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Albert Gore Jr. began his career as a journalist in Nashville, Tennessee, after graduating from Harvard University and serving in the U.S. Army. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976, to the U.S. Senate in 1984, and to the office of vice president of the United States in 1992 and in 1996.

In this interview, conducted on the occasion of the opening of the Getty Center, Vice President Gore addresses the mission of the Getty Conservation Institute—conservation of the world's cultural heritage—and a range of interrelated global issues, such as the environment, emerging developments in communications technology, and education.

The vice president spoke with Jane Siena Talley, head of Institutional Relations for the GCI. She is an adviser on art for the Vice President's Residence Foundation.

Jane Siena Talley: Mr. Vice President, you, perhaps more than any other public figure, are identified with a number of global issues that are transforming society. You have led and inspired the environmental movement for over 20 years, and you coined the phrase "information superhighway" 17 years ago. How do you see these issues converging in our society today?

Vice President Al Gore: I think that we are all privileged to live in a really unusual time in human history, when there is the emergence of a global civilization. Regardless of what country someone lives in today, we face challenges, problems, and issues that are increasingly defined in a global context. This is certainly the case for our natural environment, with global warming, the disappearance of some living species, and the threats to the rain forest. It's also true in business. Almost all large and medium-sized businesses—and some small businesses—define their markets in the world marketplace. And they see their competitors coming from all over the world.

One reason for this convergence is the new ability to communicate over great distances. The communications satellite was invented conceptually only in 1947. Now the Internet, which ties the whole world instantly, takes data and dollars around the world at the speed of light. And those of us who are pursuing a particular issue, like the environment, can now communicate instantly with colleagues in every part of the world and with the same information. Definitely there is a convergence of these two developments—the globalization of issues and the development of our communications technologies.

How do you see these issues relating to our cultural heritage?

The essence of environmentalism is appreciating the natural context within which we live our lives and understanding that we are part of the fabric of an intricately interconnected web of life. We recognize that when we do damage to part of the environment, we risk damage to ourselves as human beings.

I think that, in almost exactly the same way, there is a growing appreciation for the fact that we live our lives inside a cultural context that has special places of beauty, special reference points, and physical reminders of developments that have taken place over a long period of time. That's true in the arts; it's true in architecture.

For example, new buildings, like the new museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, cause excitement all over the world. The new appreciation for what's now referred to as "world music"—distinctive sounds and kinds of music that are associated with specific cultures such as Brazil or Nigeria or Japan—stimulates our expanded understanding of the arts and culture. And increasingly, we hear those chords interwoven into music that synthesizes many different cultural traditions. People have a growing appreciation for the fact that we can now celebrate the differences, the diversity, and the richness of experience of cultures from all over the world.

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You and your family have had the chance to visit extraordinary places that many people only read about—the Sphinx in Egypt, the Great Wall in China, early-man sites in Africa, and historic sites and archaeological digs in Latin America and elsewhere. These experiences undoubtedly bring back memories of your childhood visits to Civil War battle sites in Tennessee. What is your impression of the impact of these cultural resources on their surrounding societies?

Well, I think people define themselves—I know I do—in terms of the society in which they grow up and the cultural tradition that gives them the stories they use to explain their lives and understand the world around them. I think that it's easier to understand and absorb those stories when they're told with reference to a particular place or structure that itself is a symbol of the long tradition out of which the stories that we're told as children come.

You wrote about this long tradition—the journey of civilization—in 1992 in Earth in the Balance. You wrote that "as the world grows more complex, we feel increasingly distant from our roots." You also talked about a "restlessness of spirit that rises out of a lost connection to our world and our future." This is a clarion call for reintegrating ourselves with the environment, with each other, and with our cultural identities.

Yes. I think that we're vulnerable to some modern forms of entertainment and mass marketing that almost hypnotize people. I don't mean the word literally, but if you watch some children sitting in front of a television set with the images blinking at them, you'll notice that they will stay there for hours upon hours upon hours. Many children spend more time in front of the television than in the classroom. The constant bombardment, I think, does have an effect on some people that is akin to pushing them further away from more interactive experiences that cause deeper contemplation and reflection about how we fit into the communities we live in and into the cultural traditions that we're part of.

Given these realities, how do you see museums competing for audiences?

