I finished How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates a couple weeks ago but had to let it sit for awhile so I could write about it without losing my shit. Gates tries to pull off a folksy, easy to read, golly we can do this tone that made me bristle every time I picked up the book. To his credit, Gates never once claims to be just like the average person, in fact, he acknowledges many times that he is a very wealthy man with influence. But being a very wealthy white man with influence, his folksy rah-rah tone comes across as condescending. Also, his oh shucks jokes about losing millions of dollars on investments trying to push forward the green tech agenda fall flat since he has lost more money than thousands of us combined will ever earn in our lifetimes and remains a very wealthy man. And we are supposed to think well of him for it because, gosh, he is trying to save the planet!
Gates says straight out at the beginning of the book that he is a techno-optimist and that he owns several big houses, flies in a private plane, even flew in a private plane to the Paris Climate Conference, that he, in short, has an enormous carbon footprint. But it’s ok because he is investing in biofuels, because he buys carbon offsets, because, while he is pumping more carbon into the air in one year than I probably do in ten, that it’s fine because he is helping save us by investing in carbon capture technology. I would laugh at the absurdity of his argument if I weren’t crying, especially when he writes,
Here’s the key point: Although heavy emitters like me should use less energy, the world overall should be using more of the goods and services energy provides. There is nothing wrong with using more energy as long as it’s carbon-free.Page 15
As Jennifer Price writes in a chapter titled “Are you really trying to save energy by using more energy more efficiently?” in her book, Stop Saving the Planet,
It assumes, conveniently, that we can use runaway consumerism to clean up the messes runaway consumerism creates.Stop Saving the Planet, page 43
And that is the root of the problem to everything Gates proposes in his book. When you have a hammer, everything is nail. When you are a techno-optimist, everything is an engineering problem that can be solved with new technology. To Gates, global warming is only about greenhouse gas emissions and so all of his investments and techno-solutions are about solving the emissions problem. Not once does he stop to question whether there are too many people on the planet—actually he thinks there should me more! He also thinks there should be more corporate farms, more cars—all electric of course—more batteries, more computers, more everything. Because to him, global warming has nothing to do with too many humans using too many resources; it’s all about emissions and emissions are all about energy.
Instead of questioning why poor farmers in Africa are trying to grow corn, a commodity crop that requires a lot of water, he suggests developing GMO drought-tolerant corn is the solution. Instead of saying people in developed countries, especially Americans, should eat a mostly plant-based diet, he says that we need to breed cattle that fart less, particularly in Africa, so they can have more cows without making climate change worse. Instead of saying we should stop cutting down forests and planting palm oil plantations for the ingredients in a lot of the processed crap—food, makeup, and body care products—used in wealthy countries, we shouldn’t really worry about it because forests and planting more trees don’t sequester enough carbon to make a difference.
But you know what does sequester carbon? Plastic! Plastic doesn’t decompose so it keeps its carbon forever. That’s why he’s investing in figuring out how to pull carbon from the air and turn it into plastic. Never mind about the micro-plastics swimming around in our bloodstream and polluting all of our waterways and killing sea life, Gates if probably also investing in big pharma that will sell us medical treatments for all the health problems the plastic contributes to.
Besides GMOs, carbon capture, batteries, biofuels, and plastic, Gates is also an investor in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. While he doesn’t think people should have to eat less meat, he is well aware that more and more people are eating less meat and he wants to make money off it. Now, I’ve had Impossible Burgers, a local plant-based restaurant serves them on their “Dirty Little Secret,” a vegan version of McDonald’s Big Mac. And yeah, they are pretty good. But they are also junk food, no better for you than a meat-based burger. They are highly processed, extremely high in sodium, and have an ingredient—soy legemoglobin—made from GMO soy protein and GMO yeast that is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but has some concern about potential health effects Until I looked it up for this post, I didn’t know about the GMOs, and now that I do, I will never have another one.
Gates also owns a company called TerraPower that is researching and creating “next gen” nuclear power. Gates thinks that nuclear power is a must and is designing small plants that are supposed to be more efficient. None of them have been built yet though because of pesky government regulations. He believes in nuclear fusion too, and while no one has been able to figure out how to scale up nuclear fusion from anything bigger than a brief laboratory experiment, he is certain we will eventually. Fusion is great because it makes less radioactive waste, and the waste it does make is only dangerous for hundreds of years instead of thousands of years like current nuclear fission waste. Plus, it’s carbon free!
