Bill Gates, the beloved philanthropist billionaire, has authored a new book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, coming out next month. In it he offers his take on the climate solutions humanity should pursue moving forward. But, in many ways, he’s part of the problem. We’ve talked about billionaires before (see: Jeff Bezos) but Gates’ new endeavour gives us an opportunity for a much-needed revisiting. Plus, Gates is often used as the example of a “good billionaire”, and it’s time we busted that myth once and for all.
Can we innovate our way out of climate disaster?
Bill Gates is more than rich enough to be able to afford publicity for his new book, and he’s not paying us a cent. So this isn’t a book review. We will, however, start by talking about his latest essay for TIME, which, we expect, is more or less a taster of the book itself. Titled “Here’s a Formula That Explains Where We Need to Invest in Climate Innovation”, Gates’—unsurprising—answer to the question can we innovate our way out of a climate disaster, is a resounding yes. Not a “yes, but”, not a “yes, and”. Just a “yes”.
Who’s responsible for the climate disaster?
It’s worth noting that he opens the essay with the typical, deeply problematic narrative of what he would certainly call the Global South. “In the early 2000s,” he writes, “I learned that a billion people didn’t have reliable access to electricity and that half of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.” (White saviour vibes, anybody?) He goes on to add that “it’s impossible to build an economy where everyone has job opportunities if you don’t have massive amounts of reliable, affordable electricity for offices, factories, and call centers. […] I came to understand the dilemma of energy and climate change: although the world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases. In fact, we need to eliminate our emissions, all the way to zero.”
In other words, this is how Bill Gates is setting up the problem. Poor people, who “need” to develop (and by “develop” here we mean the colonial-capitalist way of aggressively integrating less developed countries into the global economy mostly for the benefit of the already powerful states and corporations, even though they will tell you it’s a shared benefit), will use a lot of energy, and, given our current energy systems, emit a lot of fossil fuels, and so we need to really—again, for these poor people’s benefit and the world’s—pour investments into clean energy.
It shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but the richest of our world, not the poorest, consume the most energy. And Gates certainly knows this. So why is he using humanitarian causes to justify his endeavours? Spoiler: because he’s that kind of person. But we’ll get into that later. For now…
Dissecting Gates’ climate fix
Gates asserts, in his essay, that the reason why we use so much fossil fuels is that it is the cheapest option. It’s, at least in part, “because their prices don’t reflect the environmental damage they inflict.” The logical conclusion is to figure out and address why fossil fuels are so cheap, right? (And the answer to that is obscene amounts of subsidies propping up the industry.) Instead, Gates conveniently sidesteps that entire conversation, to say this: “moving our immense energy economy from ‘dirty’, carbon-emitting technologies to ones with zero emissions will cost something. These additional costs are what I call Green Premiums.”
He suggests that we use these Green Premiums concept to guide us to figure out where our money should go. That is, we should move towards deploying technologies with low or no Green Premiums now, and pour our money into reducing Green Premiums for those that we need but can’t afford. Such pursuits, he argues, will help us get to zero-carbon, “sector by sector, and highlighting where we need to innovate.”
Gates even provides us with a roadmap. “Government officials can write rules regarding how much carbon that power plants, cars and factories are allowed to emit. They can adopt regulations that shape financial markets and clarify the risks of climate change to the private and public sectors. They can invest more in scientific research and write the rules that determine how quickly new products can get to market. And they can help fix some problems that the market isn’t set up to deal with—including the hidden costs that carbon-emitting products impose on the environment and on humans.”
Not so fast…
Bill Gates’ climate fix sounds a lot like eco-modernism, but that’s a concept to unpack for another day. (See: the Ecomodernist Manifesto or the ecological modernisation Wikipedia page to learn more.) The core idea is that our existing environmental problems can be internalised by our political, economic and social institutions today. Unsurprisingly, this approach has been criticised, for a variety of reasons. Ranging from not being radical enough, not incorporating environmental justice enough, the possibility of environmentalism becoming co-opted (think: greenwashing).
For our purposes, the critique boils down to this:
Two degrees will be hard to hit. But the fallacy in Bill Gates’ thinking is that he believes that the speed of putting fossil fuels to rest depends primarily on science or technology. Those aren’t the bottlenecks — politics is.
