I met Al Gore when I interviewed him for Red Herring magazine during his run for the presidency 20 years ago. I remember thinking I’d never met a politician so intellectually curious and so uncomfortable with campaigning. (Red Herring’s archives are long gone, but The Weekly Standard’s derisive summary of our conversation still exists.) The then-vice president was genuinely interested in technology: At one point, he spun an elaborate metaphor, likening American democracy to a microprocessor. Gore helpfully sketched the idea on a napkin, drawing the executive branch as the control logic section. We kept the napkin, printing it in the magazine—along with the cover line, “E-Gore.”
I was therefore not surprised when Gore became a successful technology investor, a senior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and a member of the board of Apple. Recently, I met him in his new role at Desktop Metal, a designer of mass-production metal 3D printing systems, funded by Kleiner, among others. I had written enthusiastically about Desktop Metal for WIRED, and the company asked me to interview Gore for a private event. Before we took to the stage, I reminded Gore of how we met, and he made the kind of deflective joke politicians use to disguise the fact they have no memory of an encounter at all. (“I thought you’d forgotten,” he said dryly.)
Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He was formerly the editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; before that he was the editor of Red Herring. Now he is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a firm in Boston that funds companies that solve problems in health, food, and sustainability. Pontin does not write about Flagship’s portfolio companies nor about their competitors.
I was keen to talk to Gore about his special concern over four decades: the civilizational challenge of global warming. I wanted to know how he thought emerging technologies could reduce carbon emissions, and also curious to hear his opinion of the Green New Deal, a proposal by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats to simultaneously address climate change and inequality. Gore’s minders, knowing I disapproved of the GND’s emphasis on progressive goodies over detailed environmental policy, were uneasy with me asking about the proposal. But I asked anyway.
Jason Pontin: What technologies will have the most impact during the next five to 10 years?
Al Gore: We focus too much on individual technologies, and don't look at the ecosystem of new technologies. What’s happening right before our eyes is the emergence of what you might call “Earth, Incorporated”—a densely hyperconnected global economy that is challenging all of the political concepts we've had since the emergence of the nation-state. Simultaneously, because of the networking of our world, we are witnessing the emergence of “the Global Mind”—meaning the expression of collective conscience and thinking to identify challenges, and to insist upon the insertion of human values in the way we proceed. The interplay between the two is, I think, going to be the most important drama of the next five to 10 years and beyond.
"OK, so you can call it simplistic, you can call it naive, but the American people get it. They’re saying 'Yeah, we're for a Green New Deal. Now you work out the details.'”
My view is that a suite of technologies that sharply reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases will be the most important technologies of the immediate future. The general recognition of the global climate emergency is almost at the political tipping point. Of course, we are challenged here in the United States right now with a dysfunctional political system. But that challenge will be overcome, and I expect that in the early part of 2021 there will be the unleashing of new policy innovations.
An Earth, Incorporated and a Global Mind would be a revolution in how human beings have always interacted. Would we need policy innovations to regulate their interplay?
Yes. Just to pick one challenge, there is a real question about whether the long-held consensus that automation creates more jobs than it destroys still holds true. If the Luddite fallacy (as economists call it) is no longer a fallacy, then we will need new policy. You hear discussion of a guaranteed income. I don't know how I feel about that, but I do think that the dividing line between private and public life is likely to shift a bit, because we have no shortage of work that needs to be done in child care, health care and mental health care, or environmental cleanup. There are also lots of jobs in the public sector in which we have chronically underinvested. If we do see a large-scale hollowing out of employment in multiple verticals simultaneously, then instead of a government-guaranteed income, maybe we’ll need new policies to compensate people for doing all the work that desperately needs to be done.
But what are these technologies that will sharply reduce carbon emissions?
The success stories are to be found in the revolution in electricity. First, we have a huge trend toward the electrification of most things. The sun and the wind now produce electricity more cheaply in most geographies than the burning of fossil fuels. Secondly, we are seeing huge cost reductions in energy storage—principally batteries, but other technologies as well—which complement the alternative generation of electricity. Finally, you have the electrification of transportation: Every automobile manufacturer in the world is moving as quickly as they can to electricity. Those are the success stories, but that still leaves manufacturing and the need for industry to move as quickly as possible to a carbon-free economy.
