Sunday, February 26, 2006

I Bought Al Gore Lunch: Real As Rain

The young Al Gore at his typewriter at the Nashville Tennessean in 1962

On the 17th May 1992, on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit, on a Sunday lunchtime I found myself in the 'green room' of a London Weekend Television news studio with the then Senator Al Gore, Crispin Tickell (former UK ambassador to the UN and the man who was widely credited as convincing Margaret Thatcher about the reality of global warming) and Marcus Strong, the Canadian principal organiser of the Earth Summit.

Earlier that week [12 May] I had also interviewed Stephan Schimdheiny, one of the richest men in Switzerland, head of some eight corporations, who was leading the global corporate pitch at Rio. Material from Gore and Schmidheiny provided the major quotes in a feature piece 'It's Business As Usual' I produced for Richard Williams, then editor of the 'Independent on Sunday' magazine, at that time an impressive large-format magazine of which carried serious journalism and top photography.

[Interestingly, Gore was a complete unknown to the British press at that point and the published piece largely centred on the background history of Schmidheiney, Strong and the prognosis for the forthcoming Rio Summit'. The sub-title sums it up: 'A Swiss billionaire and the Rio Summit organiser have teamed up to convert big business to the cause. Or is it just a corporate greenwash?]

After the tv show, Al Gore and I were taken by hire car to Orsos in Covent Garden, where I interviewed him about his just published book 'Earth in the Balance.' At the end of the meal, I discovered Gore was being driven down to Gatwick Airport - halfway home for me - so I hitched a ride.

Yes it was just like a scene from 'The Candidate' - a real Kennedy moment. Just a few weeks later, on 9 July, Bill Clinton announced his selection of Gore as running mate.

As the majority of my interview with Gore was not published in the Independent, I tried to sell a fuller profile of Gore to The Guardian (which I faxed to Alan Rusbridger on 8 June) but with no success. So, almost 14 years later, this is its first publication. I hope you think it makes interesting reading. Just in case you get confused, the Bush in question is George Senior. How times change !


Throughout the tv news coverage of the Bush administration's intransigent and un-imaginative stance on Rio, one man's views have been consistently presented as a counter-point, those of Senator Al Gore. He is man little known to the British public but in the US he is widely perceived as the greenest Senator in the Congress and the man for the Democratic nomination in 1996.

Gore is a second-generation senator, a Baptist from Tennessee. He is, amongst other things, one of the architects of the Superfund Law to deal with toxic waste sites and head of the committee in charge of NASA. His well-written just published book 'Earth In The Balance' provides not only a clear analysis of global problems but also ranges across a wide canvas of other scientific and spiritual matters, concluding with an outline for a Global Marshall Plan.

In person he is tall, dark-haired, clean-shaven, well built, personable and intelligent. When we met he had just flown in from the black ghettos of Memphis for a tv debate on Rio and was en route to Strasbourg. This interview was conducted over a fast lunch at Orsos and during an 85mph drive to Gatwick and it is clear that he lives his life on this kind of tight schedule.

He has had some great teachers and has travelled the world in search of a true understanding of the global ecological crisis and how it can be resolved. As his book reveals, he has witnessed at first hand the Aral Sea disaster, has stood on the Antarctica ice, been in a nuclear submarine below the Arctic and travelled in the Amazonian rain forest. In Vietnam he trudged through a landscape defoliated by Agent Orange. He has done virtual reality and contributed a major article to Scientific American about the need to build the new 'data highways'. He understands the links between environmental awareness and electronics. He has internalised the JFK myth, draws his strength from Jeffersonian principles and his metaphors from the cutting edge of science.

When he was a child, his mother made him realise the importance of Rachgel Carson's 'Silent Spring'. His college professor was Roger Revelle, the first person in the worid to monitor carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, along with C.O. Keeling, discoverer of the 'greenhouse effect'. He studied the nuclear arms race and ran for President and lost in 1987.

His inner spiritual search was intensified by an afternoon in April 1989 when, in front of his eyes, his six-year old son Albert was hit by a car and flung thirty feet in the air. The long life-and-death struggle that ensued, ending happily with his son's survival, caused him to rethink all his values. He was 40, a failed Presidential candidate, a man ready for personal change. He quotes Ghandi: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world".

Our conversation began with the Founding Fathers for whom Gore has great respect. Like Jefferson, he aspires to achieving a 'catholic understanding of the whole of knowledge' and he describes the original Constitution as a 'blueprint for an ingenious machine that uses pressure valves and compensating forces to achieve a dynamic balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, between freedom and order, between passions and principles.' Their ideas, he believes, are now very contemporary.

