Our Choice by Al Gore. iPhone or iPad
Reviewed by Dan Fagin (guest reviewer)
If you’ve heard Al Gore give a speech, watched An Inconvenient Truth or read anything the former vice president has written, you probably know that two of his obsessions are the innovative use of information technology and the visual image of a spinning Earth, as seen from space. So it’s no surprise that both are central to his first true e-book: Our Choice. Created for the iPad and released in the spring of 2011, it’s anything but a cut-and-paste digital version of the 2009 print volume, as Gore’s previous digital efforts have been. This time, the text has been tricked out with all sorts of digital-only features. There are dozens of unfolding photographs, tightly edited videos and startlingly clever interactive graphics. There’s even a page where you can blow into your iPad’s microphone to spin the blades of an on-screen windmill. Really.
The introductory image sets the tone. It is, predictably, a striking view of our planet, spinning serenely, seen from space. Touch it, Gore’s voice instructs, and when I comply the Earth spins quickly in the opposite direction for a few seconds before stopping and resuming its normal rotation. But now the surface has changed. Huge typhoons loom menacingly near Japan, India and Mexico, and a whopper hurricane is bearing down on Florida. Most of Africa (not just the Sahara) is parched brown; so are Italy, Spain and portions of the American Midwest. The familiar solid white of the Greenland ice sheet now includes patches of exposed land. (You can get a rough idea of how it looks, without the movement, by running your mouse over the planet here.)
The visual juxtaposition of the two Earths is at once powerful, beautiful and disturbing – and a nifty bit of interactive engineering, too. It’s also the kind of thing that drives Gore’s critics to distraction and may even irk some climate scientists, despite their sympathy to his message. If you read deeply into Our Choice (as you should), you will learn, accurately, that desertification has many fathers, including overgrazing and mismanagement of crops, soil and water – not just the higher temperatures and altered weather that stem from the billions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases we’re spewing into the atmosphere every year. As for hurricanes, the scientific evidence is strengthening that climate warming will increase the potency of storms but not necessarily their frequency, a conclusion that is not quite consistent with Gore’s Storm World imagery.
The issue is not that Gore’s science is wrong; as far as I can tell, it’s usually right. I just wish getting it right was his highest priority – even higher than convincing readers to act. His increasingly polemical tone is surely a reaction to the strengthening political position of his opponents. If An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was a first-generation climate book and film, in which a confidant Gore seems sure that citizens will wake up as soon as they hear the facts about climate change, Our Choice must reckon with the recent strengthening of climate science denialism and what Gore describes as the rise of “market fundamentalism” as the dominant American economic ideology.
While he tries hard to sound upbeat about the transformative possibilities of renewable energy and technology-driven efficiencies, Gore’s optimism wavers in the last five chapters, in which he acknowledges the political triumphs of the oil and coal industries, the ascendancy of self-described “climate skeptics” and the ever-shortening investment horizon of capital markets. Gore would sound even more frustrated, I’m sure, if he had not written Our Choice before the current mad rush to exploit oil-bearing sands and shale gas in North America – a deployment of capital that dwarfs the Obama Administration’s stimulus investments in low-carbon alternatives.
To me, the chief value of the ebook is its first 13 chapters, in which Gore (with the assistance of a fact-checking army of more than 250 scientists and other experts, according to the acknowledgements) leads us on an authoritative tour of the global energy system – what it is, and what it can become. The book is ideal for newcomers to climate and energy issues, but its scope is so broad that there’s plenty here even for readers who have been paying close attention for years. I’ll bet you didn’t know, for example, that if American factories captured their waste heat and used it to generate electricity, the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions would fall 20 percent. It’s right there in Chapter 12, the efficiency chapter – the same chapter in which I learned that only 0.6 percent of the energy generated by burning gasoline in a car engine goes toward moving the driver (the other 99-plus percent is wasted in inefficient combustion, idling, and propelling our weighty vehicles).
The text also offers some insight into the likes and dislikes of the world’s best known environmentalist. Gore is surprisingly bullish on geothermal energy and is passionate about the potential of biochar, a low-tech source of biomass energy that keeps carbon out of the atmosphere and instead sequesters it as charcoal fertilizer in soils badly in need of enrichment. On the other hand, he’s highly skeptical of industrial-scale sequestration, a potentially promising but unproven technology in which carbon would be captured in the boilers of power plants and injected deep underground – at great cost. He’s even more dismissive of geoengineering schemes (such as putting giant mirrors in orbit) that seek to alter the greenhouse effect without cutting carbon emissions. And while Gore acknowledges that the arguments for nuclear power are “still seductive,” he has little good to say about it. On the other hand, he remains as determinedly optimistic as ever about the power of information technology to drive huge efficiency improvements in everything from steel mills to street lighting.
More than the text, the real fun of Our Choice comes from the interactive features, which are eye-popping. In his introduction, Gore calls Our Choice an app, not an ebook. This surely has something to do with the fact that Gore sits on the board of Apple, the colossus of app commerce but just another scrapper in the relatively decentralized world of ebooks. (My friend and NYU colleague Adam Penenberg recently explored the economic implications of Apple’s tendency to classify interactive ebooks as apps, an indistinct distinction that has generally hurt content creators while further enriching Apple.)
By any name, Our Choice is chock-full of interactive innovations that make cut-and-paste ebooks look lamer than a three-legged dog. The more than one hundred of photos look great when popped up to full-screen size. The graphics are even harder to resist because, most of the time, what you see initially is only the first layer. You can then spin a dial and see how a solar-powered home’s features change with the season, or slide your finger down to compare the carbon footprints of various electricity sources. Another finger slide lets you find out how many tons of global carbon dioxide emissions could be saved if the top ten deforesting nations felled fewer trees. Multiply those examples times fifty and you get a sense of just how information-rich Our Choice is.
The credit for the digital-only features goes to two former Apple engineers, Mike Matas and Kimon Tsinteris, who set out to rock the digital book business by building applications on iOS, Apple’s operating system for the iPad and iPhone. Their first project was Our Choice, produced in collaboration with digital publisher Melcher Media. Alas, they did their work too well. Three months after finishing Our Choice in 2011, their company, Push Pop Press, was acquired by Facebook. Big Blue has given no sign that it plans to enter the digital book business but apparently simply wanted Matas, Tsinteris and their team to work on Facebook’s iPad app. Too bad, because I’m dying to know whether ebooks adapted as intelligently and extravagantly as Our Choice can consistently turn a profit at a standard app price of just $4.99. If so, that’s a form of market fundamentalism I could get behind as a consumer, though not necessarily as a content creator.
Dan Fagin is a writer and professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he is the director of the masters-level Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. His next book, on environmental epidemiology and the Toms River, New Jersey, cancer cluster, will be published in the spring of 2013 by Random House.