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book review

Al Gore delivers a presentation on global climate change, proving that humankind must confront global warming now or face devastating consequences in An Inconvenient Truth.

When you write a book boldly titled The Future, your readers have to know what you stand for and why you're saying it before they can embrace your prognostications. And when you are also a former U.S. vice-president, Al Gore, that can be a challenge.

Gore is hard to read. While consistent in his passion for the environment, the power of the Internet, the value of democracy and the importance of informed public discourse, he is inconsistent on other fronts, and that mars the otherwise powerfully prophetic voice he presents us with here.

In The Future, Gore carefully pieces together new trends in economics, politics, demographics, medicine and the environment, arguing that, together, they add up to change on a scale, at a pace and of a significance that most of us can barely imagine. His best advice: "Steer!" Either implement brave policy to change the trajectory of the trends he describes or to slow them down while we adapt.

The problem is where his book is coming from. Is this Gore's attempt at a literary legacy, or is it a platform for the 2016 presidential election? It makes a difference. The first can stand as a fascinating addition to his lifelong habit of spotting trends before others do. The second could be dismissed as propaganda.

Gore says in the introduction that the book began with a question someone posed to him that he had never thought through: What are the drivers of global change? He tossed off an answer at the time, but went on to consider the question for eight more years.

He came up with six key changes. Among them: the interconnected global economy; the planet-wide electronic communications network connecting billions of people to data, machines and each other; environmental destruction; medical and genetic technologies that shift humanity's relationship to life; climate change and the movement to turn away from the carbon economy. This represents profound, speedy, interconnected change happening by stealth, he avers, and we have "a crisis of confidence in our ability as a civilization to think clearly about where [the changes] are taking us."

All this solidifies Gore's already substantial visionary chops. Twice Bill Clinton's vice-president, twice a senator, four times a member of the House of Representatives, he was an early identifier of the risks of environmental destruction with his 1992 bestseller Earth in the Balance. His 2006 book and Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, were critical in helping people all over the planet understand the risks of the high-carbon world we've created. One of the first politicians to grasp the potential of the Internet, in the early 1990s he helped promote the digitization of information and helped establish the information highway.

But the man who won the hearts and votes of Americans in 2000, and lost the presidency by a hanging chad and a court decision, is also capable of sending mixed messages. That's a problem for someone who is trying to make people believe he knows what the future holds. Last month, the anti-fossil-fuel crusader Al Gore sold Current TV, the faltering cable channel he helped launch in 2005, to the Al Jazeera network, giving it a coveted entry point to North American screens. Al Jazeera, with its editorial excellence and 250 million viewers, is funded by Qatar, the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The Current TV sale, for a reported $500-million (U.S.), in effect funnels oil profits straight into Gore's already nicely lined pockets.

Then there's his messaging on family. Gore launched his bid for the 2000 presidency by stressing his devotion to strengthening the family. He also wrote a couple of books on the transforming American family with his wife and high-school sweetheart Tipper, from whom, in 2010, he announced his separation after 40 years of marriage and four kids. He has, apparently, moved on. The first line in his acknowledgments for The Future, salutes "the love of my partner," Elizabeth Keadle, a philanthropist from California.

The bigger problem, though, is the sixth driver of global change Gore identifies: America's loss of political and economic heft in the world and the erosion of its democracy. His insistence on restoring American glory runs like a heartbeat through his book. In the conclusion, he writes: "The best chance for success in shaping a positive future and avoiding catastrophe is the re-establishment of a transcendent capacity for global leadership by the United States." He adds that what happens to American leadership will "have a profound effect on the future of humankind."

This is a nod to the old chestnut of American exceptionalism, and is a frank lobby for the return to American hegemony. But isn't this supposed to be the BRIC century, when Brazil, Russia, India and China get to shine? By the middle of this century, those four emerging powerhouses are expected to make up four of the top five global economies. And really, was America's turn at the global helm really such a roaring success, even before its democracy became so deformed? Does anyone remember the Vietnam War?

I have to wonder whether Gore, who describes himself as a "recovering" politician, is simply writing about his own future as a candidate for president in 2016. He's coy on this, refusing to rule it out and instead pointing to a raft of policy proposals he puts forth as a quasi-platform – he calls it a "recommended agenda for action" – such as staunching the corrupting flow of money in politics, stopping the use of antibiotics to stimulate livestock growth, halting the dominance of stock trading done by computers using algorithms that make them super-fast, building "public squares" on the Internet where citizens can brainstorm, reducing taxes on work and, yes, taxing carbon pollution.

This is what makes Gore's book different from other analyses of society's broad trends. He's not just a visionary or a skilled synthesizer of masses of data, although he is each of those. The bits in this book about the future of life and synthetic biology – writing new pieces of DNA to build new living creatures that perform specific tasks – echo ideas in the Harvard geneticist George Church's recent book Regenesis, for example, whom he references. His précis of food scarcity draws from works by Lester Brown and Michael Pollan, as he acknowledges.

Nor is he just an environmentalist, rehashing his own arguments from earlier books. His analysis here is fresh and compelling – and note-perfect in the science – on the spectrum of planetary disruption we face, from ocean acidification to coral reef die-off to desertification to the depletion of topsoil and water.

More than any of that, though, Gore is a public figure with a stake in American politics, who grasps the planet's searing issues but then reverts to domestic blinkers. It's those mixed messages again: Global statesman on five drivers, yet partisan jingoist on one. And uncertainty over his own future raises uncertainty about The Future: Would another run for office not colour our reading of his fine analysis of the other five drivers and his legacy as a great thinker? Can the book have the influence he so obviously craves if readers are unsure about why he wrote it?

Perhaps readers will forgive the ambiguity. Whatever his agenda, the book is a serious piece of scholarship laid out with chilly precision in six dense essays that build to a cogent, absorbing and frightening picture, accompanied by 145 pages of footnotes and an onslaught of factoids. Did you know that there's a $300-million cable being built to join markets in New York and London in order to shave 5.2 milliseconds off the time it takes to get data from one side of the Atlantic to the other? Or that last year Dutch doctors printed out a custom-sized 3-D jaw made of titanium powder for an elderly patient and successfully implanted it in her?

Already marching up the bestseller lists, already being mined by columnists for insight, armed with the substantial Gore cachet, maybe The Future will plug solidly into the modern yearning for data over bombast, and affect what sort of future humanity eventually chooses.

Alanna Mitchell's latest book, Seasick, is an international bestseller about change in the global ocean. She is working on her next.