Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore on the Environment and the Eternal Role of Libraries

Global warming threatens the entire planet, says the author of Our Choice, in an exclusive interview with American Libraries.

March 31, 2010

Al Gore

Nobel Prize and Oscar winner, former vice president and, in his own words, the man who “used to be the next president of the United States,” Al Gore delivered the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture January 16 at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston. His message: The environmental threat facing the planet as a result of carbon-based fuel consumption makes all other efforts to improve the quality of human life seem futile—unless the global climate crisis is addressed, and soon. Gore’s message did not fall on deaf ears, as some 3,000 librarians filled the lecture hall to listen as he walked them through his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, published last year by Melcher Media and Rodale. American Libraries Editor and Publisher Leonard Kniffel caught up with Gore before the lecture for an exclusive interview.

I got an email from you this morning asking for contributions to earthquake relief in Haiti. Can you talk about that. It’s an unimaginable tragedy. And all of us, as Americans, all of us as human beings, are deeply touched by this tragedy and want to reach out and help those who are suffering and in distress. One of the secrets of the human condition is that suffering binds us together. And when we encounter a tragedy of this magnitude, we are left almost speechless. But we cannot fail to act. And the outpouring thus far has been heartening but much more help is needed urgently.

The American Library Association is also raising relief money and through its International Relations Office will be working further down the road on assisting schools and libraries and educational institutions. Well good!

For all the librarians out there who couldn’t attend this conference today, I wonder if you could just tell us what your central message is going to be in your speech? The climate crisis is the most serious threat that human civilization has ever confronted. It is unique in having the potential for ending human civilization as we know it, but it is not a crisis that we cannot solve. We have all the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises. We only need to solve one. But the missing ingredient is political will. Political will is a renewable resource; and, thus, our first challenge in solving the climate crisis is to renew our will to act urgently, boldly and effectively. Our choice contains the solutions that, taken together, will actually solve the climate crisis.

Do we have the collective will to do that? We have not yet demonstrated it. But we have risen to meet the seemingly impossible challenges in the past. And I have no doubt that if we choose to act, we will find sufficient reserves of will and determination to succeed. This crisis has been resistant to solution, in part because it challenges the way we think about mortal threats. We are predisposed, as human beings, because of our evolutionary heritage, to react most readily to the kinds of threats that our ancient ancestors survived over the millennia. But when a threat is global in nature, and when the distance between causes and consequences stretches out longer than we are used to thinking, it requires us to use our reasoning capacity and to share with one another the depth of understanding necessary to solve this crisis. We have demonstrated that capacity in the past. And there is no doubt we have it, but we must overcome the obstacles that are in our path. There are entrenched economic and political interests that see the solutions as a threat to their short‑term profits and success. Our market system, while the best way of organizing economic activity contains flaws that have made it difficult to use constructively in facing, in resolving this crisis, principally because we do not currently put any price on the pollution that is causing this crisis. As in times past, polluters fight against any effort to hold them accountable for the consequences for their pollution, and the general public is often less passionate than the narrow special interests that pay very close attention to anything that especially affects them. So we have to overcome these obstacles in your way of thinking and in the organization of our politics and economic activities. But once we overcome these obstacles, we will find that the technology and the other solutions are readily available to us.

Librarians, being in the business of free and open access to information, are also in the business of guiding people to accurate and authoritative information. But when it comes to global warming, there are a lot of naysayers. What do we say to them? Libraries were born, of course, in the age of print. The printing press, beginning in the middle of the 15th century, radically reorganized the information ecosystem within which human civilization addresses challenges. By opening up access to information to publics rather than constricting it to elites, as was the case with the monastic scriptorium and the information system of the Middle Ages which lasted from the fall of Rome through the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, the printing press democratized information and created a meritocracy of ideas that allowed the masses of illiterate to judge for themselves what was more likely than not to be true. As access to information was refeudalized in the era of broadcasting, the ability of elites to shape the information that had the most impact on publics tempted them to undermine the rule of reason by a variety of techniques. That included, shamefully, the intentional dissemination of information known to be inaccurate in order to intentionally confuse people into believing that controversies existed in science where really a very firm consensus had been developed. These techniques were most famously used by the tobacco companies to undermine the medical consensus linking the smoking of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and heart and arteries. And some of the same practitioners of those techniques carried them to the large carbon polluters, who have spent approximately a billion dollars per year to create the false impression that there is massive disagreement in the scientific community about the climate crisis. In reality, there is as strong a consensus as you will ever find in science. And the great challenge now is to reject the false information and construct policies on the basis of what is known to be true.

