Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Bill Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need

When I first learnt that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire founder of Microsoft, had written a book on solving climate change, my instinct was to ignore it. I saw various puff pieces in the liberal media and was sceptical that I would learn much from it. But I decided to read it for two reasons. Firstly it isn't enough to criticise Gates, as many have, simply because his wealthy lifestyle contributes massively to environmental degradation - he himself knows that. Instead I wondered if the book would give us insights into how the capitalist ruling class thinks about climate change.

On this front the book is enormously revealing. That's not to say that I think activists need to go out and spend their hard earned cash on it - there are much more useful books for radicals to read that engage with capitalism's climate disaster. 

The first thing readers will notice is that Gates is obsessed with technical solutions to social issues. While Gates implies this is because he is from a technical background, its worth noting that this obsession is shared by most of the rich and powerful who are thinking about these things. British PM Boris Johnson's call to host the G7 Summit in the UK in June 2021, for instance, highlights the perceived importance of technology for "building back better" after Covid-19. But Gates raises this to a new level, by almost rejecting approaches to climate change that don't start from technological innovation: "I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don't have a solution to the politics of climate change". For Gates "getting to zero" emissions requires channelling "the world's passion and its scientific IQ into deploying the clean energy solutions we have now, and inventing new ones, so we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."

The problem is that what Gates is really doing here is highlighting specific technologies with quite specific political and economic consequences. Climate change is, he argues, "a huge economic opportunity" and "the countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones that lead the global economy in the coming decades". His is a vision that is about strengthening neo-liberal capitalism and making people like Gates even richer. In fact most readers will be repeatedly annoyed by Gates' name-dropping of companies that he owns, or has invested in, that are involved in researching tech that he highlights as being part of the solution to climate change. 

At least Gates doesn't lack some self-awareness: 

I am aware that I'm an imperfect messenger on climate change. The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people shod, or who think technology can fix any problem. I own big houses and fly in private planes - in fact, I took one to Paris for the climate conference - so who am I to lecture anyone on the environment? I plead guilty to all three charges.

As a result of this self-awareness he is buying "sustainable" jet fuel and "will fully offset [his] families aviation emissions in 2021". Cynics might note that he makes no promises beyond 2021 and carbon offsetting has been demonstrably shown not to work.

There is a secondary problem with this approach. He repeatedly argues that technological development leads to the enrichment of everyone. For instance he uses a photo of some farmers using a cattle drawn plough. The caption to the photo is illuminating. It reads:

Many farmers still have to use ancient techniques, which is one of the reasons they're trapped in poverty. They serve modern equipment and approaches, but right now using those tools means producing more greenhouse gases.

Gates is right that modern technology will likely create more pollution. But the introduction of technology like tractors is predicated on the transformation of farming practices - a switch to monoculture farming, the high use of pesticides and fertilisers and so on. In fact the Gates Foundation has often encouraged the use of these by farmers in the Global South. But lifting farmers out of poverty is rarely about technology. First and foremost its about the price of their crops. Which is one reason that Indian farmers are revolting at the moment. Access to markets, cheap seeds, protected prices and rents are much more important. Technology primarily benefits the companies selling the tractors, chemicals, petrol and seeds. It also leads to unemployment, underemployment and the decimation of rural communities.

Gates returns to similar themes through the book. He comments that when he and Melinda Gates began looking at global health "experts could tell us how many children died around the world every year but they couldn't tell us much about what caused those deaths. We knew that a certain number of kids died of diarrhoea, but we didn't know what caused the diarrhoea in the first place. How could we know which innovations might save lives if we didn't know why children were dying?" 

It's an odd statement and I wondered which experts he was talking to because the World Health Organisation has this to say: "The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering across the globe is listed almost at the end of the International Classification of Diseases. It is given the code Z59.5 - extreme poverty." What gives children diarrhoea is dirty water, lack of healthcare, malnutrition and lack of public services. Approaching this as a technological problem is simply wrong.

Capitalism is based on the accumulation of wealth. While all human economic activity requires the use of natural resources under capitalist production there is no limit to that usage and because production is based on competition, there is now rationality to what is produced and when. Instead companies try to maximise profits and that leads to environmental damage, over-production and pollution (as well as the corresponding degradation of human lives). Capitalism, Karl Marx wrote "only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker".

While some thinkers might hope to find ways to mitigate this destruction - through government legislation etc, Gates mostly sees government economic intervention as being about encouraging corporate innovation to make more profits and develop the technologies that he argues will save the world. But can this happen? There is little sense in the book of the barriers to action on climate change. The chapter entitled "This will be Hard" has nothing in it about the way that fossil fuel corporations have held back action on climate change through various nefarious behaviour.

For Gates the problem is simply costs: "In the past, we've moved from one source to another because the new one was cheaper and more powerful". The problem with the fossil fuel industry, says Gates, is not that it wants to continue to use fossil fuels because it can make staggering profits, but that it is "big and complex" and big and complex things "resist change". Thus there is "inertia" in the system and that needs to be changed through technological innovation to make zero carbon alternatives more economical viable (read profitable) for the energy companies. 

