Al Gore

The entirely calm, reasonable, and persuasive star of An Inconvenient Truth.

He's at Cannes. He's lampooning himself on SNL. He's on the covers of magazines. He's got a new book out, already well reviewed. Who is this rising media sensation, star of the global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the same old Al Gore you know and love and perhaps find just a bit, well, boring in his long-winded sincerity. He's being billed as Al Version 2.0, and already there's a growing media mythology about his return from the political wilderness, like MacArthur striding back up the Philippines beach. Yeah, right—he's tanned, fit, rested, and whatever else you want to believe. But the truth may be that the world looks so much worse six years after the Florida recount debacle that Gore, upright and true to himself, seems like a breath of fresh Beltway air. Now hooked up with Apple, Google, and a sustainable-investment fund, he appeared prosperous and relaxed as we met recently in a Seattle hotel room. The kids are out of college, Florida 2000 is behind him, and he's free to concentrate on . . . politics? The environment? His movie? Or "the architecture of packet switching"? Let's just say he had plenty to say about all those subjects during our conversation. Seattle Weekly: How was it that in the '80s and early '90s, leading up to your book Earth in the Balance, that "environmentalism" became a kind of a slur? A marginal, fringe, crazy topic? Well, that's an interesting place to start, and a deep question. I think that happened at the same time that labor unions and consumer groups and public health groups and child advocates and others all suffered exactly the same fate. I personally think it's connected to a tectonic shift in the structure of the public forum. I think the nature of America's conversation of democracy changed dramatically a couple of decades after television asserted its dominance over print. The republic of letters was invaded and occupied by the empire of television. And the structure of the forum defined by the printing press was one with very low entry barriers for individuals, a multiway conversation with ideas that rose or fell according to [their merit]. John Stuart Mill said, "Every idea shall compete, and the truth shall emerge as the winner." [Laughs] And there was never a perfect age when that happened. But it is true that 500 years ago, when the medieval information monopoly that supported feudalism was destroyed, slowly, by the introduction of the printing press, that led to the Enlightenment and the enshrinement of the rule of reason—a new sovereign and respect for the best of evidence rule. And when that happened, for the first time in history, knowledge became a source of power in the hands of the average citizen. Thomas Paine never went to school, didn't have a penny to his name, but wrote the Harry Potter of the 18th century [Common Sense], and helped to start the American Revolution. And when the entry barriers were so low that everyone could enter the fray, it became easier to use knowledge to mediate between wealth and power. And when new ideas were considered, they were judged against their effects on the masses of the literate, who could all have their say. But in the early 1960s when the television became the source of information for the majority, for a couple decades after that, the TV news operations mimicked The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune, etc. The struggle at the heart of Good Night, and Good Luck chronicles the point when that began to change, and entertainment values asserted themselves. Add in conglomerate ownership with a smaller and smaller number of owners, and then all of a sudden the fundamental nature of television began to be apparent: It is one-way. It's one-way. It's like the medieval monastic scriptorium. If you wanted to be a writer in the Middle Ages, you had to be a monk, and then you could copy a dead guy's book in a dead language. Now, if you want to be Thomas Paine on television, you can't. You have to go work for a studio, and then you play a bit part on a show about people eating dogs. The Internet is changing all of this, and once again creating a multiway conversation with low entry barriers for individuals. However, due to the architecture of packet switching, it will not support mass distribution of full-motion video, which is essential to produce the quasi-hypnotic effect that television has. The average American watches television four hours and 39 minutes a day, up four minutes from last year. Most of the people using the Internet are watching television simultaneously. So television is dominant; it won't stay that way, but right now it is. And because it is, it is far easier for interests that don't want environmental regulations, or an increased minimum wage, or enforcement of the wage-and-hour laws, or a national health care system, or a program for mental health in the country, or consumer protection, or whatever, to have a much larger influence on the nature of the conversation, and to marginalize those who say, "Hey wait a minute! Wait a minute! When in the course of human events . . . " [Laughs] and they don't get heard. Now I'm sorry to give you a mouthful, but . . . OK, but back when I