More than a decade ago, American Libraries magazine ran a picture of you and President Clinton wiring a cable at a high school in California. But since then, wireless access and cell phones and various kinds of social media have just bloomed in our culture. What do you think, in terms of all of this new media, librarians and educators need to do to help our young people use them in a positive way? The internet is destined to have an even larger impact on civilization than did the printing press. But we are still in the early stages of this digital revolution. Marshall McLuhan wrote many decades ago that when one is caught in a whirlpool, the impulse to swim against the current is often the wrong response. By swimming with the current, one can emerge from the gyre and live to see a new day. The fundamental characteristics of the internet are surprisingly similar to those of the printing press in that the barriers to access for individuals are extremely low. And it brings with it the potential to once again democratize access to information and recreate a meritocracy of ideas, the value of which can be judged by the massively parallel processing of those who are connected to the internet. Libraries face a daunting but exciting challenge in adapting to this new technology, swimming with the current and making the best of its positive characteristics even as they keep a weather eye for the negative characteristics, which are always present in any information medium.

Back a decade or more ago, there was a lot of concern being expressed about protecting children online, protecting them from predators and pornography. How do you think we’re doing with that, especially in view of the blossoming of all of this media, and people putting their private information on Facebook and so forth? How are we doing with protecting kids on the internet? Well, the good news is that many powerful digital tools have been integrated into the technologies of the internet that enable adults to protect children if they are diligent in doing so. The less good news is that the emergent culture of the internet has eroded that diligence and has created some genuine threats to young children who are not beneficiaries of the kind of adult care and diligence that is even more important when the kinds of images and information that young children are not prepared to process are so ubiquitously available if they do not receive the love and attention of their parents, teachers and librarians.

The quote that I love very much from Our Choice is that “the volume of information flowing between machines now far exceeds the flow of information between human beings.” What are we to make of that? There are now 1 billion transistors for every human being on earth. The distribution of intelligent information processing device throughout the built environment, throughout our civilization, is leading to yet another radical transformation of the information ecosystem. And as is almost always the case with powerful new technologies, we face the threats that both Prometheus and Faust in different ways confronted. And those two legends are different and important particulars; the message of each is that when we gain new power, we have to pay adequate attention to the ethical context within with it is used and take care to accelerate the emergence of sufficient wisdom to gain the benefits without falling prey to the unintended, harmful consequences.

What can you recall about librarians or teachers in your life who helped you to develop good learning habits, especially when it comes to controversial topics. Do you have any particular memories of special people or libraries that you went to? The most salient memories are emotional memories, feeling that the library was like a candy store just filled with joy and excitement and the presence of guides who could point you toward the good stuff was essential.

What do you personally value about libraries from your life experience? One of the greatest impacts of the printing press, again, was the democratization of knowledge and the emergence of an ability to use ideas and information as a source of new power in the hands of the average person to reclaim control of his or her destiny. And libraries became the fortresses of knowledge, accessible to all, regardless of wealth, power, family connections or any other sources of power in the world which preceded the Enlightenment. Like all new eras, the Enlightenment also brought risks but on balance was the greatest advance for humane civilization that we’ve ever experienced, and the library as an institution was both the symbol and the most powerful institution in spreading access to that knowledge.

Do you have a sense of the library as a sort of lifelong learning experience, where you have preschool story hours in your public library and then you have the school library and then you go to the university library and then back to the public? Yes, I do. But like many, I now am able to supplement “the library” as we used to know it with a library that has no walls. And librarians have been very energetic and imaginative in taking advantage of these new digital capabilities that extend their reach and allow them to connect with many more people.

The Library of Congress, I’m sure you’ve observed, has so much of its collection available digitally now and online to the American public, which they could never have had access before. Indeed. And during my service in the House and Senate and White House, I was an advocate for the digitization of libraries and the creation of opportunities for people to connect to libraries digitally. In the early days of my advocacy of what I call the information superhighway, I used one seminal image over and over and over again when I asked audiences to imagine a young girl in Carthage, Tennessee, population 2,000, my hometown, coming home after school and plugging into the Library of Congress and perusing its vast knowledge at her own speed and pace and navigating by her own curiosity and learning according to her own desires.

And we are getting closer and closer to making that vision a reality. And it’s still the librarians who are doing it. Absolutely.

In getting ready to talk to you, I went to a website called, which, if you don’t know about it, is a great place for the debunking all of the myths and urban legends that are on the internet. And one of those things is that widely repeated inaccuracy that you once claimed to have invented the internet. Oh, I didn’t know [laughing].

They do run an entire piece explaining that it’s absolutely incorrect, that you never said that. So I’m wondering what you, at this point, so long after, think about that kind of misinformation and how it can just stick? Well, I’m far from the only one who’s experienced that phenomenon. Mark Twain wrote in the 19th century that a lie, it runs around the world before the truth gets its boots on. So it’s not uncommon, really.

The image that people have of you now because you’ve been able to go on Saturday Night Live and joke about many of these things–do you think that it has really changed people’s reaction to you and the way that you’re able to be effective in what you’re trying to do? I’ve been very fortunate in my life. And following the 2000 Election, I was fortunate to find other ways to serve and to be of use and to try my best to bring a positive change to the world. And I’m still trying.


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