— Dr. Ben Franta (@BenFranta) September 17, 2019
That is to say that of course, we need to invest in clean energy technologies. We need to invest in science. But to say that it is the way forward, especially the way Gates is speaking of it in his essay (and book), fails to acknowledge some very crucial facts. Among them: that any climate fix cannot come without tackling the fossil fuel industry. That we cannot adopt an approach that doesn’t acknowledge systemic injustices. That, if mismanaged and unregulated, technology and corporations can and will deepen the inequalities worsened by the climate crisis.
Put another way, what we’re saying here is that Gates’ solution doesn’t agitate the status quo enough. In fact, it props up the system that enables the continuation of the status quo. And why? Because Bill Gates will profit from the status quo. As although Gates began with disruption to the status quo, he quickly pivoted to stifling competition and aggressively protecting his market lead, as have many other tech billionaires. The reality of this has been laid bare, thanks to the pandemic…
Let us be clear:
❌ Bill Gates is not your friend.
❌ Billionaires should not exist.
❌ Big Philanthropy is a threat to international justice – not its solution.
— Progressive International (@ProgIntl) January 25, 2021
Billionaires should not exist, and the pandemic makes that clearer than ever
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Billionaires should not exist. Now is a clearer time than ever to see why. Just looking at the situation in America should be alarming enough. From March to October last year, we saw nearly 67 million people lose work. By the end of 2020, 20% of adults with children reported that, at times, they didn’t have enough to eat. And 20% of renters were behind on payments, facing eviction threats. While that was happening, America’s 651 billionaires saw their wealth increase by more than $1 trillion to about $4 trillion.
At the start of last year, Bezos was the only American with a net worth of over $100 billion. At the end? Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and yes, Bill Gates, joined the ranks. The industries they come from employ millions of workers, who suffer while those who have accumulated wealth accumulate more. Some will say that because they employ so many, they’re providing a service to society. But it is precisely the fact that they employ so many that their wealth is not their own, and all the more that their wealth should be shared.
And on a moral level, how does it make sense that that wealth is not shared? Perhaps it would somehow be justified if billionaires used their wealth ethically, but do they? Even then, if their wealth is already not entirely a product of their own efforts, why must we wait for their generosity to give it back? And it has been proved that ‘trickle down’ economics (i.e. reducing taxes on the wealthy and businesses will benefit society at large in the long run), is false and we are falling for the same traps again.
Leaving power in the hands of a few is never a good idea
In an essay for The Conversation, author Gwilym David Blunt, noting that the pandemic has seen a surge in philanthropic giving (much to the praise of many who find no issue with the obscene amount of money these billionaires have accumulated), warns that we must be wary of philanthropic contribution. Why? Because “It leaves matters of life and death in the hands of a few powerful individuals who lack any constraints on their power other than their own conscience. Freedom is at risk when the imbalance of wealth and power is so stark. How healthy can it be that so many people in the world are utterly dependent on the generosity of billionaires?”
“The provision of healthcare for millions of people rests on their goodwill and nothing else. They choose what to give, how to give it and who to give it to. They establish large organisations that have a profound influence on public bodies.” (We will get to that in a bit). Point is, of course, we’re not saying that this wealth shouldn’t be redistributed. It most certainly should be. But we should ask ourselves how we got to this point, to begin with.
The bigger question
Why can’t we depend on billionaires? This has everything to do with the question we just posed: how did we get here? Or, for our purposes, how did Bill Gates get to where he is today? (Quick mention: this recent video “Is Bill Gates a Good Billionaire?” gets into a lot of what follows, so it’s certainly worth a watch. If not for the content, then certainly for the debates in the comment section.)
Of network effects and browser wars
Author and professor Rob Larson does a good job of detailing the history of Bill Gates and how Microsoft came to be the household name it is today. The story is long, and frankly, you don’t need to know Gates’ life story.
Essentially, it comes down to this. In 1981, Microsoft bought the rights to a crucial operating system, “DOS”, which was the software made the PCs operable, and able to support applications. They modified this DOS, and then sold it to IBM for its incredibly successful PCs. Microsoft grew immensely because many PC-makers wanted the same OS, which would, in turn, attract more software developers, whose applications made the PC useful.
Point is, as Larson explains, this created “network effects,”, “which we economists will tell you is a major driver of monopolisation. Gates and his tech CEO chums have used that monopolisation to summon gigantic profits and to tighten their grip over still-growing portions of the world economy. Network effects are present when a service gains value to you as more people use it, like a phone network.” Gates’ “burning desire to grind his competitors to the sand, along with his desire to set the standard that software makers would conform to,” led Microsoft to dominate the industry in the 1990s and 2000s, making Gates the world’s richest man for decades. Put another way, his desire to dominate the market and make a lot of money… made him a lot of money.
