WH Allen, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
The Future, By Al Gore
Office bore he may be, but the former vice-president's policy prescriptions still merit a hearing
Friday 01 February 2013
It was with a slightly sinking heart that I picked up Al Gore's 550-page tome, only to realise that it has more than 160 pages of notes and bibliography. This turned out to be good news and bad – good because the book itself is all the more manageable, bad because the former US Vice President has tried to synthesise everything he has ever read about the sorry state of the world. It makes an urgent and important debate just a bit – dull.
Still, despite having unkindly tagged Mr Gore as the office bore, I'm wholly in sympathy with his belief that modern societies have been living for too long on the planetary never-never and the time has come to pay off some of the debts. It's also surely right to try to join the dots between different areas of policy in order to change what an Occupy protestor would call "the system".
The book starts with a summary of six trends that together explain why a moment of choice is looming for policymakers and people. These are: global economic links; modern communications and computers, connecting everything; a new geopolitical balance of power; environmentally unsustainable growth; the development of radical new technologies; and climate change. Each one is developed in subsequent chapters.
The discussion is framed in terms of a timescale far, far beyond any normal policy horizon. "Roughly a quarter of the 90 million tons of global warming pollution... each day will still linger there – still trapping heat – more than 10,000 years from now." That's quite a contrast with the usual focus on tomorrow's headlines or even the next minute's tweets. Given the scale of the challenge, it is hardly surprising, as Gore notes, that so many people feel powerless, even the powerful. Where do you start?
That sense of powerlessness is only intensified by the detail of the individual trends. We are taken through inequality, outsourcing, the rise of China, financial trading by computers, trade policy, agricultural subsidies, nanotechnology, 3D printing, privatisation and the crisis of capitalism in chapter one – and the torrent continues.
Gore repeats the much-loved but untrue factoid that economic growth does not make people happier once a certain income level is reached. On the contrary, there is a strong correlation between GDP growth and well-being, just as between growth and height or life expectancy – it just isn't a one-for-one relationship, otherwise we would be 20 metres tall and deliriously joyous all the time. Accepting the inconvenient truth that we do like growth does not undermine the case for sustainability.
The most interesting parts of the book are about introducing policies to address the multiple problems. Gore does not pull his punches about US politics, with government decision-making "feeble, dysfunctional and servile" to corporate interests. He notes that the provision of public services is the last part of the institutional landscape to benefit from the efficiencies and opportunities offered by digital technologies.
I would have liked more from somebody who has been a very senior politician about the difficulties of introducing, in our hyper-media democracies, policies requiring sacrifices. Top of his to-do list is the need: "To restore our ability to communicate clearly and candidly… about the difficult choices we have to make." He envisages, "Vibrant and open 'public squares' on the Internet". Surely this is someone who hasn't been on Twitter lately? How on earth can people functioning every day on internet time be persuaded to focus on the next 10,000 years?
The other proposals are hugely sensible: a carbon tax, sustainable use of forests and natural reserves, better education for girls, a halt to most of the arms trade, and so on. Reasonable people will agree; we just don't know who will do these things, or how. Let's hope Gore can turn his new book into a hard-hitting documentary that will change the intellectual climate and prepare us all to make sacrifices for the sake of having a future.
Diane Coyle's most recent book is 'The Economics of Enough' (Princeton University Press)
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut