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Some Ideas about Possible Futures
on 3 May 2013
Al Gore's `The Future' is an interesting and sometimes provocative book. However, it falls short of its potential due to a number of reasons, which is why I have only given it 3 stars.
Firstly, it is too broad in its scope: the book tries to encompass a very wide range of future trends and potential developments, ranging through political and economic changes; life sciences; geo-political changes; climate change and many others. Each is a worthy topic for a book in its own right. However, if Gore intended to be able to knit the various themes together, he fails significantly.
Secondly, although packed with up to date references and vignettes, at times parts of the book tended to read like a set of bullet points, (without the bullets) which lacked a sound or well-articulated line of reasoning. It was as if in his long experience in exploring and discussing the issues with various people in the fields covered by the book, Al Gore sat down with his `Mind-Mapping' software and let out a stream of consciousness, which was then converted into a Mind-Map to front each of his chapters. Then he appears to have started writing about all the topics on his Mind-Map, with little concern for explaining why or how they linked to his overall argument. As a result, the writing - although quite fluid - lacks an intellectual rigour.
Thirdly, as has been mentioned by another commentator on this site who allotted 1 star to the book, Al Gore cannot resist blowing his own trumpet, but more annoyingly, he seems incapable of seeing a world wherein other nations have and continue to make major contributions to his pet theme of `global leadership.' Of course, the United States is often held up as the champion of Western Liberal Democracy and I fully agree and sympathise with his lament that the USA political system (like many others) has become paralyzed over the past few decades by the unhealthy influence and indeed in some instances control of legislation in the Congress by vested interests (largely big business), who can afford powerful lobbyists and campaign funding. However, Al Gore's excessive flattery of the framers of the US Constitution shows a serious lack of appreciation of the historical record. This is all the more surprising given his past tenure of the post of Vice President. Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the Federalist Papers of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in accompaniment to the Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of thinking and writing by both sides to the debate. However, in reading these works one cannot help but be struck by the extent to which the arguments on both sides drew upon a sound and deep knowledge of the classical political thinking of the Greco-Romans, as well as the then more recent writings of British and European political thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire and others: none of which get a mention by Gore. In other words, the foundations of the American Constitution and its first ten ratified amendments which form their Bill of Rights are not quite the innovative and original thinking that Al Gore would like to suggest. This does not devalue them, but it would be nice if Gore could appreciate that the basis of the US constitution is firmly grounded in a long tradition of thinking that lies outside the United States. This is but one small, albeit important example of where Al Gore seems to be carried away with the idea that the United States is the bastion of all free liberal democratic thinking and that the rest of the world meekly follows.
In much the same way, Gore keeps coming back to the need for strong leadership by the United States to `sort-out' many of the challenges and problems facing the world today. Of course, I agree that it would be much better for the United States to be `on board' and fully committed to policies concerning protection of biodiversity and the environment; but at the same time, Gore is caught between a rock and a hard place, since by his own admission, the United States is paralyzed in much of its important policy making through the influence of big business, which he claims (probably quite rightly) has little regard or recognition of the `public interest.' Hence, one is left wondering whether he believes that the world can only progress with US leadership or whether as he does acknowledge Europe is perfectly capable of crafting progressive policies on environmental issues, when the US lags behind. As an example of Gore's shortcoming in this vain, one needs only to look on the last page of his concluding chapter, where he writes:
"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."
Whilst I can understand why somebody of his background might take the above view, in my opinion it tends to fail to recognise how the world is changing in geopolitical and economic terms (although in fairness, Gore acknowledges this point elsewhere in his book). Given many of Gore's concerns for the future involve technologies that will diffuse beyond national borders or biological threats, such as the West Nile virus which does not care about human borders or global issues such as climate change, it is surprising that he falls back on a model of decision making dependent upon one nation. These are global issues and however hard it may be to build consensus amongst so many different interest groups and nation states, any solution that is to have a chance of working has to be global in nature, which in turn must be based upon global agreement.
In reading the book, I felt irritated with this somewhat naïve bias and in some areas simple ignorance that Gore exhibited when it came to the ability of other countries to take the lead. This was perhaps most apparent, when Gore was talking about topics around robotics, artificial intelligence, bio-electronics and genetic engineering. Anyone who has spent time working with or visiting companies in Japan or South Korea and Singapore cannot come away without a profound sense of leadership in some of aspects of these fields that leave the US in catch-up mode.
The above are just a very short set of examples of where Gore might have benefitted from the services of an international editor more familiar with the literature and achievements outside the United States, in order to add a little more balance to his arguments. They might also have invested some time in cutting down the degree to which the book `rambles' through a wide range of important and interesting topics and tightened the arguments to create a more robust set of conclusions. Also, given the amount of data in the book, it would probably have benefitted from some tables and diagrams to illustrate some of the points more clearly.
Instead, if one is familiar with even half the topics in this book, Gore does not really offer up anything particularly new or insightful. His take away message then appears to centre upon the idea that `Democracy and capitalism have both been hacked' by big business interests, whose short-term focus, fails to address the very important long-term effects of bad policies. Hijacked would probably be a more appropriate verb, but with this general argument, he has my full support.
So having highlighted some of my negative observations about the book, is it worth reading? Most certainly. Indeed, I strongly recommend the book (warts and all) since I believe whatever one's political position, Gore does make some very valid points. Furthermore, Gore provides an overview of many of the technological developments which are rapidly occurring at this time and whose impact upon societies throughout the world will be profound. Of course there are plenty of other books out there which go into much more detail about the various issues discussed and anyone seriously interested or concerned will probably have read many of them. Gore's book is unlikely to throw new light on these issues for such people. However, for those interested in surveying the vast territory of changes and challenges facing humanity at this time, Gore's book provides a good overview and introduction, albeit with his own bias. Furthermore, unlike some more subtle publications, Gore does not pretend to lack an agenda or motive for pressing home his message. Whether you agree with it or not is up to you; but it is worth listening to.
Finally, the title of the book `The Future' is rather misleading and inappropriate in my opinion, although I can see it provides a strong and catchy title for marketing purposes, which appears to be Gore's forte these days. A more appropriate, although much less attractive title might have read: `Elements and Forces Shaping some Possible Futures for Humanity.' But then, if you want to sell the book . . .