The word “exciting” is in danger of being overused at SXSW. The panels I’ve attended to date have been stimulating and well-attended, and each created its own level of buzz. The gasp-meter, however, pegged yesterday during Walt Mossberg’s interview of Al Gore about his new book “The Future” and his take on recent events.
The mood was set when Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell took the stage to introduce Gore. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome former President Al Gore,” he began. That reference to the 2000 election was not lost on the crowd and Gore entered to appreciative applause. Interviewer Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal made it clear that he was not there to pander to the celebrity of Al Gore and proceeded to hold him to a tight line of questions about his book, the challenges ahead for the planet and for us, and why we might dare to be hopeful.
“How do you justify working with Al Jazeera?” asked Mossberg – this in reference to the fact that the privately-owned media company is based in Quatar, predominantly an oil-producing economy. “How do you justify working for Rupert Murdoch?” shot back Gore, and the gloves were off. Mossberg rejoined that Murdoch is not in the oil business, only to met quickly with Gore’s sally that he hadn’t known Murdoch to be strictly in the news business, either. The crowd was delighted.
The conversation did take a serious turn over the six drivers of change detailed in “The Future”: work, communication, power, demographics, biotechnology, and climate change. “Our democracy has been hacked,” stated Gore, noting that too much power in the hands of a small group is dangerous to liberty. Not since the 1890s, he added, has so much money and power rested in the hands of so few in the U.S. Additionally, he called for the overturn of the Citizens United decision – again to loud approval from the audience.
The welfare of citizens needs to become the focus of government again, Gore insisted. The average incumbent, he says, now spends five hours a day raising money rather than attending to state business. This represents not only time lost running affairs of state, but a perpetual tie to special interest groups who are, in essence, running the country. Decision-making by the U.S. government doesn’t take our welfare into heart, he said, and that is expressed by actions such as the U.S. entry into the Iraq war, “a dumb-ass decision.”
We knew that climate change would merit attention, and Gore did not fall short of expectation when he got to the subject. “We’re using the atmosphere as a sewer,” he said. And it’s costing us in every way – including monetarily. According to Gore, $110 billion in climate-related disasters has been incurred.
Despite the looming problems, there is reason to be hopeful, Gore asserted. But meeting these mounting challenges means “taking back American democracy and making it function again”, said Gore. It will also take imagination and the willingness to embrace change. “Disruptive technologies create more jobs than they displace,” he said. The U.S. is “the only country who can lead the world out of this,” stated Gore. The challenge is before us.