From Chads To Riches

Al Gore, consummate wonk and almost President, sheds his past, boosts his portfolio and tries to understand the complex drivers of global change

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Peter Hapak for TIME

On the flat-screen in Al Gore's conference room, some other guy is taking the presidential oath of office, but Gore doesn't pause to watch as he glides past, a regal Southern gentleman headed down the hallway toward his office. That dream is in the past, a dozen years and 538 hanging Florida chads ago. A Nobel Prize, vast wealth and the end of a marriage ago. Air Force One would have been nice, but Gore makes do with his "redneck yacht," as he calls the solar- and biodiesel-powered houseboat he keeps on Center Hill Lake in Middle Tennessee, where he entertains his buddies over cold cans of PBR.

A few weeks shy of his 65th birthday, the grandfather of three, Gore is free of the past and all about the future. More specifically, he's all about The Future, his latest book, 374 pages (not counting 144 pages of endnotes) of unfiltered Gore in all his wonky glory. A dizzying and often harrowing attempt to sum up six key realities--he calls them drivers--that will shape the years ahead, the book touches every base: robots, deep-sea phosphorus, financial derivatives, even urine recycling and goats modified to secrete spider-silk proteins from their udders. Years in the making, The Future ranges from gene-splicing to topsoil depletion to climate change (of course) as it crashes through forests of statistics and anecdotes on a quest to save the planet. Few people would presume to tackle such a sweeping project, but modesty doesn't get you to the top of the American heap ("almost" the top, Gore quietly demurs).

Gore's fans will love it, and his critics will likely have a field day, simply because this book is so distinctly his. Who else's mind leaps from the problem of Internet privacy to a discussion of the "secret writing" to which Herodotus credited the partial Greek victory at Thermopylae? And from there to smart thermostats and onward to the Swiss dairy farmers who attach monitors to the genitals of their cows so they can track hormone changes on their smart phones? And speaking of smart phones: "The number of mobile-only Internet users is expected to increase 56-fold over the next five years," Gore reports in a typical burst of numerical static, while "information flow over smart phones is expected to increase 47-fold over the same period." Time and talent have filled the aquiline noggin of the former Representative, Senator and two-term Vice President with more threads than he can unspool. In the classroom of life, he'll always be the kid whose hand is up.

But at the same time, The Future offers a glimpse of the unpredictable and searching mind that has made the postpolitical Gore a go-to guy for the giants of Silicon Valley. Many high-ranking public officials make millions peddling their names and connections, but Gore has something extra, which the business world values at a steep premium. People hire him not just to lobby or give a speech; they enlist him as a partner or install him on their corporate boards. John Doerr pulled Gore into the legendary high-tech venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in the belief that he could help spot future winners in the green economy. The late Steve Jobs installed him on Apple's board, encouraged Gore's regular interventions around company headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and compensated him with stock options that Gore recently exercised for nearly $30 million.

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