"Our civilisation's relationship to knowledge is unhealthy in at least one important respect. We have chosen the strategy of specialising in ever narrower fields of inquiry to the exclusion of any sustained effort to integrate what we're learning with an improved understanding of the whole of knowledge. And we rationalise this approach by telling ourselves that its absolutely impossible for anyone to keep up with all the facts emerging in every field of inquiry so it's efficient to just look at a tiny subset of knowledge.

"The result is that we don't pay attention to the way the parts relate to the whole. There's an implicit assumption that somewhere someone is putting all this together and no-one is. So whenever an important value relating to the whole is at risk no-one speaks for it."

Which, of course, is exactly the problem when we come to talk about the global environment. I put it to him that we are living in the last days of the Enlightenment paradigm and, in the classic paradigm theory, the anomalies are accumlating but we don't yet have the new vision and the new model.

"But it is in fact emerging.The manner in which a change of this kind takes place is rather like the way a shift in tectonic plates causes an earthquake. As the two paradigms press against one other, the pressure builds up for a long period of time before there's any tangible evidence of change on the surface. Just as in a real earthquake, there's a sudden heaving motion as one plate submerges the other and the shock waves [result].
When enough pressure builds up, one paradigm moves over the other one submerging it and the shock waves knock down the conceptual edifices that have been associated with the old paradigm. We're now in the stage where the pressure is building nearly to the point where this shift will take place. It's a very deep change.

"The ideas with which Descartes, Francis Bacon and others are associated, [is] that we would eventually be able to contain in our intellect the full mathematical blueprint of all reality, predict the movement within the patterns we have deciphered and then master all of reality.

"It was that arrogant and hubristic notion which led to, in the extreme form, communism, which was after all the notion that we could completely contain in an intellectual design all of human society and then manhandle reality to make it conform to the preconceived notion. The fact that communismm collapsed suddenly at the very moment when we see this paradigm shift about to take place in all these other fields is not an accident. Its part of the same shift.

He agreed with my notion that Fukuyama's The End of History' is not the end of history but the end of the old model, one in which the mass media and the intellectual apparatus that surrounds it is still trapped.

Conversation then turned to the earth as the new powerful, holistic symbol and to his involvement with NASA's Mission to Planet Earth.

"It's extremely important as a way of accelerating the solidification of this new consensus, as a way of identifying the best methods for healing the reelationship between civilisation and the earth and as a way of actually beginning the healing process itself.

"I've advocated a change in the design of Mission to Planet Earth to ensure that it is a mission by the people of Planet Earth and I'm now working with NASA and a number of corporations on a design for a worldwide education programme to link schoolchi1dren in every country wishing to participate, in a programme for monitoring the environment in their individual areas and recording [their findings] on a daily basis.

"What I envisage eventually, on cable television at least, is hourly updates on what is happening to the global environment both in terms of the indicators of temperature, wind speed, drought, soil aridity, soil erosion etc and in the way of mitigation and remediation worldwide. That's not far off. Its possible to link that together within two to three years."

"I've just had a meeting with the new NASA administrator Daniel Golden and I was recommending the creation of a new programme called Digital Earth to create a very dense, interactive model capable of accepting data inputs from a variety of different formats and contaning them within this grid, which will evolve to become an ever denser and more accurate representation of the world system.

I have also just completed a long negotation with the intelligence communi ty and the director [of the CIA] Robert Gates. It has just been agreed formally between the two of us to allow a panel of earth scientists to go through a very elabarate security check, so that they get the codeword clearance at the top level of classification. That includes lie detector tests and all kinds of things. Some of these scientists may not want to go through this but most of them are willing to do this in the cause.

"They will then go into the guts of the intelligence community as a scouting party to find the databases that are most relevant to quickly upgrade our understanding of the climate system. We have a very large array of satellites and other data collection systems that are totally hidden from public view, A good bit of the information that they're planning to get through Mission from Planet to Earth ten to fifteen years from now is, in fact, already available - except that it's top secret. (The first fruits of this was the release of Arctic sea ice data)

"I made it clear to the intelligence community that there would, under no circumstances be any compromise of national security. Starting from the premise, we then found ways to scrub out the national security sensitive information and still bring into the open these enormous volumes of data that the scientists have never seen before."

British cosmologist Fred Hoyle predicted in 1948 that: "once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension . . .Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.'