His greed led him to engage in a period described in business and computing history as “the browser wars”, which saw Gates “being a transparently evasive and condescending ruling-class dick”. Anyway, the media had a field day, which prompted him to discover “the wonders of charitable giving”.
Charity… as a PR strategy
According to the business press, “[t]wenty years ago, people associated the name Gates with ‘ruthless, predatory’ monopolistic conduct.” “[A]fter taking a public relations beating during [the Microsoft antitrust] trial’s early going in late 1998, the company started what was described at the time as a ‘charm offensive’ aimed at improving its image… Mr Gates contributed $20.3 billion, or 71 per cent of his total contributions to the foundation… during the 18 months between the start of the trial and the verdict.” If it isn’t clear enough, one wealth manager stated: “his philanthropy has helped him ‘rebrand’ his name.”
How else do we know it was a PR strategy? It’s also worth noting that Gates pours money into news organisations, as journalist Tim Schwab uncovers in this essay in Columbia Journalism Review. Why else do you think there are so many glowing reviews about the man? “As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organisations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an under-examined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors. Nowhere does this concern loom larger than with the Gates Foundation, a leading donor to newsrooms and a frequent subject of favourable news coverage.”
Schwab goes on to remind us that “the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes’s list of the most powerful people in the world.” And on that note, we come to the last part of our myth-busting for today…
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: more harm than good?
In 2016, the campaign group Global Justice Now released a report called “Gated Development”. The report went in-depth on the unethical nature of the Foundation, and this essay via Vice sums it up nicely. We’re talking tax minimisation practices. Getting chummy with big MNCs. Weakening public health services across Africa (which he claims to want to help). Investing in the most unethical companies. And even not believing in divestment. The list goes on, but one aspect, in particular, stands out. Especially considering Gates’ supposed commitment to poverty.
Toxic Agriculture and the Gates Foundation
On the release of the report, Polly Jones, head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, said: “The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed.” She added that the philanthropic vision of the Foundation is, problematically, based on the values of corporate America. “The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.”
As the report details, the Foundation’s key strategy is, as social policy researcher Colin Todhunter writes for CounterPunch, “based on deepening the role of multinational companies in the Global South.” And nowhere is this clearer than their involvement in the agro-industrial complex. Here, it is important to make clear that supporting agroecological (chemical-free, better for the earth, etc.) approaches to agriculture, which “various high-level UN reports have advocated for ensuring equitable global food security. But this would leave smallholder agriculture both intact and independent from Western agro-capital, something which runs counter to the underlying aims of the corporations that the foundation supports – dispossession and market dependency.”
What Todhunter means to say is this. That yes, of course, the Gates Foundation could adopt more ethical and environmental strategies. This would mean incorporating principles of environmental justice, and would also translate into less “charity” per se, and more… anything else. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be making the problems he’s supposedly “helping” worse.
“Bill Gates is continuing the work of Monsanto”
… is something that renowned, widely-respected Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and anti-globalisation author Vandana Shiva has said. Today, the Foundation is collecting seeds from around the world. They are storing them in a Svalbard facility (that’s the Arctic)—the “doomsday vault”. Why? Because this transfers seeds into the hands of corporations. And seeds are the stuff of heritage, knowledge, and most importantly, of self-reliance of farmers.
The Gates Foundation, Shiva has said, is also funding Diversity Seek, “a global initiative to take patents on the seed collections through genomic mapping.” Mapping this genetic data “robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge. It robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to ‘code’. It is an extractive project to ‘mine’ the data in the seed to ‘censor’ out the commons.” And above all, the peasants, Shiva has highlighted, who “evolved this diversity have no place in DivSeek.”
“The process,” Todhunter writes, “is the very foundation of capitalism – appropriation of the commons (seeds, water, knowledge, land, etc.), which are then made artificially scarce and transformed into marketable commodities.”
We shouldn’t be surprised…
All of this is to say, simply, that this should not come as a surprise. Bill Gates only became a billionaire, as you do in a system because he beat the system. And he will, most likely, go on to perpetuate the system. As much as he likes to talk about rescuing poor people out of poverty, the actions of his Foundation say otherwise. He is certainly part of the problem, not the solution. And we should be wary of the kind of solutions that he proposes.
At the end of the day, there are no good billionaires. As Shiva, herself says, we must fight back against the 1% to stop the sixth mass extinction. They are not our heroes. They have never been, and we cannot hope for them to be.
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