Thursday, December 28, 2006

Al Gore, Global Warming, And How The Internet Can Solve The Crisis of Democracy


On 28 August, Al Gore introduced the British premiere of his film, An Inconvenient Truth, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He answered questions from festival director Shane Danielson and the audience, and his optimism and good cheer contrasted with the damning tone of the documentary. Oddly, for such a passionless politician, he was evangelical about the prospects for effective action against the causes of climate change, even suggesting that President Bush would heed the green message. "I don’t want to be Polyannaish about this," he told the Cineworld audience. "This is the most difficult challenge we’ve ever faced. It is eminently do-able." An edited version of Gore's remarks follows:
"In order to solve the climate crisis we have to address the democracy crisis. Especially in the US. I believe that in all democracies the conversation of democracy has been crimped and squeezed into little television soundbites and 30 second commercials. And as a result, people, average citizens, voters, have been pushed out of the conversation. A politics based on the public interest in the future dimension requires a very high level of ideas, in the political dialogue. Of course the Scottish Enlightenment was the epicentre of that kind of politics. It transformed the world. It started here.
"I believe that a campaign that’s based on a very large set of ideas focused on the future and the public interest now faces such a withering headwind that a higher priority is to change democracy and open it up again to citizens – to air it out – and to democratise the dominant medium of television, which has been a form of information flow that has stultified modern life.
"After World War Two there were a group of very thoughtful, humane, decent philosophers – Germans – who were so horrified, humiliated, shamed by what had happened in Germany that they became what is known as the Frankfurt School – Jurgen Habermas is probably the best known. They devoted themselves over decades to exploring the question: what in the hell happened? And one of them, a philosopher named Theodore Adorno – conducted a philosophical autopsy of the Weimar and the emergence of the Third Reich. And he identified the first significant symptom of their descent into hell. He said this: ‘All questions of fact became questions of power’.
"The Enlightenment and particularly the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined a new sovereign – the rule of reason - and questions of fact were no longer questions of power. They were questions to be answered by the body politic, using the best evidence and the rule of reason, and free debate with an implicit shared goal of finding the right answer for the best policy. Before the Enlightenment, before the printing press generated the meritocracy of ideas accessible to individuals, there was a mediaeval information monopoly controlled by the church and questions of fact were questions of power. That’s why Galileo was put in prison. And for the first time, with the Enlightenment – empowered by the printing press, and the information ecology that flowed out of it -knowledge became a source of power, in the hands of an average citizen who could mediate between wealth and power for the first time in historyon a sustained basis.
"The information ecology defined by the printing press was displaced 40 years ago in my country by the television, and it’s now so dominant that the average American watches television for four hours and 39 minutes a day. It has a quasi-hypnotic effect, and the internet’s a great source of hope and it replicates that meritocracy of ideas but it does not have that hypnotic effect that television has.
"I see the internet as a source of hope. To use the Star Wars analogy, the rebellion is alive and well on the internet on some far galaxy, connected to ours, and it is growing, and I do believe that it is changing the operation of our political dialogue, democratising it, opening it up, so that questions of fact become questions of truth instead of power, so that there’s not censorship of global warming studies. Two days ago evolutionary biology in the United States was removed from the list of subjects that qualified for low income graduates to get grants to pursue – isn’t that horrible? There are these little things - but we have to change the political environment in order to have a conversation based on these kinds of ideas. But it is happening. We are beginning to see those changes."