The Future by Al Gore – review
Gore tells us that the astrologers of ancient Babylon used a double clock – one for measuring the timescale of human affairs and another for tracking the celestial movements they believed shaped earthly events. Today the timescales of planetary change and human events are coming together, he believes, and unless we change our intellectual habits the outcome will be disastrous. Interestingly and plausibly, one of the obstacles to new thinking he singles out is a mechanistic understanding of science. Warning against "prideful overconfidence in the completeness of one's own understanding", he writes: "Nor is the posture of fundamentalism unique to the religious. Reductionism – the belief that scientific understanding is usually best pursued by breaking down phenomena into their component parts and subparts – has sometimes led to a form of selective attention that can cause the observer to overlook emerging phenomena that arise in complex systems, and in their interaction with other complex systems." These are wise words. Among many examples that could be cited, the attempt of economists to emulate a simplified version of natural science led not only to a failure to predict the financial crisis but also an inability to recognise that such a crisis was a realistic possibility.
Despite all that he writes of the forces that are altering the world, Gore seems to believe that history will continue on much the same trajectory that it has followed since the storming of the Bastille and the American founding. Here the contrast with China's leaders is striking. For them, the French revolution appears to have importance chiefly as a warning – hence their interest in the writings of de Tocqueville. Seeing history in terms of dynasties and epochs, China's rulers attach no special significance to the revolutions of the past few centuries. It is an attitude that time may well vindicate. But even these devotees of the long view will have much to learn from Gore's book, a tour de force that no government can afford to ignore.
• John Gray's The Silence of Animals is published by Penguin later this month.