I dunno about you, but I’m opposed to a source of energy that creates radioactive waste that lasts five years, let alone hundreds or thousands. It’s not ok that we “store” this waste on stolen indigenous lands and in poor countries. Would you want it stored near your town? I don’t think so.
To sum up: we don’t need to use less energy, buy fewer things, live within the limits of the planet’s resources, we don’t need to change anything at all expect how we generate energy. And we don’t even have to stop burning fossil fuels completely because we can just suck that carbon right out of the air. Climate change is only a matter of greenhouse gas emissions that can be solved with technology.
The only thing Gates and I agree on is that women around the world need to be granted the rights of full human beings (down with the patriarchy! though that is not what Gates advocates), more access to resources, and education and healthcare. We also agree that individuals alone cannot solve the climate crisis, that we should all be showing up to city meetings, contacting our elected officials, voting, and even running for office. Though we differ on what we should be telling our elected officials they should do. While I think there should be more regulations on many of the things he is pushing for, Gates has a moment of whine about the “bureaucratic gauntlet”
You buy one of a limited number of federal leases, then go through a multi-year process to generate an environmental impact statement, then get additional state and local permits. And at each step of the way, you may be opposed (rightly or not) by beachfront property owners, the tourism industry, fishermen, and environmental groups.page 90
Rest assured, Mr. Gates will never have to worry about living down the street from a gigantic wind turbine, solar farm, nuclear plant, or other industrial facility, but darn those pesky people who protest such things!
Now you don’t have to read Bill Gates’s book. But here are a few links to issues that Gates talks about or elides to help create a more rounded picture of what is at stake:
- Great Transition Initiative Forum: Technology and the Future. Essays from a variety of experts on various technologies like GMOS, AI, bioengineering, as well as essays exploring the interplay between technology and society.
- An article from PLOS One, Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood. The complete genes they are talking about are altered genes from GMO foods. The article is from 2013. We have known for close to ten years that GMO genes can circulate in our blood. I don’t know if anyone is studying the health ramifications of this, but to me, it’s one more reason to avoid GMO food.
- From Yes! Magazine, The Disaster of Philanthropy and Capitalism. “Philanthrocapitalism enables the destruction of nature and the erosion of democracy.” And yes, they mention Bill Gates.
- From YaleEnvironment360, and article by Carl Safina, Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’: Hard Truths on the State of the Planet . This talks about all the problems that Gates doesn’t, showing that it isn’t just greenhouse gas emissions we need to be concerned about. Safina also briefly mentions how technology is what has caused many of the current problems and is not the answer to solving them.
- Playlist for the Apocalypse by Rita Dove. She is such an amazing poet!
- God Human Animal Machine: technology, metaphor, and the search for meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn. Currently reading the discussion about how techno-optimism speaks the same language as religious belief while claiming rationalism and reason above all.
- The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula Le Guin. Oh, she is so amazing. Just read a couple stories that eventually turned into Earthsea. I think once I am done with this book I will start in on all the Earthsea books.
- Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson (audiobook). Yay, we finally got to what TR is planning on doing with all the sulfur. Still waiting for the bad sex scene. It’s got to happen soon because Saskia is about to return to the Netherlands.
- Between the Covers podcast: Crafting with Ursula: Becky Chambers on Creating Aliens & Alien Cultures. This is a new once a month series within the podcast interviewing authors on how they have been influenced by Ursula Le Guin. Becky Chambers is one of my favorite authors and one of the things she talks about is how, as a queer kid, The Left Hand of Darkness helped save her life.
- Green Dreamer podcast: Scott Timcke: Algorithmic Capitalism and Digital Dehumanization. Timcke talks about how algorithms and digitization are increasingly making decisions for us and allowing us less input in how we live our lives.
- I attended a most excellent webinar hosted by North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, Stitching Stories, Crafting Change: the Maya Women Artists of Multicolores Guatemala. You can watch the recording at the link. So good.