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Gore’s ‘Future’ asks: Can we save ourselves?

The future has always been just ahead of us. The pace of change in the last 25 years, however, has more than quickened. It is racing at warp-speed that we don’t even sense.

The result, if we don’t do something about it, is that emerging forces – drivers, as Al Gore calls them – are reshaping our world without our even knowing it.

Gore, former vice president of the United States, co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and now multimillionaire, has a new book out and it’s a must-read. It’s called “The Future” and in it Gore lays out six critical drivers of global change. There may be others as they intermix, but at present, Gore says they include:

•  Earth Inc.: Ever-increasing economic globalization has led to the emergence of what Gore labels “Earth Inc.” – an integrated, holistic entity with a new and different relationship to capital, labor (outsourcing and robo-sourcing), consumer markets and national governments than in the past.

•  Global Mind: The worldwide digital communications, Internet and computer revolutions have led to the emergence of “the Global Mind,” which links the thoughts and feelings of billions of people and connects intelligent machines, robots, ubiquitous sensors and databases.

•  Shift in Balance of Power: The balance of global political, economic and military power is shifting more profoundly than at any time in the last 500 years – from a U.S.-centered system to one with multiple emerging centers of power, from nation-states to private actors, and from political systems to markets.

•  Growth: A deeply flawed economic compass is leading us to unsustainable growth in consumption, pollution flows and depletion of the planet’s strategic resources of topsoil, freshwater and living species.

•  Reinvention of Life and Death: Genomics, biotechnology, neuroscience and life sciences revolutions are radically transforming the fields of medicine, agriculture and molecular science – and are putting control of evolution in human hands.

•  Relationship between Humanity and the Earth: There has been a radical disruption of the relationship between human beings and the earth’s ecosystems, along with the beginning of a revolutionary transformation of energy systems, agriculture, transportation and construction worldwide.

Gore writes, “They (the drivers) are beginning to transform our planet, our civilization, the way we work and live our lives, the degradation of self-governance, the fabric of life, the species with which we share the earth and the physical mental and spiritual nature of humanity.”

Big enough issues to interest you? Gore says we have a choice. He writes, “We can be swept along with the powerful currents of technological change and economic determinism into a future that may threaten our aspirations and values or we can build the capacity for collective decision-making on a global scale that allows us to protect human dignity and reflect the aspirations of people and nations throughout the world.”

Mapping the future, he says, is a risky undertaking but perhaps the only thing riskier is doing nothing.

I’m not sure that the division of the world’s future suggested by the author is that cataclysmic: adopting an overall strategy or sitting on our collective billions of hands.

What seems more likely to me is the continuation of our selfish world. It is comprised of competing countries and ideologies that assure the continuation of an individualistic “I’ve got mine, Jack” philosophy. If you think about it, this is an assured strategy for guaranteeing that the world goes to hell in a hand basket.

Gore marshals some very disturbing facts, anecdotes and stories to “pull back the curtain on the world we live in.”

Here are a few signs that we cannot sustain our selfish, excessive consumption:

•  Robo-sourcing is transforming our economy. Over the last 25 years coal production has increased 13 percent but jobs have decreased 33 percent.

•  Federal officials believe cybersecurity is a more important national-security issue than terrorism.

 Computer hacking is rampant. One U.S. corporation lost $1 billion in one night.

•  Conventional manufacturing could be replaced by “3-D printing” enabling machines to create products on the spot. Entire houses can be constructed in 20 hours (doors and windows not included).

•  A survey of global execs reveals 80 percent are not willing to trade long-term sustainability for next quarter’s earnings target.

•  Over the last 40 years, we have lost more than of the arable land on Earth.

Think about it: 7 billion people all wielding or anxious to use new technologies, pursuing voracious consumption and setting in train ecologic changes that strain scientists’ imaginations. You couldn’t plan a train wreck better than what’s happening to us while we play games with our iPhones.

Considering the future is an old idea. The author gives us a history of future thinking that includes Plato, St. Augustine, the Tao of ancient China, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and others involved in the Scientific Revolution. In our own lifetimes were Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute thinking about the year 2000 in 1967 and Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” that was a best-seller in 1970, among others.

All were trying turn what “is” into what “ought” to be. Jefferson wrote that one couldn’t postulate where progress would stop. Gore reminds us that the exuberant optimism of the 19th century was dampened by excesses of the Second Industrial Revolution and the follow-on of two world wars in the 20th century with the murder of millions.

It seems a little late in the day to ask ourselves what our essential nature as a species is, but Gore asks that question, noting that Aristotle wrote that the end of a thing defines its essential nature. Is our end to devise our own demise as a civilization because of poorly husbanded resources?

We risk that possibility because of our reliance on outmoded thinking. Gore’s view is that the scientific method is still ruled by a cultural reductionism, a mistake. He says that … “by dividing and endlessly subdividing the objects of our research and analysis, we separate interconnected phenomena and processes to develop specialized expertise.” It’s the old focus on ever narrow slices of the whole that comes at the expense of paying attention to the larger whole.

All this said, Gore wants to be optimistic and I would like to agree with him, but I think that he paints too rosy a picture of our present world.

He says that capitalism, if reformed and made sustainable (don’t hold your breath on this one), can serve the world better than other economic systems.

Still, there are other reasons for optimism, Gore says. “For the present, war seems to be declining.” Does it? This doesn’t seem an accurate observation even in the short term.

“Global poverty is declining.” Is it? I’d like to be optimistic, but droughts, changes in seasonal climate patterns and other weather disasters don’t bode well for this prediction either.

Gore concludes by writing, “Just as a naïve optimism can amount to self-deception, so can a predisposition to pessimism…”

Gore is an optimist. He wants to find ways that we can come together, thinking and seeing clearly together about the future. We’re close to the end game.

He thinks that one of the six drivers of change described in this book, the emergence of a digital network connecting the thoughts and feelings of millions of people worldwide, offers the greatest source of hope for democratic deliberation.

This book, “The Future,” backs up that request. It looks carefully at the dangerous distortions in our present way of operating on this earth with a plan and an encouragement to modify our behaviors. Only in this way can we preserve and protect human values, not destroy them.

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change

By Al Gore; Random House, 558 pages, $30

Michael D. Langan has held senior positions in education, government and private industry.