ANALYSIS: Acclimatising to the Al Gore factor
His speech won a standing ovation, yet you couldn't call it particularly insightful or revealing. It was more a heady mix of comedy and metaphor. So what was it about Al Gore that left so many corporate sustainability professionals feeling a sense of awe and privilege?
Well, there’s his track record on climate issues for one. That’s unquestionable. He won the Nobel Peace Prize back in 2007 for his activism work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He takes to the world stage on a daily basis to push home his message. And, of course, he was a former US vice president.
It is perhaps this last point that is most telling. That political prowess he had during the Clinton Administration back in the 90s he still carries with him. Today, as he strode into the corporate hospitality suite inside Wembley Stadium and took his seat by the stage at Marks & Spencer’s annual Plan A conference, you could sense a hush among the crowd. He has presence on a level I have rarely seen.
Once he takes to the stage, you can see it. He cuts a formidable figure. His booming voice needs no microphone – it conveys purpose, passion and perhaps most importantly, a sense of fun. Sustainability really doesn’t have to be a heavy session of internalised guilt; the Al Gore way makes light work of it, turns it on its head, and serves it up with a Spritzer smile.
So, what did he talk about? Well most of it went along these lines … men in Gorilla suits stalking the Earth, Bruce Springsteen, dead cows and a tobacco conspiracy theory. It’s the Al Gore way; humanising what is arguably the biggest – and scariest problem – facing the world today. What he did so cleverly was marry climate rhetoric with a social, dinner table conversational style that we can all relate to.
Gore drew on metaphors to describe climate deniers and governmental apathy, he used humour to force home the point that us humans are not very good at putting green intentions into action, he repositioned sustainability not as a moral argument, but as storytelling. And at regular intervals he drip fed in factual nuggets to underpin his case.
He talked, for example, of how society defines growth in GDP terms – a concept invented in the 1930s by Simon Kuznets who, in taking it to the American Congress, pleaded with them not to use the definition as a compass for economic policy as it leaves so out many other, important externalities such as pollution, resource depletion, human health and happiness.
He talked of human evolution, and how our emerging ability to reinvent life and death is starting to shape global change through genetics, digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Of how ethical business and leadership will need to scale up to help guide us safely through this social transformation.
He likened the Earth to an open sewer, where we dump 90 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere on a daily basis, before digging deep into our pockets help clean up the mess – $100bn was spent on climate-related damage in 2012 alone. Our hearts and minds, he said, were the only two dots that needed to be connected to get ourselves out of this dysfunctional hole.
Gore took to the stage with no script, and no watch – he overran by some mileage and he stayed on for questions. He has a gift for making light of the global warming trail that he finds himself on, yet injects enough gravitas to engender it with relevance and aspiration. That, I believe, is why he got a standing ovation.