Al Gore on the Hacking of Democracy

During a recent rainy-day gathering at the Pasadena Convention Center in normally sunny and warm Southern California, Al Gore was noticeably heating up, using a napkin to dab at perspiration suddenly appearing on his face, neck, and forehead as he spoke about his latest book, “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.”

Cameras, tape recorders and direct questions were strictly prohibited. The press was not invited. So the former vice president, himself a once pretty good investigative reporter and no stranger to controversy, couldn’t have been sweating over any questions that might arise from the recent $500-million sale of his Current TV to Al-Jazeera, itself owned by the country of Qatar, producers of the noxious oil byproducts that Gore has gained fame and fortune warning us about. Nor would there be any pressure from the adoring Democratic Party faithful in the audience — everyone paying forty dollars for a book and a ticket to enter the hall — about possibly another run for president in three years, something a few people standing in the hallway prior to the presentation mentioned.

No, at this otherwise very well-controlled and low-key event, spicy food for lunch from a popular local restaurant (and perhaps a few unwanted pounds) appeared to be the culprit in touching off Gore’s gastric episode.

“It’s not the temperature,” said a clearly distressed Gore, swabbing moisture gathering around the crease of the buttoned-up collar of his royal blue shirt while trying to downplay the sudden interruption. “I was braggin’ on the food earlier,” he quipped in the folksiest Southern drawl he could muster at the moment, briefly halting the moderator’s safe selected question while collecting himself onstage. “I love spicy food, but when I eat spicy food,” he said very slowly, accentuating each word, “sometimes, it makes me sweat.”

Then again, after the 64-year-old Gore’s passionate 30-minute oration anyone would be a little out of breath. Gore spoke on everything from the threats posed by climate change to the perils of teetering economies operating in corrupt political systems controlling a technically advanced and ever more digitally interconnected world. He covered outsourcing, “robosourcing,” the loss of privacy in the Digital Age, West-to-East shifts in economic power, dangers inherent to corporate influence on politics, unsustainable growth in consumption and pollution, mind-boggling biomedical advances that inspire both awe and concern, deterioration of the middle class, and America’s lagging global leadership.

Heavy on anecdotes and Tennessee charm, Gore had earlier told of how he eventually started working on the project in earnest two years ago, culling information from hundreds of sources into some 15,000 pages of data in order to create what developed into a very readable 374-page book, minus an equally impressive 179 pages of notes, index and bibliography.

“I boiled it all down to six drivers of global change,” Gore offered. “I wanted to see how they were interacting with each other and what we could do … One of the themes of the book is we have real work to do.”

Gore’s world of tomorrow is a place where things move too quickly for anyone to truly keep up. “Forces of change are so powerful that they may sweep us along in a way that we may not like,” he warned.

Although the author of “The Assault on Reason,” “Our Choice” and “Earth in the Balance” says he doesn’t want to sound like an alarmist, much as he was accused of being in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore does ring the alarm bells. “The Future,” according to him, is a world in which corporate interests rule, Internet users are being spied upon by their own government and “stalked” by rapacious businesses stealing and then selling their most intimate information to the highest bidder, and the distribution of wealth has never been more out of balance.

“I didn’t want to be a scaremonger. This book isn’t anything like that,” Gore tried to assure his Convention Center audience.

Gore saved his fieriest rhetoric of the afternoon for his former legislative colleagues, not only for selling out their constituents, but also for conducting what Gore called “government by crisis,” a term coined by President Obama the previous week to describe the administration’s fractured relationship with Congress.

“As I was writing this book, I felt very strongly that our democracy has been hacked,” Gore said. “And you know what hacked means; it’s a computer term where the operating system of a computer is taken over and made to do things you don’t want it to do,” he said, much as he might explain something to a student, or a child.

“Well, our democracy is supposed to serve the public interest, but at the present time the role of Big Money in our politics is taking over the role of Congress, and it’s not working well,” he continued. “We seem to go from one crisis to the next. I have cliff fatigue. This government by crisis has gone way too far. One of the reasons for this is large contributions made by wealthy individuals. They have their own agenda. They are going to do what is profitable, what is good for them … and get Congress to do what they want. That is not how Congress is supposed to operate.”

Gore said he wrote the book as a way to encourage people to be agents of change. As he writes, “Human civilization has reached a fork in the road we have long traveled. One of two paths must be chosen. Both lead us into the unknown. But one leads to the destruction of the climate balance on which we depend, the depletion of irreplaceable resources that sustain us, the degradation of uniquely human values, and the possibility that civilization as we know it would come to an end. The other leads to the future.”

At least one person attending the event was energized by what Gore had to say. “I thought he was a first-rate speaker, genuine in his desire to share his message,” retired city of Pasadena spokeswoman Linda Centell said shortly after the event. “I felt he encouraged us to think deeply about the issues affecting our future, on a global scale, and to be personal agents of change.”

But those in the audience who wanted him to make another run at the White House will be disappointed when they come across this line in his book: “I am a recovering politician and the chances of a relapse have been diminishing long enough to increase my confidence that I will not succumb to the temptation again.”

Kevin Uhrich is the editor of the Pasadena Weekly.