Review by Hazel Henderson © 2013
?Author Al Gore, former US Vice President turned venture capitalist and media executive, would have become US President but for some 500 still contested votes in Florida and the US Supreme Court’s ruling that halted the recount. Reading Gore’s latest book The Future, I marvel at how history might have changed if Al Gore had become the 43rd President of the United States instead of George W. Bush. Gore’s cool intellectualism and deep scholarship would have been a huge shift and a different fit with the declining educational levels and anti-science fundamentalism of some 40% of the US population.
In The Future, Gore lays out his six drivers of global change in chapters with compelling logic and exhaustive research: 1) the interconnected global web of corporations, finance and markets he calls “Earth, Inc.” now dominating politics even in democracies; 2) the emergence of a “Global Mind” of linked humanity via the Internet, cell phones, social media, Wikileaks, NGOs, alternative political movements, personal publishing, video, blogging and micro-business models now challenging incumbent industries with rapid disintermediation of banking, publishing, healthcare, academia and 20th century industrial sectors; 3) “Power in the Balance” – now shifting from Europe and North America to Asia, Latin America and soon Africa, the rise of China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and many emerging countries in the South, evident in the G-20, the UN General Assembly and all international agencies and forums.
Driver number 4 is “Outgrowth” as human populations soar past our 7.5 billion toward 9 or 10 billion forecasted for 2050 with shrinking numbers in Europe, Japan, Russia, North America and other mature economies and with most of the increases in the South, particularly Africa. Gore sees human population growth, using unsustainable faulty economic models of resource extraction, still based on externalizing social and environmental costs (“Time to Internalize Those ‘Externalities’”). This leads to faulty prices, mal-investment and mis-pricing by asset managers of most investments, bonds, securities and insurance (“Grossly Distorted Picture: GDP Still Misleading”). Gore discusses the twin dilemmas of “robo-sourcing” and outsourcing throughout the book, which lead to jobless economic growth, sharpening inequality and a crisis of aggregate demand which is finally breaking down current economic models, which I discussed in Building A Win-Win World (1996, ebook 2008). These dilemmas are invalidating the conventional “Washington Consensus” economic growthrecipes, now being steered over the cliff by GDP and other panglossian metrics. All this blindsdecision makers to political solutions for huge percentages of unemployed youths, spiking food prices, unrepayable consumer and student debt – offering little but more austerity for angry citizens, fueling more extremist politics, uprisings and revolts (“The Economics of Curbing Speculation in Food, Water and Vital Resources”).
?Driver number 5 is described in the most informative chapter, “the Reinvention of Life and Death,” covering the stunning advances in genetic and biological research, neuroscience, mapping of proteins and how the networks of neurons operate in the human brain. Gore’s information is enriched by his role as a partner of famed US venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and his partnership with former Goldman Sachs executive David Blood in London, Generation Investment Management. Gore’s associates and friends, Craig Venter, Danny Hillis, Mitch Kapor, Ray Kurzweil, as well as his top clearances in government research and think tanks and internationalfinancial networks give him his unmatched access to the cutting edge information he shares in this chapter. Gore parses this latest intelligence and how it is re-focusing medical approaches to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and ageing in the fields of epigenetics, epidemiology and correctly viewingour human bodies as “biomes” with 90% of our cells and DNA within us as bacteria whose microbial activities actually control our immune systems, digestion and metabolism. Gore covers the explosion of research and development of artificial life forms and the outlook for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food and fiber supplies and many of their unintended consequences. As in other chapters, Gore highlights how these technological advances – as well as those in computing and “big data,” the cloud, 3D printing – are leading through lack of government oversight into dangerous territory and loss of privacy and control. As I have also written from my experience advising the US Office of Technology Assessment, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering, the “tortoise” of public understanding of science and its implications for society always lags the speedier “hare” of private sector, market-driven technologies.
