Former Vice President Al Gore. (photo: Mario Anzuoni)
More than 1,800 years ago, the last of Rome's "Five Good Emperors," Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, wrote, "Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present." His advice is still sound, though soon after his reign the Roman Empire began the long process of dissolution that culminated in its overthrow 300 years later.
Arming ourselves with the "weapons of reason" is necessary but insufficient. The emergence of the Global Mind presents us with an opportunity to strengthen reason-based decision making, but the economic and political systems within which we implement even the wisest decisions are badly in need of repair. Confidence in both market capitalism and representative democracy has fallen because both are obviously in need of reform. Fixing both of these macro-tools should be at the top of the agenda for all of us who want to help shape humanity's future.
Our first priority should be to restore our ability to communicate clearly and candidly with one another in a broadly accessible forum about the difficult choices we have to make. That means building vibrant and open "public squares" on the Internet for the discussion of the best solutions to emerging challenges and the best strategies for seizing opportunities. It also means protecting the public forum from dominance by elites and special interests with agendas that are inconsistent with the public interest.
It is especially important to accelerate the transition of democratic institutions to the Internet. The open access individuals once enjoyed to the formerly dominant print-based public forum fostered the spread of democracy and elevated the role of reason and fact-based public discourse. But the massive shift in the last third of the 20th century from print to television as the primary medium of communication stifled democratic discourse and gave preferential access to those with wealth and power. This shift eclipsed the role of reason, diminished the importance of collective searches for the best available evidence, and elevated the role of money in politics -- particularly in the United States -- thereby distorting our search for truth and degrading our ability to reason together.
The same is true for the news media. The one-way, advertiser-dominated, conglomerate-controlled television medium has been suffocating the free flow of ideas necessary for genuine self-determination. In 2012, for example, it was nothing short of bizarre when the United States held its quadrennial presidential election in the midst of epic climate-related disasters -- including a widespread drought affecting more than 65 percent of the nation, historic fires spreading across the West, and an epic hybrid hurricane and nor'easter that shut down large portions of New York City for the second time in two years -- with not a single question about the climate crisis from any member of the news media in any of the campaign debates.
The profit-driven blurring of the line between entertainment and news, the growing influence of large advertisers on the content of news programs, and the cynical distortion of news narratives by political operatives posing as news executives have all degraded the ability of the Fourth Estate to maintain sufficient integrity and independent judgment to adequately perform their essential role in democracy.
The Internet offers a welcome opportunity to reverse this degradation of democracy and reestablish a basis for healthy self-governance once again. Although there is as yet no standard business model that yields sufficient profit to support high-quality investigative journalism on the Internet, the expansion of bandwidth to accommodate more and higher-quality video on the Internet may soon make profitable business models viable. In addition, the use of hybrid public/private models for the support of excellence in Internet-based journalism should be vigorously pursued.
The loss of privacy and data security on the Internet must be quickly addressed. The emergent "stalker economy," based on the compilation of large digital files on individuals who engage in e-commerce, is exploitive and unacceptable. Similarly, the growing potential for the misuse by governments of even larger digital files on the personal lives of their citizens -- including the routine interception of private communications -- poses a serious threat to liberty and must be stopped. Those concerned about the quality of freedom in the digital age must make new legal protections for privacy a priority.
The new digital tools that provide growing access to the Global Mind should be exploited in the rapid development of personalized approaches to health care, what is now being called "precision medicine," and of self-tracking tools to reduce the cost and increase the efficacy of these personalized approaches to medicine. The same Internet-empowered precision should be applied to the speedy development of a "circular economy," characterized by much higher levels of recycling, reuse, and efficiency in the use of energy and materials.
Capitalism, like democracy, must also be reformed. The priority for those who agree that it is crucial to restore the usefulness of capitalism as a tool for reclaiming control of our destiny should be to insist upon full, complete, and accurate measurements of value. So-called externalities that are currently ignored in standard business accounting must be fully integrated into market calculations. For example, it is simply no longer acceptable to pretend that large streams of harmful pollution do not exist where profit and loss statements are concerned.
Global warming pollution, in particular, should carry a price. Placing a tax on CO2 is the place to start. The revenue raised could be returned to taxpayers, or offset by equal reductions in other taxes -- on payrolls, for example. Placing a steadily declining limit on emissions and allowing the trading of emission rights within those limits is an alternative that would also work. For those nations worried about the competitive consequences of acting in the absence of global agreement, the rules of the World Trade Organization allow the imposition of border adjustments on goods from countries that do not put a tax on carbon pollution.
The principles of sustainability -- which are designed, above all, to ensure that we make intelligent choices to improve our circumstances in the present without degrading our prospects in the future -- should be fully integrated into capitalism. The ubiquitous incentives built into capitalism -- which embody the power of capitalism to unleash human ingenuity and productivity -- should be carefully designed to ensure that they are aligned with the goals that are being pursued. Compensation systems, for example, should be carefully scrutinized by investors, managers, boards of directors, consumers, regulators, and all stakeholders in every enterprise -- no matter its size.
Our current reliance on gross domestic product (GDP) as the compass by which we guide our economic policy choices must be reevaluated. The design of GDP -- and the business accounting systems derived from it -- is deeply flawed and cannot be safely used as a guide for economic policy decisions. For example, natural resources should be subject to depreciation and the distribution of personal income should be included in our evaluation of whether economic policies are producing success or failure. Capitalism requires acceptance of inequality, of course, but "hyper" levels of inequality -- such as those now being produced -- are destructive to both capitalism and democracy.
The value of public goods should also be fully recognized -- not systematically denigrated and attacked on ideological grounds. In an age when robosourcing and outsourcing are systematically eliminating private employment opportunities at a rapid pace, the restoration of healthy levels of macroeconomic demand is essential for sustainable growth. The creation of more public goods -- in health care, education, and environmental protection, for example -- is one of the ways to provide more employment opportunities and sustain economic vibrancy in the age of Earth Inc.
Sustainability should also guide the redesign of agriculture, forestry, and fishing. The reckless depletion of topsoil, groundwater reserves, the productivity of our forests and oceans, and genetic biodiversity must be halted and reversed.
In order to stabilize human population growth, we must prioritize the education of girls, the empowerment of women, the provision of ubiquitous access to the knowledge and techniques of fertility management, and the continued raising of child survival rates. The world now enjoys a durable consensus on the efficacy of these four strategies -- used in combination -- to bring about the transition to smaller families, lower death rates, lower birth rates, and stabilized population levels. Wealthy countries must support these efforts in their own self-interest. Africa should receive particular attention because of its high fertility rate and threatened resource base.
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