Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'The Future' by Al Gore: Where civilization is today, and where it must go

Al Gore’s new book "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change" is a momentous accomplishment. The former U.S. Vice President’s book was released by Random House on Jan. 29, 2013. At nearly 600 pages, it may seem like a large undertaking for the reader, but the massive amount of useful information it contains is well worth the effort. Its focus on the technology and global systems of the moment — and where they are pointing humanity’s collective future — makes it an important book to read right now.

Gore has structured this book in a way that gradually introduces people to the topic of the environment and makes them more likely to stick with it and consider the implications. Crucially, he does not open with a message about climate change. Instead, he opens with discussions of globalization and technology. The dystopian slant he puts on these topics is gloomy, but at the same time, the string of astronomical statistics and astonishing tidbits sometimes reads like a thriller about the scarcely-to-be-believed future-present looming nigh upon humanity.

He tells the amazing story of computers that have begun to drive cars, trade stocks and even write newspaper stories. He discusses the “Internet of Things” made up of billions of devices, including thermostats and refrigerators, that are connected to each other in some way. He reveals how people are being tracked by RFID, GPS and the cookies on ordinary websites. Consumers’ cameras and microphones can be — and are — remotely reversed to work against them. Hospital patients have a “quantified self” according to their digital monitors.

“Many blithely dismiss the fear that the U.S. government could ever evolve into a surveillance state with powers that threaten the freedom of its citizens,” he muses. Gore himself does not dismiss it. He quotes a former official of the National Security Agency as saying that “between 15 and 20 trillion” communications have been intercepted by the government since Sept. 11, 2001.

Some readers may be put into a frame of mind where they are able to think about possible adaptations and solutions to the various crises. By the time Gore writes about the challenges facing the natural environment, then, the reader is less likely to feel helpless in the face of the global challenges and is more likely to adopt a solution-oriented thought process. Environmental devastation is linked to certain economic and technological systems.

Once the reader makes this connection, he or she is more likely to see the need for deliberate and wide-reaching change in multiple facets of civilization. Gore succeeds in linking the stories of inequality, labor exploitation, eugenics and genocide to garbage, flame retardants and the oil lobby: it is all part of the story of human systems.

While the book is a rich trove of facts and statistics, it is also a complex and nuanced work of philosophy. Gore drops literary references to Prometheus and Faust and to the Babylonians’ “double clock” that illustrated their belief in a transcendent dimension that overlapped human time.

He refers to the work of scientists like Ilya Prigogine, who identified how systems can reorganize themselves to become more complex. He knows that the type of reason imagined by the Enlightenment has never actually governed human behavior, and he reveals the names that recent psychological research has given to humanity’s special brands of illogic, such as “selective attention” and “single-action bias.”

He quotes the U.S. Supreme Court on power and corruption. He makes comments like “the United States no longer has a well-functioning self-government” and other such observations that simultaneously seem politically radical and self-evident, given his supporting arguments.

One of Gore’s proposed solutions lies in his observation that the way people measure economic value can impact behavior. “If we signal to business, for example, that unlimited pollution will incur no cost or penalty, it is of little use to then decry them as immoral when they respond predictably to the incentives we give them,” he writes.

If the world’s remaining oil reserves can be assessed at $27 trillion, then the cost of pollution can also be quantified. Public goods like healthcare and education, by contrast, are often undervalued. “Where our journey takes us next,” he concludes, “will depend upon what kind of beings we humans choose to be.”

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 5, 2013.

Photo: mountain pine with female cones in North Dakota. USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E. et al. 1996 © public domain Wikimedia Commons.

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