Gates doesn't believe that Governments can lead this change. He writes that "its not realistic to think we'll simply rip out all our gas furnaces and water heaters and replace them with electric ones overnight". Except we could. Governments could legislate to force power companies to replace all furnaces and heaters with zero carbon alternatives, at a fixed price. In fact there could be a systematic government driven plan, street by street, area by area to do this.

There is precedent for it, and Gates almost mentions it in his book when discussing the London smog of the mid-20th century. These he notes, were so bad that they forced the British government to pass legislation - the Clean Air Act. But this 1956 Act gave local authorities the power to both force house owners to remove dirty fireplaces and cover most of the costs of the work. Its not impossible to imagine governments doing this today, unless you believe that this is not the role of government. 


Gates says that "we need the government to play a huge role in creating the right incentives and making sure the overall system will work for everyone." In other words governments must help private business not challenge them. Instead government "policies should be shaped by the technologies we develop". Not regulate, check or protect citizens. One notable exception is that Gates thinks governments should cover "Just Transition" - the switching of workers to new jobs when old carbon intensive industries are phased out. Oddly he doesn't seem to think that corporations who have made billions should have any responsibility to their workers.

Take nuclear power. Gates says nuclear power is "carbon free" but he ignores the impact of the mining of uranium, the storage of waste the transport of material etc. For Gates the nuclear power industry shows what happens when policies don't keep up with technological innovation:

A handful of companies, including TerraPower, are working on advanced reactors that solve the problems of the 50-year-old design used by reactors you see today: Their designs are safer and cheaper and produce much less waste". [Spoiler: Bill Gates owns TerraPower]

Unfortunately, says Gates, most countries aren't allowing these to be developed. But its understandable that many governments have tight restrictions on nuclear power. The disaster at Fukushima demonstrated what happens when nuclear power companies cut corners to maximise profits. Its a good thing that nuclear power companies find it hard to test new technologies because of environmental and health and safety legislation. In fact, Gates' own treatment of nuclear power is worryingly simplistic.

Nuclear power kills far, far fewer people than cars do. For that matter, it kills far fewer people than any fossil fuel... we should improve it, just as we did with cars, by analysing the problems one by one and setting out to solve them with innovation. 

But Gates' is guilty of some slight of hand here. He starts by mentioning some associated problems of nuclear power, "human error can cause accidents. Uranium... can be converted for use in weapons... The waste is dangerous and hard to store". But then reduces these problems simply to the number of deaths from nuclear power. He doesn't address the other issues and only considers the number of deaths caused by accidents. He has no solution to the question of waste and the enormous amount of energy needed to move and store it safely and no answer to the myriad of other issues thrown up by this form of energy. He treats it simply as a technological issue akin to the introduction of seat belts in cars (a measure that car companies resisted). There's no sense of the possibility for horrific death and destruction when nuclear power goes wrong.

Given Gates' obsession with technology, there are some surprising blind spots. In his discussion of transport he celebrates the developments that have made electric cars viable, and then spends several pages explaining why the same batteries will never work for long distance truck haulage. Gates concludes, "because we can't electrify our cargo trucks, the only solutions available today are electrofuels and advanced biofuels". 

How on Earth did Gates forget that there is a technology that can already move heavy loads long distances using clean energy? Trains! Could this omission be related to Gates' ownership of Breakthrough Energy, a company that invests in start-ups that are developing new battery technology and biofuels?

Readers by now will have realised that I don't like this book. The solutions that are offered in it are cynical and manipulative. Its prominence in the liberal media will mean that many well-meaning people read it, and might think that Gates has outlined a viable strategy for saving the world. What he has actually done is to map out a way that corporate capitalism can continue doing exactly what it has always done. His solutions will make a small number of people very rich - or in the case of Bill Gates, even richer. But they won't deal with the systematic destruction of the environment that is inherent to capitalist society. I want to be clear on this point. They won't even slow it. 

What is remarkable, in many ways, is that Gates has written a book about the environmental crisis that doesn't even get to the heart of what that crisis is. There's nothing in here about the Sixth Extinction, little on the consequences of sea level rises or how society should deal with millions of climate refugees. No sense at all of the way that colonialism and imperialism have driven the processes that contribute to environmental degradation, or underdeveloped the Global South leaving millions in poverty. Its a myopic book that focuses on climate change because what Gates is really interested in is how capital can continue to make money without being scrutinised.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx wrote that the capitalist was "capital personified" and continued "capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour... vampire-like, [Capital] only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." Capitalism can only exist through constant destruction. Gates' offers us more of the same.

Bill Gates' book personifies the interests of capital, and thus its only real use to the reader is to expose the system as a whole. The alternative, which becomes more urgent every day, is to fight for an end to capitalism. Luckily there are plenty of better books out there that can help us do that, and consign Gates and his like to the dustbin of history.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System
Klein - This Changes Everything
Klein - On Fire
Angus & Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis

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