Al Gore: Oil “Junkie” America Needs Third World Help

The former Vice President, clean-shaven in a dark suit and black cowboy boots, pauses. "Junkies find veins in their toes, when the veins in their arms and legs collapse," he says to Charlie Rose. The audience suffers an uncomfortable pause, and then laughs. Gore keeps a straight face. He isn’t joking. 

The former Vice President, clean-shaven in a dark suit and black cowboy boots, pauses. “Junkies find veins in their toes, when the veins in their arms and legs collapse,” he says to Charlie Rose. The audience suffers an uncomfortable pause, and then laughs. Gore keeps a straight face. He isn’t joking. 


This is the closing panel of the Cornell Global Forum on Sustainable Enterprise, held on New York’s Upper East Side on June 3. The panel includes Gore, Ratan Tata, Chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata Group, Fisk Johnson, Chairman of SC Johnson, and Stuart Hart of Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. Rose is moderating the talk; he’s just asked whether clean energy tech will be made moot by the oil companies’ efforts to wring oil from deep sea drilling, shist, and shale.

Base of the Pyramid

No, Gore says–oil is still there to be found, but it’s increasingly inaccessible and expensive. In most discussions about climate change, this is usually the point everyone veers off into fatuous discussions of tomorrow-land: fancy clean cars, smart grids, carbon capture, solar, and so on. But tonight is different; none of the venture capital projects come up. (Below, Gore at Cornell’s Global Forum)

Al Gore at Cornell Global Forum

Instead, the participants discuss how the U.S. can’t build a market for sustainable enterprises without developing countries–or as the panelists call them, the countries at “the base of the pyramid.”

What? Since when do we need Kenya and Rwanda? We have Tesla and the Governator and the stimulus! Don’t we?


Not if you believe Tata (seen below). He describes how mobile phones took root quickly in his native India because when they were introduced there was a seven-year wait for landline phones. “The application of these [clean] technologies at the base of the pyramid means broader markets,” he said, describing how cultures with entrenched infrastructure (like the U.S. and Europe) adopt some new technologies more slowly because they don’t see the need for substitute goods and services. Those broad markets in poorer countries, Tata says, “gives you scale to commercialize” in a way that’s impossible in developed countries.

Ratan Tata

When you consider some of the breakthrough technologies we’re talking about–solar panels, wind mills, point-of-use irrigation systems–it’s obvious; in America, we don’t need these things. We simply want them. In south Asia, for example, where stoves are burning animal dung or plant matter, energy is both more expensive (by up to a factor of 10, according to panelist Hart) and harder to come by.

Fisk Johnson said that his company, SC Johnson, sees a similar phenomenon. Instead of the usual “trickle-down” of technology from first world to third, he said, his labs have discovered that in many instances, the trickle flows in the opposite direction. One example: cheap, natural plant-based pesticides that SC Johnson is harvesting in Rwanda. “We have technologies from the developing world that we’re bringing down to the developed world,” he said. SC Johnson also has a special lab in China that deconstructs the company’s household products and strips them to their bare essentials, keeping only the qualities customers want most. That takes out unnecessary chemicals and ingredients which, he says, usually makes the end product cheaper.

So the first world may not own the solutions to the crisis, but we also don’t own all the blame, Gore says. Those dung-burning stoves in south Asia (pictured below, courtesy of GPHE)? They produce a whole lot of dense soot, the likes of which ends up covering the Himalayan glaciers and increasing the amount of sunlight they absorb. In 10 years, Gore says, those glaciers will be completely gone during the summer months, meaning that their runoff won’t be there to fill Asia’s seven great rivers. Those rivers constitute much of Asia’s water supply; it’s a water crisis in the making.

dung-burning stove

Gore concedes that the U.S. can indeed (and must) provide leadership, but it’s not necessarily in the way you’d think. He says that it’s vital that the U.S. abandons the “tyranny of the quarterly earnings reports” that has made our public companies short-sighted pump-and-dump entities. Executives and consultants, he says, are incentivized to juice earnings before each report, which encourages them to eschew long-term strategizing. “If you pay people to do something,” he says, “don’t be surprised if that’s what they do.”


Help will come in the form of cap-and-trade legislation like the bill before Congress right now. This kind of legislation, Gore says, will assign a real monetary cost to carbon emissions–something that doesn’t exist right now. Once a cost is in place, companies can react to the new economics of climate change. If the U.S. and China can agree on a common cap-and-trade policy, Gore says,”then we’re really off to the races.”

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Terry Tamminen: The State of the Climate Change Debate

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that SC Johnson was harvesting natural plant-based pesticides in Vietnam. It should have said that the company is harvesting in Rwanda.


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I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs