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I know how it is: you feel that perhaps you ought to read The Future by Al Gore. After all, he's a Nobel prize-winner who came within a few hanging chads of becoming American president and bore that cruel defeat with admirable nobility. On the other hand, you open the book and see it's 400 pages long with lots of squiggly diagrams; and there's close to another 200 pages of notes and indices ... and you think, do I have to?
I'm here to save you the trouble. Here is what Al says. America is a failed democracy because its politics is in the control of big business, notably oil and gas companies, who get the big television companies to do their bidding because they pay for all the advertising. Growth is a delusion; it brings nothing but false hope because we are all consuming too much. What's really serious is that all those developing countries that used to consume very little because they were poor are now beginning to eat and consume as if they were like us - and that's terrible. Worst of all, those sorts of people (apart from the Chinese) are having too many children, who will insist on consuming more. Oh, and as per his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, because of all the consequent carbon emissions, the planet is going to become rapidly hotter until it becomes uninhabitable for the human race. In the words of Private Frazer from Dad's Army, we're doomed!
Doomed, that is, unless we listen to Gore, stop our obsession with consuming more, and close down every oil field, instead relying on heavily subsidised wind and solar energy (in which renewable resources, funnily enough, Gore is a very substantial investor). Of course, it is easy to make fun of the ever-so-slightly pompous former vice-president. Especially as the first paragraph of the introduction tells us how he got the idea for this book while on a long plane flight (doubtless on one of his carbon-offset private jet flights to one environmental conference or another), and as one recalls how Gore's local newspaper a few years ago revealed that his main residence had a fuel consumption of 20 times the national average. Then there is the fact that the author of this impassioned attack on Big Oil and Gas has just sold his TV business to Al Jazeera - which happens to be wholly owned by Qatar, a kingdom built on gas and with the world's highest per capita carbon footprint.
Yet Gore's book deserves more than snide ad hominem attacks. It deserves to be taken apart properly, on its arguments. On the one hand he argues incessantly against economic growth - he calls targeting GDP madness. Yet he also criticises the Obama administration for not injecting enough trillions to stimulate the American economy. 'Not enough demand,' Gore complains. Well what is demand, except for a demand to consume?
In pursuit of his long-held belief that human proliferation in Africa must be stopped at (almost) all costs, Gore claims that studies have conclusively shown that this deadly combination [of food shortages and a rising population] was a major contributing factor in the years leading up to the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda in 1994. On the contrary; as Fred Pearce pointed out in his book PeopleQuake, the war between the Hutu and the Tutsi was not a fight over dwindling food resources. Food production in Rwanda had grown by almost 5% a year in the decades leading up to the massacres, significantly more than the rate of increase in the population. This might seem a marginal point to labour: but to predict the future it is first necessary to understand the present - and the past.
Similarly, Gore describes the annual exodus of up to 20,000 Africans to the Canary Islands, the most southerly point of the EU, as a flight from the consequences of climate change - drought. It fails to occur to him that it is not necessary to leave Africa to find water; and that these emigrants are actually in search of more economic opportunity - something an American above all should understand.
Gore is not always wrong. In his recurring theme of the power of corporate lobbying on television companies, he might even be right (though American TV has always been in hock to advertisers). Still, it would have been helpful if he could have managed a single concrete example of how the oil and gas industry actually manipulates the media: he doesn't. Besides, as the great futurologist should know, television is old hat. The young have all but abandoned it for the internet - which, as Gore pointed out sometime last century, he 'took the initiative in creating'. Seriously, the man's a genius.
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