?Gore’s 6th driver in “The Edge” describes the tipping points and breakdowns now driving us to breakthroughs in all these scientific and technological fields as well as the crucial shifts to low-carbon economies based on efficiency and renewable energy, new materials and resource reuse. Updating our understanding of climate change, Gore describes new research into Hadley cells,Frennel and polar cells, vertical wind vortices that redistribute the sun’s heat which reaches the planet daily – but is increasingly trapped in the lower atmosphere by CO2 molecules. The climate is essentially a gigantic engine for redistributing the sun’s incoming heat evenly through ocean currents, rain, ice, wind, jet streams, fostering capture by species in our fragile biosphere and bygreen plants in photosynthesis (providing our human food supply). The new understanding of these Hadley, Frennel and polar cells and how these vortices have shifted away from the equator toward the Earth’s poles account for both shifting jet streams as well as super-storms and desertification. The race to understand our planet’s dynamics is crucial as well as its relationship to the sun, our “mother star,” whose daily free photon shower on just one square mile for one hour could supply all our human energy needs for one year. Gore sees the rapid scaling of wind, solar, efficiency, biomass, geothermal and other renewables as accelerating and the most promising route out of the fossil-fueled climate crisis. He sees the current euphoria over shale oil and gas as short-lived, since there is little net energy output and it will be limited by its huge demand for water and its toxic methods. Gore sees the main blockages as the corruption of democracies with money mostly from incumbent industries, special interests and science deniers all fighting the disruptive technologies of the future. We at Ethical Markets agree, which is why we track private investments in green sectors worldwide in our Green Transition Scoreboard®.
Gore himself avoids some contentious issues. In his accurate description of jobless economic growth due to automation and “robo-sourcing,” he correctly cites needed job-creation in public goods: infrastructure, education investments. Yet Gore does not describe the many pragmatic solutions to maintaining sufficient levels of private aggregate demand by those in need of basics and consumer purchasing power: contingent cash transfers (CCT) now lifting poor families into middle-class status; better health and education in Mexico, Brazil and other countries; the rise of employee-owned companies, employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) and cooperatives which employ more people globally than all conventional companies as documented in 2012-the UN Year of Cooperatives (www.un.org). Guaranteeing minimum incomes was experimented in the USA under President Richard Nixon in the 1970s but foundered on the Puritan ethic “no workee-no eatee” reinforced by market fundamentalism. Pioneer futurist Theodore J. Gordon also examined automation-related structural employment in his 1964 book The Future(St. Martins Press, NY), which examined the link between work hours, leisure and incomes. Gordon’s successful firm, The Futures Group, is now part of Deloitte & Touche. This puzzle of automation, structural unemployment andstatic aggregate demand which had to be artificially stimulated by advertising – now at $500 billion annually – was down played by the economics profession and their “productivity” models and theory-induced blindness. These issues are now clearly on the table in Europe and the USA.
Gore glosses over this fundamental dilemma of conventional capitalism while calling for reform of markets and their GDP-driven metrics – as I have for decades. He also understands the need to curb high-frequency trading (HFT), but offers only the pathetic remedy of Bank of Sweden prize-winner economist Joseph Stiglitz who lamely suggests making traders hold stock positions for at least one second! Gore ignores all the countries now instituting or examining financial transaction taxes (“Financial Transaction Taxes: the Commonsense Approach”), now endorsed by the European Union at 0.1% of all trades (but exempting those by pension funds). The French public employees’ pension fund has the best approach: as a cancellation fee, since most HFT orders are also cancelled within milliseconds.
For full disclosure, I have known Al Gore since the 1970s when I was on the Technology Assessment Advisory Council to Congress and the National Science Foundation’s Research Applied to National Needs (RANN), and we were both involved in the Congressional Institute for the Future which he mentions, as well as the World Future Society. At a conference in Puerto Rico chaired byNobelist former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias Sanchez, Al Gore asked me to teach him about socially responsible investing. I agreed and also urged him to get into media, while I was showing my pilot of our Ethical Markets TV Series (carried on PBS stations in the USA in 2005-2006 and now at www.ethicalmarkets.tv and for colleges at www.films.com).
Apart from my minor criticisms and my hopes that Gore will move more boldly to make needed reforms in venture capital and investment banking, I agree with most of his conclusions in his The Future. I lament that Al Gore did not become our US 43rd President as well as eight wasted years under President George W. Bush, both of millions of lives in two unnecessary wars and trillions of dollars of debt now burdening our economy.
I hope Gore’s The Future becomes a best-seller and can help break through the appalling corruption in Washington and Wall Street. So far, his interviews in US media have focused on his and partner Joel Hyatt’s sale of their independent Current TV channel to Al Jazeera for $500 million. This caused outrage among mainstream media and pundits, as well as some ideological environmentalists who focus only on Al Jazeera’s Qatar owners because of their fossil-fueled economy. This misses the much larger point: Al Jazeera is a globally respected media network with wide-angled news coverage worldwide – which might shake up US media monopolies and improve their ever-diminishing news coverage. As Gore points out, Al Jazeera devotes much coverage to climate change issues – a virtual taboo in US media only recently breaking open. Al Gore’s influence in global finance and politics will continue to grow along with his stature as a statesman/futurist. Thus, for these reasons as well as its brilliant analysis, market players and business leaders will need to read The Future.