was a college student in the '80s, there was a big movement to shame universities into divesting their South African stocks. Could the environmental movement do the same with corporations and shareholders today? I hope so, but here's the main thing: We really have to get the information about the climate crisis before the American people. That's why I want everybody to see this movie. I've been trying to tell this story for 30 years, and the debate's over. The debate's over. There are five points on which there is a strong and enduring global consensus: Global warming's real; we human beings are mainly responsible for it; the results are catastrophic; we have to fix it; it's not too late. Those five points are now no longer subject to debate. The debate now has shifted: What are the best ways to solve it? How quickly can we move? What are the most cost-effective approaches? How can we get started? And yet, here in the United States, we are still living in a little bubble of unreality, one of only two developed nations on the planet that doesn't have any intention of ratifying [the Kyoto Protocol]. So the movie is a very entertaining version of this scientific presentation that pulls people along, they learn what they need to know and how they can become part of the solution and help to solve the problem. [That's the] whole objective, and there's a book coming out the same day as the movie, An Inconvenient Truth by Rodale. And at the end of the summer, by the way, I'm going to start training people to give my slide show in their own voice . . .  Hand it over, great. The objective of all of that is to push the country past a tipping point, beyond which the majority of the politicians in both parties start competing with one another on the basis of genuinely meaningful solutions. Well, getting politicians to do that would be great. But what about NewsCorp or GM or Boeing, to cite a hometown example? Can those companies make money being green? Well let's take NewsCorp as an example; you mentioned that one first. I gave my slide show a year ago in New York City. And I always give it off the record, so that people can have, hopefully, a conversion experience off-camera. [NewsCorp's Fox News Channel Chairman] Roger Ailes was in the audience. And he changed his mind. And he went back and instructed Fox News to make an hour-long documentary saying global warming is real and we have to solve it. Now the talking heads went back to their old talking points afterwards, but that's the way organizations change: In fits and spasms, and they will change. They'll continue to change. GM—you now see them moving, at least on the PR front, to emphasize their flex-fuel vehicles, a new generation of hybrids. They're about to announce an American hybrid technology. They bet on hydrogen, but it's too far off. They made a mistake. Ford also made a mistake. The new figures just announced a few hours ago show they continue to decline. It's too bad, but you've asked about shareholders and talked about the South Africa movement, it leads me to believe that you're paying attention to this sustainable investing debate. I've actually spent a lot of time on that, I'm co-founder of a company called Generation Investment Management that focuses on that. And the main objective is to try to use the market system to leverage change, because more money is allocated every hour in the market system than all of the governmental budgets on the planet. And the way those decisions are made today is in some ways functionally insane. For example, 30 years ago the average holding period for stocks in the U.S. was seven years. Now, the average mutual fund turns over its entire portfolio every 11 months. So Corporate Finance 101 says that 80 percent of the value of a typical company builds up over a business cycle or a business cycle and a half, five to seven years or so. If you as an investor are getting in and out of that stock in a few months, technically that's not investing, that's speculating. They have the fancy label, "momentum investing," which means that they're trying to outguess the other momentum investors, the other speculators. They try to get an advantage with superior information, but what they're not doing is actually investing in the fundamental value of the company. And the short term–ism that is often decried in the form of CEOs managing the quarterly reports is even worse in the investment world, because a CEO that wants to break out of the quarterly report insanity will automatically feel pressure from institutional investors who compensate their managers on a three-month basis, or even a yearly basis, asking them, "What are you doing? You're hurting our rate of return." So I'm part of a movement to try to encourage a longer time horizon for investing and, even more importantly, the integration of sustainability values, including the environment, as part of the mainstream investment process. Look at Costco here in the state of Washington. For years they were seen as a poor second to Wal-Mart. And yet, Costco's unionized, they pay their employees a lot more. You look more carefully at it, and they have much more longevity, much less turnover, much lower retraining costs, much higher employee productivity. They don't have the lawsuits facing