):