Reviewed 5/14/2010

Our Choice, by Al Gore
Cover shown is revised edition.
Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
A Plan To Solve the Climate Crisis
Al Gore
Emmaus, PA: Rodale, November 2009




ISBN-13 978-1-59486-734-7
ISBN-10 1-59486-734-8 415pp. SC/LF/FCI $26.99

This is the third book Al Gore has written to urge us to take better care of this planet we live upon. It collects a large amount of information about the state of that planet's environment and our options for improving it. Like the first two, it blends warnings with a healthy dose of optimism. Gore leads off with something the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut wrote circa 1980:

"Is there nothing about the United States of my youth, aside from youth itself, that I miss sorely now? There is one thing I miss so much that I can hardly stand it, which is freedom from the certain knowledge that human beings will very soon have made this moist, blue-green planet uninhabitable by human beings."

– Page 12

The urgency of the problem has become even more apparent since 2006, when An Inconvenient Truth was released as book and film.1 But the engineers and scientists have not been idle, and a wide variety of potential methods to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases has been proposed. This book describes them in a thorough and well-organized way. It explains the seldom-touched-upon subtleties of topics like the effect of higher temperatures and extra CO2 on plants in comprehensive and coherent fashion while never drowning the reader in details.

The book does have defects. Chief among them, in my opinion, is its treatment of nuclear power. Gore covers both fission and fusion, the latter sketchily. But that is not the problem; the history of fusion research is one of ever more expensive experiments which creep ever closer to demonstrating success in the laboratory — which is of course a far cry from commercial feasibility. Fusion does not yet deserve much discussion in a book such as this. No, what troubles me is the paltry discussion of new fission reactor designs. There are six under consideration, but you won't learn that here. Nor is there mention of the potential of the IFR/AFR to greatly reduce both proliferation and radioactive waste disposal, while being inherently much safer than older designs. And also, as someone else pointed out regarding the table on page 165, the CO2 footprint given for nuclear (1-288) does not match the value in the cited source.2

Nuclear power is controversial. So is the subject that any book which aims to educate us on our treatment of this increasingly crowded planet must examine: human population growth. Al Gore's book does that about as well as can be expected, pointing out that raising the standard of living of developing nations, and especially giving their female populations control of parenting choices, will in time lead to a lower, stable population size.

Each of the book's 18 chapters begins with a short summary in large type. What follows is a detailed but concise discussion of the issue covered by that chapter. The text is supplemented by at least 224 high-quality photographs and charts. I'm fond of recommending books as "must reads" — when they merit that praise. This book does. It covers the full scope of the climate crisis: the nature of energy sources, and the environmental conditions those sources — and related actions like deforestation — affect. It is, in short, a compendium of information vital to the understanding of what options remain to us.

And more than that, it cuts to the heart of a crisis that transcends global warming, nuclear proliferation, or population growth. This too is a crisis that Al Gore has addressed before. It is the degradation of our ability to reason, to distinguish what is true from what authority assures us is true, or what we wish to be true.

But the golden thread of reason that used to be stretched taut to mark the boundary between the known and the unknown is now routinely disrespected. We are living in a political culture driven partially mad by the transformation of the 'public forum' that emerged in the wake of the printing press, which brought us newspapers, books, mass literacy, the 'rule of reason,' egalitarianism, and representative democracy.

What philosophers of the early Enlightenment described as 'the Republic of Letters' has been subjugated by electronic images that carelessly blend news with entertainment, advocacy with advertisements, and the public interest with self-interest.

The late German philosopher Theodor Adorno first described this transformation in a very different context 58 years ago: "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power...has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false."

– Pages 21 & 24

If so many of us continue to retreat from reason, nothing we do about any other problem will matter. This book can help.

1 Earning Al Gore his Nobel Prize (shared with the IPCC.)
2 This comment refers to Table 5 in the cited work: Sovacool, B. K., Valuing the Greenhouse Gases from Nuclear Power: A Critical Survey, Energy Policy 36 (2008) 2940-2953. The full paper is available online. Gore gives the minimum and maximum values for the footprint without explanation; these are likely suspect. The horizontal bar indicates the maximum; it would have made more sense to use the mean, which is 66. A similar objection could be raised to Gore's chart on page 267: The nuclear plant consumes much more cooling water than other energy sources, but nothing about the conditions is specified.
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