We’ve been talking about technological supply. If you could wave a wand and transform demand, what would you change?
To solve the larger ecological crisis, we have to solve the crisis in democracy. I spoke earlier about the interplay between Earth, Inc. and the Global Mind. You could rephrase that in the context of the United States as a discussion of the interplay between capitalism and democracy. Democratic capitalism, this dual ideology, has been hegemonic in the world—especially since 1989. Yet the fissures between the two halves of the ideology are growing.
I'm unapologetically a capitalist, but we need reforms in capitalism. We have to measure and capture what have been conveniently labeled as negative externalities—like global warming pollution, which now captures as much extra heat energy in the Earth’s system every day as would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every 24 hours. But we also need to measure and capture positive externalities, so that we end the chronic underinvestment in education and health care. To heal the relationship between capitalism and democracy we need better tools. We need, for example, a direct or indirect price on carbon pollution.
To accomplish that and make all the other changes that are critically necessary, we have to heal the operations of our democracy and get the toxic influence of big money out of the ability of people to think together collectively and make intelligent choices about our future. Right now, democracy is not working. It is failing us. Luckily, the rising generation is demanding a better world. I'm optimistic that we will see the emergence of new ways to facilitate collective thinking that will enable people to use the tools of democracy to fix the serious problems in the marketplace.
Does that mean you applaud the spirit behind the Green New Deal, without necessarily approving its specifics?
Absolutely. Absolutely, that’s right. I know you’ve been critical about it and others have as well. But I am strongly in favor of what's described as the Green New Deal. When you peel back the first layer and look at the specifics, sure: You're going to find some things that you disagree with, or I disagree with.
Let me give you an analogy. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, in addition to working on the climate crisis, I spent a lot of time on nuclear arms control. In those days, there was a popular movement called the Nuclear Freeze Movement. It spread rapidly across the United States, and people like me, experts in the field, looked at the details and said “Oh my God, that's crazy. We can't just freeze everything. We need to do it much more thoughtfully.” But the people generally said “No, you experts, you people who've been managing this. The hell with you. You're not doing very well. We're scared.” Something like 75 to 80 percent of Americans told pollsters they were in favor of a nuclear freeze. Well, it didn't come to pass, but it created such enormous political pressure that, among other things, it led President Reagan, after he became president, to completely change his approach to disarmament. Some of us legislators ended up working with him. We got a brand-new approach that sharply reduced nuclear weapons. The label, “a nuclear freeze,” was criticized as simplistic, but it was a very powerful expression of the American people that changed history.
Now, think about the Green New Deal. What it encompasses are two things we have to solve: the climate crisis and the opportunity to create tens of millions of new jobs. What’s the fastest growing job in the United States? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s solar installer. Solar jobs have grown six times faster than average job growth. What's the second fastest growing job? Wind turbine technician. In every community across the United States, retrofitting residential, commercial, and industrial buildings pays for itself in the form of much-reduced energy bills and creating tens of millions of jobs.
OK, so you can call it simplistic, you can call it naive, but the American people get it. And that's why, in overwhelming percentages, they're saying “Yeah, we're for a Green New Deal. Now you work out the details.” I'm hopeful and I'm optimistic because we have seen this sustainability revolution already creating much more attractive alternatives to the dirty, dangerous, reckless, polluting processes of the past—and creating new jobs in the process.
A few days after our conversation at Desktop Metal, I wrote to Gore to ask what he knew now about global warming that he didn’t know when we first met.
He wrote back, “Four things: First, 20 years ago—for that matter, 50 years ago—the essential nature of this existential threat was already clear. What we know now that we didn’t know then is that virtually all of the scientific projections were too conservative. Second, that the positive, business projections of how quickly technological solutions could be developed were also too conservative. Third, the degradation of America’s democracy has allowed large carbon polluters to paralyze the enactment of essential policy solutions more effectively than most anticipated. But fourth, Mother Nature has become the most persuasive participant in the dialog about the climate crisis. And as the frequency and severity of extreme weather has increased in recent years, so has the number of Americans—across political and geographical divides—calling for action on the climate crisis. I’m more optimistic than ever that we will solve this.”
Put so, that seems fair: the time is later than we thought, but technology is more powerful than we had reason to hope, and ordinary people want change.