The Honorable Al Gore
, former U.S. Vice President, Nobel Prize Laureate, and Cofounder and Chairman, Generation Investment Management and Current TV
Summary by Richard C. Longworth
An unprecedented galaxy of global challenges is transforming the world and we aren‘t controlling any of them, former Vice President Al Gore told audience at a sold-out Chicago Council program Friday evening.
“Never have so many revolutionary changes unfolded simultaneously,” Gore said. He cited “six drivers of global change” – globalization, the digital revolution, climate change, genetic engineering and other scientific revolutions, the shift of global power from west to east, and the seizure of American politics by big money.
These changes are interconnected, Gore said. They are upending our lives and our rights, he said, and we’re letting it happen.
“Our democracy has been hacked,” he said.
Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the environment, was here to publicize his new book, The Future. Speaking with the tub-thumping twang and passion of a Tennessee preacher, he held 2,000 Chicagoans rapt for more than an hour with an analysis that ranged from nanotech to the Grand Ole Opry’s Minnie Pearl.
Gore said globalization is rewriting the laws of economics. Traditionally, economists assumed that technology, higher productivity, and economic growth created jobs and raised living standards.
Not now, he said. Propelled by “out-sourcing and robo-sourcing,” globalization and automation are destroying jobs, doing to lawyers and accountants what the steam engine did to the folk hero John Henry.
The emphasis on technology and automatic means that rewards flow to those who provide capital, not to workers. The upshot is a growing inequality that not only squeezes the middle class but undermines its purchasing power – “a macro challenge” to an economy based on consumption.
Gore also challenged the use of “gross domestic product” – that is, overall economic growth – as the “holy grail” of national well-being. In fact, he said, GDP is a crude measure that “ignores externalities,” such as pollution, education, health care or inequality, all keys to this well-being.
With a struggling middle class and declining wages, “does it make any sense to say that we’ve got growth?” he asked. “We need to revise our compass.”
The digital revolution is empowering machines, not people, Gore said. It enables computers and the governments that control them to gather masses of personal information and take decisions once taken by humans. As a result, “an epidemic of short-termism” rewards the speed of decision-making, as the expense of careful analysis.
Life sciences embrace genetic engineering, new materials, 3-D printing and many other processes. Some of this, Gore said, is “creepy. Not fear, really, but pre-fear, (the feeling that) something is going on outside the bounds of what we know.”
As an example, Gore cited the “spider goat” – goats implanted with the genes of spiders, so that they excrete silk in their milk.
Life sciences are producing good things, like new cures for disease, he said. But they also lead to human cloning and the ability of prospective parents to select traits for their children.
“Where is this leading? He asked. “The answer should come from us.”
There are two shifts of power, Gore said. One is global, from the West to Asia. The other is national, with the seizure of political power by big financial donors. Both shifts, he said, “are quite profound.”
Within the U.S., he said, “the political system has carved out a role for money that is ‘way beyond what’s healthy.” He reported a “sense of grieving” among his former Congressional colleagues, who spend five or six hours every day raising money, at the expense of making policy. The “incentive structure” for politicians, once dominated by constituents, is dictated now by donors, “with the result that significant reform is impossible unless you get permission from special interests.”
“This is a disgrace to our democracy.”
The crisis of climate change and the breakdown in the political system come together in the national failure to deal with the environment, or even discuss it, Gore said.
In all the debates leading up to last year’s presidential election, not one journalist asked one question about climate change, he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “that’s pathetic.”
One fork in the road leads to domination by big money and machines, Gore said. But “there’s another fork,” paved by technology itself – specifically the Internet.
The mass media began with printing presses that were relatively easy for citizens to access, Gore said. Then came television, with its high costs of entry and “its dampening effect on democracy.”
With the Internet, access has become cheap and easy again, giving voice to many reform movements.
Already, he said, reform movements – in same-sex marriage, for instance – are using this technology to win debates. “We are winning these conversations,” he said. Now, he said, the challenge is to “win the larger conversation.”
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.