People who turn the television off and go to a museum with their family and friends have a fundamentally different experience. They interact with one another and with the exhibits that are designed to provoke thought. And with the exciting new developments in the art of presentation, museums seem to be finding some really neat ways to pull people into the stories they're trying to tell with their exhibits. As families go out and experience museums, I think they're drawn back to them. My family and I spend time going to the many museums here in Washington. They have constantly changing exhibits, and we watch for the new ones. It's a lot of fun.

Our museums and libraries depend on the historical and artistic record for their exhibits and collections. But our cultural heritage is threatened as never before by many of the same forces that endanger the natural environment—pollution, mass tourism, industrialization, warfare, and even neglect. Are you hopeful that we, as a society, will take your message on the environment and extend it to our cultural and spiritual lives?

I'm very hopeful. I see an attitude, especially among young people, that is quite encouraging to me. I think the answer to your question is still developing. Those of us who believe that action is necessary and change is imperative have a responsibility to help bring it about. I do see change occurring, and therefore I am very optimistic. Our experience with the environment is that people can change when they understand the full impact of their actions.

You have referred to the Internet in its present state and in its next generation as a duty-free zone. What do you mean by that?

The Internet and computer networks represent a development that I am convinced will eventually rival the invention of the printing press in terms of impact on human civilization. We are seeing the emergence of commercial transactions on the Internet, and there are many issues that have to be dealt with as this new phenomenon occurs. What will the rules be? I've proposed that we make the Internet a duty-free zone so that we avoid hobbling this exciting innovation with clumsy efforts to impose taxes or duties that might kill new developments before they have a chance to get started.

In this process, you have committed yourself to securing places on the Internet for education, for libraries, for research, and for other public purposes.

Absolutely. In the wake of the printing press, libraries represented the principal means by which people who did not have great wealth could share in the knowledge contained in books. Following that exact same principle, libraries should be connected to the information superhighway and make it possible for people who don't have a computer in their homes—nor maybe even telephone lines—to go to a public library and hook up.

I think it is very important for our classrooms and libraries to be fully connected to the Internet at affordable rates—it should even be free for some. We have passed a law that provides subsidies of more than $225 billion per year to connect libraries and schools—a highly significant investment. For the poorest facilities, the connections will be essentially free.

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Your family moved into the official residence of the vice president in 1993—the 100th birthday of this historic house located on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Tell us some of the things you and Mrs. Gore have done there to reflect your own interests and values.

Working with our friends and volunteers through the Vice President's Residence Foundation, we have tried to organize an environment that is both a home to our family and a special place where we can receive guests. We instituted a landscape program on the grounds that will leave a lasting legacy of natural terrain and indigenous plant species. Inside, my wife Tipper has selected some beautiful American paintings on loan from many of Washington's great museums, such as the National Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Hirshhorn Museum. We have a special interest in photography and are extremely proud of the historic and contemporary images that have been made available to us by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Library of Congress. And most recently, the foundation commissioned a new painting of the house by the artist Jamie Wyeth.

What has been the reaction of you and your family to living on a daily basis with these extraordinary paintings and photographs, which are usually seen only in museums or libraries?

It's a great privilege and very exciting to be able to see them so frequently and to share them with our guests. People come from around the world to the official residence. We entertain heads of state, governors from across America, and individuals from all walks of life. At these official functions, it's really very nice to be able to say to them that these are some of the fine paintings and photographs from America's artistic tradition.

Finally, you have written that you don't want to leave your children with a "degraded earth and a diminished future." What do you think will be the big challenges in the next millennium as you look ahead to the year 2000 and beyond?

Our number-one priority is to build and improve upon the structure of security and peace that will give us a chance to make warfare a thing of the past. There have been some destructive habits of thought that we have made obsolete in the past. Is it possible as we enter this next century to dream that we might be able to enter an era in which wars become unthinkable? We're certainly not there yet. But it's a worthy challenge to undertake. The fact that the United States and the former Soviet Union found a way to back away from the precipice and become partners in a more cooperative relationship I think is a good precedent.

I think that one great challenge is in protecting the earth's environment, as the population grows at the rate of one billion people every 10 years now. Another challenge is in making judicious use of powerful new technologies, which, for all their wonderful benefits, sometimes have side effects that receive too little attention.

And yet another great challenge is preserving and strengthening the family and our communities at a time of rapid change and new stresses. It is important that we make our communities more livable, continue to decrease the crime rate, protect the special quality of our cities and towns, make sure that the air and water are clean for the next generation, and assure a sense of place in the communities where people raise their families and live their lives.