"In a sense the Apollo 11 picture of the earth was a turning point. There's a moral philosopher named Mark Sagoff who argues that the old controversy between preservation and conservation, between the idea that nature is pristine and must be kept sheltered from human impact - or at least important parts of it must be - and the idea that nature is a collection of natural resources which we need for our own consumptive patterns, the task [being] to manage those patterns of consumption in ways that safeguard the continued availability of resource. He argues that both of these approaches really rest on the assumption that nature is one thing and human beings are something else altogether. The debate in the media and the environmental movement unfolded within that old paradigm.

"The solution is obviously to see ourselves as an integral part of the ecological system. And one concept, according to this particular thinker, is to dwell on the concept of place. We sink roots in a place and, as a consequence, we feel not only a connection to it but also an obligation to preserve it as [we are] a part of it. The image from Apollo 11, that first image of earth from space, was a breakthrough conceptually, primarily because it demonstrated that the earth is one place. That we are rooted in this one place. That is as important an element in the new paradigm as any other."

In his book Gore devotes a chapter to his ideas about 'environmentalism of the spirit' and quotes Teilhard de Chardin's view that "The fate of mankind, as well as of religion, depends on the emergence of a new faith in the future."

"Recently in Washington DC, I hosted a conference of religious leaders and scientists to talk about the global environment. We had the presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church, the Methodist church, the Baptist church, people from the Evangelical movement, from the historical African-American churches, the American Jewish community, the Council of Bishops of the Catholic church, right down the list - and a long list of some of the most distinguished scientists in the United States including Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Sherwood Row!and.

"The meeting went on for three days. It was a wonderful discussion and at the end of the conference they negotiated the text of a joint appeal. I chaired the session. One line of the appeal] was, we don't have to agree on how the world began in order to agree on the need to preserve it. Then they fanned out and went off lobbying members of Congress. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church went to see President Bush, that's his denomination.

"I really believe there's a pending rapprochement between science and religion worldwide on this issue. Science, of course, is perhaps especially guilty of this problem we talked about earlier of increasing specialisation to increasingly narrow fields of inquiry. But the science of ecology, which emphasises relationships, is now leading to some very large changes in the way traditional science interprets some of the phenomena it has heretofore described in other languages.

"Every new discovery seems to bring into view an ever-more elaborate and richly complex web of interrelationships. It seems to be only logical to extrapolate that explosion of discovery to a point where the entire known universe will be seen as an elaborately interconnected whole. The new discovery that confirms the Big Bang theory is part of that process Once science arrives at this view of the universe, the distance between science and religion will have narrowed even more.

At this point the conversation takes a turn, when the real potential significance of the person sitting opposite me comes into focus.

"If I have the chance to run for President in the future I will and I will make the best use of whatever political talent I've gained in the effort to translate this issue into the central organising principle of the post-Cold War world. It must become that. I don't think, incidentally, it's anything like an impossible task. I think it will happen. It's just that we're in a race. It needs to happen sooner rather than later. It's happening, especially with young people. They're so much farther ahead of the others. There've been public opinion polls internationally that demonstrate quite conclusively that the number one issue for young people in almost every country is this task of saving the global environment. In the Year 2000 there will be 2 billion teenagers. It's a frightening thought in and of itself. They will all have the same notions about this change which has to take place.

Talk turned to Rio. Press coverage generally has been 'polluted with pessimism' in one memorable editorial phrase. What is the subtext though? Is this the fabled new world order taking shape? Is Rio just one stage in the process of reshaping the global political landscape?

"For the last fifty years, the central organising principle for the Western democracies has been the defeat of communism. In the United States, for example, that meant Federal assistance to local schools was approved only after the Russians had launched Sputnik. People from all parts of the ideological spectrum agreed that central government support of local schools was necessary if for no other reason [than that] it would assist our struggle against communism. My father was the author of the Interstate Highway Bill but it passed under the heading the Defense Interstate Highway Bill because in time of war, it would be quite useful for the trucks bringing material for the effort to defeat communism.

"Now that communism has been defeated, we are confronted with a great many new realities in the world. Chief among them is the emotional realisation by people all over the earth that we now have a global civilisation. It is a community of nations to be sure but it is truly a global civilisation linked together by an electronic comminucations grid - CNN, BBC and computer networks. The business community has long since begun to define all of its challenges in a global context. The scientific commmunity does the same thing. The fax machines between Bejing and East Anglia and Palo Alto are buzzing away right now.

