In the nearly 13 years since Al Gore lost his bid for the White House, he's won a Nobel Prize for his crusade against climate change, joined Apple's board of directors, served as a Google senior advisor, and worked as an investment partner focusing on "green" technology at Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. That's not all, of course. Don't forget about his Current TV network. In January, just days after selling the network to the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera news network for $500 million, and netting a reported $100 million (despite Qatar's planet-damaging oil production industry), he exercised an option to buy 60,000 shares of Apple stock for $440,000; the same day, they were worth close to $30 million.
In February, Gore published The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, a 592-page text-heavy tome. In a SXSW session Saturday afternoon, he said the outline for the book, which was eight years in the making, was also the fundamental thesis for his investment firm, Generation Investment Management, which focuses on environmental, economic, and social sustainability and which he co-founded and chairs. The book surely informs his other advisory work, too.
If you don't have time for heavy reading right now--or you couldn't make it to Austin for SXSW this year--here's an extremely truncated and simplified synopsis of what Gore sees coming, from who's watching you on the Internet to farm animals cross-bred with arachnids, and what it may mean for our economy and our planet:
1. Emergence of Earth Inc.
The world has entered a new stage of economic globalization, with tighter interconnectedness across all national and regional borders. This affects all areas of classic production--labor, capital, and natural resources--for both physical and cognitive functions. As part of it, you're already seeing advances in "robo-sourcing," the outsourcing of jobs to machines. As an example, there are now algorithms that allow a first-year associate at a law firm to do the same amount of legal work as 500 used to be able to do.
2. Emergence of the Global Mind
Suddenly billions of people, and their thoughts and feelings, are connected to each other and to increasingly-intelligent devices. Vast databases, with a growing array of intelligent sensors, are ubiquitous. If you go to a site like Dictionary.com, programs on your device or computer are designed to track your movements around the Internet. At the workplace, your movements and conversations are tracked digitally. At school districts in Texas, kids are required to wear intelligent or RFID chips. Part of real-time chat app SnapChat's appeal: because a snap picture or video disappears in 10 seconds or less, it reduces the risk of a permanent digital record. "We now have a stalker economy," said Gore.
3. Dramatic Changes in World Power Relations
Power is moving from west to east. China is going to surpass the United States as the largest economy; in some categories, it already has. Emergent economies are dispersed, from Jakarta to Johannesburg, Istanbul to Sao Paulo. The total size of the developing economy has grown larger than that of the industrial world. That said, Gore said: "I feel strongly that the United States is the only nation that can provide the leadership the world needs."
Are growth and progress the same thing? Today that's pretty much how we look at it, Gore noted, pointing to the concept of Gross Domestic Product. In 1937, economist Simon Kuznets created the metric GDP, from which today's national and corporate business accounting is derived. But, Gore said, Kuznets told the nation at the time not to use GDP as a guide for economic policy because it leaves out important negative externalities (pollution) and positive ones (result of investment in science, culture, mental health care, or research and development). Another thing GDP leaves out, Kuznets said at the time: when there's a huge increase in national income, but 99 percent of it goes to only 1 percent of the population. "That's a huge win on the books to GDP," said Gore.
5. Reinvention of Life and Death
There's been a revolution in biology, genetics, brain science, and nanotechnology. "We're now acquiring the ability to change the fabric of nature, change the make-up of solid matter on an atomic basis," Gore said.
To illustrate this, he explained what people are already doing with spider goats. (Yes, spider goats.) Spider silk is very valuable because it's stronger than steel. Rather than farm spiders (because they're aggressive and cannibalistic), you can take the genes from orb-weaving spiders and splice them into goats. The resulting animals look like goats but they secrete spider milk, and you can extract spider silk from them.
6. The Edge
Gore couldn't leave out global warming. "We're using the atmosphere as a sewer," he said. "We've filled it up with enough pollution to trap enough heat energy to equal the energy released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every single day."
Last year the U.S. spent $110 billion in climate-related disaster damage. Gore said the single most common criticism he'd gotten from deniers of his global-warming claims was regarding the animation showing ocean water flowing into the World Trade Center memorial site. "It happened as of last October, way ahead of schedule," he said, referring to Superstorm Sandy.
Despite all these ominous predictions and warnings, Gore said he's still optimistic about the future. What can improve? He recommends Americans rally around the power of the Internet to drive for campaign finance reform. "Our democracy has been hacked; the people are not in charge."
He added, with emphasis: "Corporations are not people. Money is not speech. The constitution is not dead."