them that Wal-Mart has because they're respectful of the communities where they do business. So if you look quarter to quarter, Wal-Mart's going to look better, but if you look over three or four or five or seven years, Costco's your bet. Now Wal-Mart, ironically, is under pressure to change its ways, because [its old practices are] catching up with it, and they're actually trying to behave more responsibly now. Whether it's greenwashing or whether it's real remains to be seen. Costco's CEO also takes a much lower salary, based on multiples of the average employee's, compared to the head of Wal-Mart. Yeah, Jim Sinegal is a terrific guy, and he's often cited as an example of the good-guy approach. That may be easier here in Seattle, Prius-land. What about the red states? What about getting people to see this film there in Wal-Mart-Land? The film's opening everywhere, absolutely. And minds are changing there, no question about it. Can the old '80s insults—"You environmentalist! You tree-hugger!"—be redefined? Yes, absolutely. How does that happen? Well, 85 conservative Evangelical ministers just broke with Bush and Cheney on this issue. Their language is from the Bible: "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Creation care is their mandate. You cannot glorify God while heaping contempt on [God's] creation. And when you begin to absorb the reality of what Mother Nature is saying to us—in hurricanes and floods and droughts and the other changes that are now so hard to miss—when you absorb that, it reinforces the realization that this is not a political issue, it's a moral issue. It really is. In the same way that the civil rights movement was recast by Dr. King as a moral issue, and then it got traction. There are a lot of people, including these ministers, including corporate CEOs, including grass-roots organizations, who are recasting this issue as a moral issue and a survival issue. And when people begin to think about their children, and imagine that they will have to answer for the consequences of horrendous neglect, and look into the eyes of their children and try to explain why they didn't do what was obviously the right thing to do, then you know politics doesn't matter anymore. It transcends politics and ideology, and all the game playing that companies have gotten into to avoid any kind of regulation. And, you know, we've run out the stream on that. Was Hurricane Katrina, in a horrible way, an eye opener and a conversion experience in the South? Did it demonstrate that kind of moral failure? Yes it did. A lot of people saw Katrina as the beginning of "a period of consequences." That's a phrase that was used by Churchill in the '30s, yet it stands on its own as a definition of what people see as different now. And by the way, the new hurricane season [starts June 1]. South of Interstate 10 in Louisiana, you can't get insurance anymore. People are really deeply concerned about where this is headed. They're getting to be impatient with folks like Exxon-Mobil saying, "Oh, this isn't real." They look around them, and they say, "Yes it is real! Yes it is." The nay-sayers and deniers are just not going to be able to play these games anymore. And yet if I'm a fence-sitting, red-state Southern voter, a churchgoer, and I'm horrified by Katrina, and I need my big pickup truck for work and the kids' soccer practice, how do gas prices enter into things? We can't all ride the subway in Manhattan. Well I've been at this for so long now that I've seen several cycles of gas-price increases and gas-price declines. And I think this time around is different. When the Republican congress offered this $100 check to every American, there was almost immediately a revolt. [Laughs] And people felt like, I mean, one letter to the editor said, "What do you think, I'm a cheap trick whore?" Have you been watching the new season of The Sopranos? Tony Soprano was trying to convince his captains that after his surgery he was not losing it, and so he put on a demonstration for them, and out of the blue he just beats the hell out of this muscular young driver. He just beats him to a pulp. [Laughs] I'm sorry I'm laughing. But the next day he runs into him on the sidewalk and he calls him over and . . . gives him $100. And that's what the congressional proposal reminded me of. These people have been beaten up by the energy crisis and all this, and they want to hand [them] $100 without addressing the underlying problem. But what's really different about it is that you're hearing people say this is not just a question of dollars and cents. We've lost almost two and a half thousand soldiers in the Persian Gulf. This is the latest of these desert wars. We're borrowing money from China to pay for the oil. We're burning it in a way that destroys the livability of the planet. We're going into debt. The whole system is completely dysfunctional, and people are getting that. And in the midst of that, when they hear a politician just saying, "Oh yeah. Here's $100, forget about it." They just say, "Wait a minute. Whatever happened to the idea of leadership?" bmiller@seattleweekly.com An Inconvenient Truth opens at Guild 45 and other theaters, Fri., June 2. Rated PG. 100 minutes.

 
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