"We are now at a point where politics has to catch up with the rest of civilisation and construct a global agenda of common problems which must be susceptible to cooperative worldwide solutions. So the new organs ing principle then must be the task of saving the world's environment and the Earth Summitt is the first of many world summit meetings at which this new global agenda will be drafted. It is in that sense, already a success.
Beneath the rhetoric this palpable sense of coming together is quite powerful. The shift in attitudes on the part of developing nations is quite pronounced, even though its disguised by the lingering resort to the ideological warfare of North and South left over from the 1960s,

"In fact that conflict is not what it appears to be. The new depth of concern about the global environment within the developing countries is a powerful fact of life. The South used to implicitly threaten the North with environmental irresponsibility if the North didn't cough up lots of money. We still hear [some of] that rhetoric [but] its an artefact of the past. The South now knows in its bones [that] the pattern of development has to change if the North does the right thing by them or not. Of course the North must do the right thing because it will not be physically possible for the South to accomplish the transition in time unless there is a truly cooperative effort. So all of these things are occurring beneath the surface at Rio.

"The great tragedy of Rio is that an occasion of this sort was intended to be the ideal setting for new commitments to get on with the task in hand. The fact that we've seen this enormous moral and political cowardice on the part of the leaders in the industrial world means that the tiny bit of substantive progress made at Rio is entirely out of proportion to the rapidly worsening problem. We've made an inch of progress while the problem has raced ahead many miles in its severity."

In his book, Senator Gore talks about the aftermath of the Gulf and reveals that James Baker had to disinvest his oil shares before he could talk about global warming. President Bush is, of course, an oil man through and through. Surely there is another fight going on. Entrenched corporate interests who have the power are damn well not going to give it up for anybody. As far as they are concerned, the world can go to hell in a handbasket.

"In this sense its a very old a classic struggle between short-term greed expressing itself as exploitation and a longer-term view of our obligations to generations to come. It's just that this whole conflict now has much higher stakes. The damage that can be accomplished by a continuation of this old resort to short-term greed is just unthinkable now.

"There is a very well-financed. well-organised and extremely agressive effort by elements within the coal industry and the electric utility industry to promote the Big Lie that we don't have a problem. They have already the cost the world several precious years in the effort to establish a new consensus and they seem bound and determined to do whatever it takes to fight this to the very end.

"At the last Rio preparatory meeting, the chief lobbyist for the US coal industry, a man named Don Pearlman, regularly caucused with the OPEC delegations and concocted strategy together. At a number of international meetings it seemed obvious to most observers that the Bush administration and the OPEC delegation were seeing eye-to-eye on tactical as well as strategic questions and worked cooperatively to prevent more meaningful agreements.

There is obviously a big change going on in the corporate world with green and spiritual ideas taking root.

"This is coming because of this very deep paradigm shift. What is a corporation? Is it a seperate entity unto itself, chartered to make money and nothing more, or is it an entity with complex interconnections to the society and the civilisation and the ecological system within which it makes money. This breakthrough to a new way of conceiving of the role of corporations in society confers a tremendous competitive advantage. Those who see the opportunity for profit in change are growing rapidly in numbers. I believe that the world business revolution in quality is being intertwined with the environmental revolution. This relationship between the business ethic and the environmental ethic is one of the keys to whether it moves in the right direction or not.

Corporations are now saying give us the responsibility but can we trust the the corporate world?

"I will quote you Ronald Reagan's dictum about the START negotiations. Trust But Verify, And where verification leads one to identify an agglomerati on of economic power being directed in a way that is intended to frustrate progress in saving the earth's environment, then we must be willing to take steps to correct that.

"But what's the alternative. The two polar extremes are untrammelled mercantilism and virulent statism. The latter has been associated with by far the worst environmental tragedies on the planet. Given a choice between the two approaches, one wants to learn from experience and recognise that modified free markets with appropriate restraints on unethical behaviour and unwise short-term exploitative behaviour represents an option generally to be preferred over what I regard as sometimes naive faith in central government programmes that sound good in concept but, for a variety of reasons, don't really accomplish what is intended. The reason why statism has been such a dismal failure in its communist iteration and elsewhere is that it deadens the human spirit and one does not unlock a higher fraction of the human potential unless there is a certain range of freedom.

Senator Gore tells me about a new movie, whose premiere he attended, called 'Mindwalk', made by Fritjof Capra and his brother Bert and starring Liv Ullman, Sam Waterstone and John Heard. It's about a Democratic senator who ran for President in 1988 and lost but is now totally absorbed in the global ecological crisis. The film takes the form of a two hour conversation between these protagonists as they wander round Mont St Michel. He could well be the model. He has certainly dedicated the rest of his life to his vision of global change. But is he for real? As real as rain, as they say in Tennessee,

Footnote: Gore's piece about the forthcoming concept of the Information Superhighway was called 'Infrastructure for the Global Village' and appeared in Scientific American, September 1991.

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